Pagan sect at Pakistan border lives amid conservative Muslims

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On the northwest tip of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan's Nuristan province, the inaccessible Chitral district has long been thought to be a possible refuge for Osama bin Laden. With the high peaks of the Hindu Kush range and its narrow valleys, it's easy to dodge through secret mountain routes between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Chitral is also the home of the Kalasha, a unique pagan civilization that's lived in the area for 2,000 years or more, now boxed in by an increasingly militant Islam. Thinly populated, Chitral covers 5,800 square miles, with war-torn Afghanistan to the north and west and the extremist strongholds of Swat and Dir to the south.

According to locals, bin Laden lived with a Kalasha family in Chitral for some time during his first Afghan jihad, against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. With his now much more severe ideology, the al Qaida leader wouldn't be able to easily live among these polytheistic people, whose men and women mix freely.

Last month, the Kalasha celebrated their spring festival, Joshi, with a verve and passion that few cultures could match, ancient or modern. Men and women danced tirelessly to a pounding, primeval drumbeat, haunting singing and rituals so old that their meaning is almost lost.

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