Below, Ahsan Mirza, a student based in Toronto, Canada discusses Pakistan’s conflict in the FATA. Due to the fact that his best friend is helping IDPs in Swat Valley, the piece is a personal reflection on the current situation:
As I sit here comfortably in my Toronto apartment browsing my usual rotation of blogs, my best friend, comrade, and hero is working for Médecins Sans Frontières [Doctors Without Borders] in Swat Valley, helping conflict-affected Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). I am originally Pakistani, he is Quebecois (French-Canadian). Our friendship has been built on years of helping each other, bonding, and uniquely long conversations that I always found to be unusually profound and reflective. He has been one of the greatest sources of inspiration in my life (as he has for many others among our acquaintances).
Our friendship–my relationship with him–has given me a strange sense of urgency about the instability in Pakistan. I have many childhood friends in Pakistan, many relatives, and even family members. But for some reason, this cross-ethnic, cross-cultural, cross-religious bond speaks so differently to what this conflict means, about what is at stake.
Sitting so far away and viewing the conflict through the lens of the media, it is difficult to grasp the human element of this conflict. Human lives go beyond statistical death tolls. Families are destroyed. Friendships that have taken years to form and evolve can be ended in an instant. Dreams and aspirations are being crushed. The hope for the future, the infinite promise of life beyond the present, the desire to see a loved one – simple and universally fundamental human aspirations are at stake.
Just a couple of weeks ago, two of my friend’s MSF colleagues were killed in fighting in Swat. At the same time, the 72-hour deadline on John Solecki‘s life (what a tragic pun!) draws to an end. (The deadline was extended on Monday for an unspecified amount of time). This followed the beheading of Piotr Stanczak, a Polish engineer working in Balochistan. Countless others have been collateral victims of US air strikes, Pakistani army actions, and militant attacks. There are open and growing black markets of US Military Equipment proliferating in Peshawar. Last Tuesday, the Financial Times dedicated a full page and a half to Pakistan’s Febrile Frontier (a rarity only a few years ago).
With each passing day, I try to fight off the feeling of being more and more desensitized to the news stories coming out of Pakistan. When faced with the inevitability of helplessness and the feeling that there is no solution, the human psyche adopts the path of ignorance.
Yesterday, the pro-Taliban militants in Swat declared a 10-day ceasefire as a goodwill gesture towards peace negotiations being carried out by the NWFP government. For some reason, there is no optimism that this ceasefire will be a means for peace and prosperity that has so far eluded the people of Pakistan.
The ceasefire is a highly desperate and hopeless act by the Pakistan government to restore peace to the valley. The agreement also signifies a resignation to the fact that the pro-Taliban elements and ideology have moved beyond the Tribal Areas and acquired a stranglehold over one of Pakistan’s four provinces (if not two). Indeed, it was exactly one year ago, in February 2008, that the Pakistan Army entered a ceasefire agreement with the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The peace deal seemed doomed to fail right from the start, but who would have thought that the Swat Valley, not FATA, would be the subject of the next peace deal.
What impact will Sharia law have on the inhabitants of Swat Valley? Pakistani officials have said that “the new system would have nothing in common with the draconian rule of the Taliban,” and that “the people demanded this and they deserve it.” Somehow I find this hard to believe. In January, BBC News ran a regular “Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl” in which a grade 7 schoolgirl from Swat wrote her reflections as the Taliban announced and then executed a moratorium on girl’s education in the Valley. Reading the diary would bring tears to any readers’ eyes. What will be the fate of these schools under the new law? To me, the closing of these girls schools is only symptomatic of what will happen under such an extremist regime.
In a press conference announcing the truce, Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the chief minister for the North West Frontier Province, spoke of a legal vacuum that existed and is now going to be filled by the new Sharia law. To me it seems that the bigger vacuum is a psychological and spiritual vacuum in the social psyche that yearns for answers and guidance.
We (Pakistanis, Muslims) often point the finger at “the West,” claiming that they are not addressing the root of the problem, be it in Israel, Iraq, or Afghanistan. However, the irony is, it seems, that we haven’t ourselves understood the root of the problem. And the chickens have come home to roost.