The recent developments in Swat Valley [see here for CHUP’s related posts] have garnered significant media attention, both among Western and Pakistani media outlets, [not to mention among Pakistani blogs – see Grand Truck Road and A Reluctant Mind]. What is both notable and significant, though, is the media’s continued portrayal of the oft-neglected, human side of the conflict. Recently, Al Jazeera English released a piece by Kamran Rehmat of Dawn News entitled, “Swat: Pakistan’s Lost Paradise.” He quoted Zubair Torwalli, a social activist in Swat, who noted, “The police are escorted by the army personnel and come out of their hideouts for a couple of hours…One of the busiest squares, Grain Chowk, was renamed by shopkeepers as Khooni (bloody) Chowk because when they come to their shops in the morning, they find four or five bodies hung over the poles or trees. The bodies are usually headless.” Rehmat also relayed a story told by GEO Television talk show host Hamid Mir:
Mir describes an episode in which a widow, who taught at a private school in Mingora, was warned by the extremists to stop coming out of her house, let alone teach. Having no other means to feed her three children, she begged a religious scholar to intercede with the extremists, one of whom was a former student of the scholar. However, the commander of the extremists was so annoyed that he had the scholar arrested immediately, before banishing him from Mingora. Days later, the widow was executed by the extremists after being declared a prostitute.
A recently released documentary by ActionAid Pakistan entitled, “Voices Unheard – Behind Politics of Conflict,” provided some startling statistics – more than 400 schools have shut down in Swat alone – “depriving almost 10,000 girls of their right to education.” An ongoing BBC News series, “Diary of Pakistani schoolgirl,” follows the story of one of these females. On January 22, the seventh grader wrote:
Maulana Shah Dauran also said in his speech on FM radio that three ‘thieves’ will be lashed tomorrow and whoever wants to see can come and watch. I am surprised that when we have suffered so much, why people still go and watch such things? Why also doesn’t the army stop them from carrying out such acts? I have seen wherever the army is there is usually a Taliban member nearby, but where there is a Taliban member the army will always not go.
[Taliban public flogging in Swat]
In her most recent entry, dated January 28, she reported that her family safely left Swat for Islamabad, where they are staying with her father’s friend. The schoolgirl spoke of an encounter with a popcorn vendor at Lok Virsa, who “said that he hailed from Momand Agency, but because of an ongoing military operation was forced to leave his abode and head for the city. At that moment I saw tears in my parents’ eyes.”
The conflict in Pakistan’s northern areas has translated to an increasing number of IDPs – Internally Displaced Persons. According to The News, the aforementioned ActionAid film found that over 40,000 IDPs are living in inhuman conditions in camps. The news agency added, “The film captures people living in deplorable conditions in IDP camps, looking at the government to control extremists’ activities so that peace can prevail in their hometowns and their lives can return to normalcy [and] …return home someday.” The Daily Times, in its coverage of the film, noted, “Without emphasizing expert opinions, the film was meant to initiate an analytical dialogue about socio-political and economic consequences of conflicts. At one place, a woman grieved the death of her three grown-up sons, while another chokingly narrated how bombs had smashed her husband.”
The on-the-ground coverage and the civilian testimonies are important because they humanize the conflict. Reading these accounts, the fear these people experience on a daily basis is almost palpable – it practically jumps off the page. The stories should motivate all of us to take some kind of action, whether it’s initiating a dialogue or providing warm clothing and funds to the people in these camps. Dawn’s Irfan Husain, in his recent piece, echoed my sentiments exactly:
In a sobering piece on this page last week, Zubeida Mustafa underlined the plight of the people of Swat, and asked why there were no large protests against the killers who were terrorising the valley. Why not indeed? It is a sad fact that while we Pakistanis are (rightly) incensed over the recent assault on Gaza, and other attacks on Muslims by non-Muslims, we choose to turn a blind eye by even worse Muslim-on-Muslim atrocities.