In memory of the Swat valley

In memory of the Swat valley
In the national interest

Monday, February 02, 2009
by Kamal Siddiqi

The writer is editor reporting, The News

One can only wonder at the statements of high officials like Rehman Malik who says that a “fresh strategy” has been evolved on Swat, under which militants would be flushed out “within weeks.” This statement comes some days after the army chief visited the embattled valley where almost every day a school is being blown up and government officials and offices are being targeted. We are told that the army too is changing its tactics. But is there still a chance, or is it too late?

Unlike FATA, where few Pakistanis dared to venture, Swat was the place where most of us went at one time or another in our lives. The beautiful river that ran through the valley, the orchids on both sides of the road, even the riverside hotels, were a source of joy for visitors. But now all that is no more, because successive Pakistani governments chose to ignore the threat posed by religious elements, who continued to influence the sentiments of the locals and play up on these people’s insecurities.

The main hotels of the area are now shut and boarded up. The tourism industry has folded up, leaving thousands out of jobs. Visits to the valley have dried up. Business has been adversely affected. Most important, normal life has come to a standstill. This looks like this is going to be a long-drawn effort, and not the few weeks that Mr Malik promises us it will take.

The same Mullah brigade that was routed from the valley because it led many innocent young men to their deaths by taking them to fight in Afghanistan have now made a comeback. They are now calling the shots in many parts of the province. One can only ask why were they allowed to make that come back and what were the circumstances that have forced that change?

One has to go no further than the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar to hear the tales of woe of the people of Swat and other parts of the NWFP. These are not people who have risen to fight a Jihad against the government, or the Americans. These are ordinary people who were caught in crossfire and forced to flee for their lives, giving up all they owned except the clothes on their back. They are the victims of the war being fought in the valley and in other parts of Pakistan. But there is no one to assist them.

While we have cried ourselves hoarse over the atrocities in Gaza, and rightly so, one can only wonder why no one bothers to come and help their Muslim brethren who languish in Peshawar and other towns across the NWFP, lost and scared over what the future holds for them. There are no charity camps. No religious or political parties giving them help or helping their cause. No effective strategy by the government to resettle them. Many end up sleeping on the streets of Peshawar.

This unforgivable silence possibly comes from the fact that the people responsible for their misery are also Muslims and Pakistanis. The people are scared to talk. They are not sure who has the upper hand in the Frontier Province. People on the roads of Peshawar are also scared about where they go from here.

While the government watches in silence, the barber shops, the schools, the music shops, as well as other symbols of modernity, have started to close down. The government cannot give ordinary people the reassurance that they need. Many of those killed or those lying injured at various hospitals are policemen and government servants, attacked to sent out the message of the impotence of the government.

Residents of Swat who have managed to come as far as Karachi say that they are too scared to blame anyone. But it is not only the militants who have shattered their lives – our soldiers too have antagonized people of the Valley and beyond. In some villages around the area, people have set up vigilante groups that vow to keep out not just the Taliban but the army too.

While Swat burns, we are lulled into a false sense of security by our leaders. It reminds one of the happenings in East Pakistan. Many of us are still in denial over the role played by religious extremists. Many in Pakistan still hold the view that the Taliban are not anti-Pakistan.

But the government has a lot to answer for. Let us start with the illegal FM radio channels that the all powerful PEMRA allowed to operate in the Valley. No action was taken against the operators of these radio stations which preached a warped version of Islam and promoted intolerance and terror. They asked their listeners to drive away people coming to give their children polio drops. The government stood by and watched.

The past military government made heroes out of small-time religious clerics by negotiating with them on issues that should have been dealt with through force.
Instead of putting a foot down, the military government accepted many of their demands, which further emboldened the militants.

Our government made deals which could not be enforced. We got into agreements which could be broken without any fear of punishment. The manner in which the government’s machinery worked left a lot to be desired. On many fronts, the militants also won the goodwill of the people by ensuring quick justice on the issue of crimes and settling of disputes.

In present-day Pakistan, the two worst arms of the state are the law and order apparatus and the justice system. Policemen are corrupt and harass the poor and the powerless. The justice system is outdated, full of flaws and expensive, with the result that the poor suffer endlessly and in most instances never get the justice they are promised. The religious militant groups know this and as soon as they take over an area, one of the first things they do is better policing and quicker justice—regardless of the flaws in the manner that this is done.

Our politicians need to be taken to task. The ANP may have won the name Pakhtoonkhwa for the province, but what else has it been able to achieve? It has shielded itself behind the PPP government in the centre on the issue of dealing with the issue of rising militancy. The NWFP government has remained helpless when it comes to showing initiative in dealing with the political crisis in the province.

The deals signed by the ANP and, before it, the military-led government, need to be re-examined. The ouster of one governor and the change in provincial leadership also needs to be explained. The powers that be have made a royal mess of things.

The media too also plays a role in glorifying terrorism. Many well meaning but misguided experts try to make sense of the happenings in Swat. Most are not willing to call a spade by its name. There is much talk of this and that.

The bottom line, however, is that the takeover of Swat is a wakeup call to Pakistanis. It is time not only to fight terror and extremism but also for the government to work towards a better system of policing and justice.

The needs of the people should be addressed, not those of party workers, retired officers, friends and family. The growing frustration in the country, especially amongst the youth, is manifesting itself in many forms. This has also given rise to popularity of extremist groups and thought. People need to see light at the end of the tunnel. Right now there is only darkness. As things stand, this darkness, which started with the FATA region, is now enveloping all parts of Pakistan. (The News)




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