Thursday, November 12, 2009

Why are we silent on Swat?

The News, Jan 18, 2009


Why are we silent on Swat?

By Omar R. Quraishi

If you ask this question from those who live in the once pristine valley, they will laugh (or perhaps cry) at you for being so ignorant about the goings-on in your own country. Indeed, in recent weeks the letters section of this newspaper has carried several pieces, many of them from residents of Swat or those who grew up there. The tone is bitter and frustrated and that is completely understandable given what is going in the district.

The residents say that the rest of the country seems to have forgotten about this tragedy in their very own land and seem preoccupied with other things. They say that they have been caught between the veritable devil and the deep blue sea -- as in the Taliban extremists and government security forces. They say that they are not able to fight the Taliban and that anybody who even remotely tries to resist is branded an agent of the government or of America and marked for death. In fact, as the letters and other correspondence suggest the number of people killed in this manner is at least between five and ten every day just for some parts of the valley.

In this context, Zubair Torwali, a social activist and resident of the valley has already written in the editorial pages of this newspaper that the main thoroughfare of the valley's main town of Mingora, called 'Grain Chowk' has been rechristened 'Khooni Chowk' -- because every day at least a couple of dead bodies, of the alleged collaborators are hung from it. He also wrote that many people were terrified of the FM radio broadcasts of the Taliban because these contained the names of those deemed as 'agents' of the government and hence marked for the ultimate punishment. Also, in case readers missed Hamid Mir's gripping article which appeared in this newspaper's editorial pages on Jan 13, the story of the female teacher who only wanted to provide for her children -- her husband had died some years back -- is heart-rending. Fearing that she would lose her job because of the ban on female education, she continued working and even approached the local leader of a madrassah to speak to the militants on her behalf, through some of his former students. The mufti tried all he could but it turned out to be in vain because the woman, Mir wrote, was labelled a prostitute by the militants and killed! Where was the government in all of this and where is it now, caring for and looking after her children now that this brave woman is dead? If anyone needs to be called a martyr or a shaheed it is this woman -- and I keep calling her 'woman' because I don't even know her name. Those who live in the valley have also raised this other matter -- and quite rightly so -- that how come Pakistanis have been protesting against the mayhem and murder in Gaza but do not seem to be doing much when the same thing happens in their own country. As Mr Torwali said,

The situation is in fact worse in Swat because in Gaza the Palestinians at least know who the aggressors are and that they are not from among them -- whereas in Swat the people are caught between the Taliban and the government security forces and do not know who is their friend or their enemy. Besides, the level of brutalization and the violence wreaked on the population, especially by the militants is more, or at least the same, as that done by the Israelis on the Palestinians.

The residents say that the situation is so bad now that the writ of the government seems completely absent. One needs to ask the government why this is the case and whether any of the forces deployed in Swat have been withdrawn and/or redeployed to our eastern border. Also, just till a couple of months ago, officials were giving an encouraging assessment of the fight against the militants in Swat saying that the army was pushing the militants and enabling the government to re-establish its writ over the district. So one has to ask that what happened from that time and now, or where these official assessments of the situation given at that time rosier than the reality? And if that is the case, then why was the assessment so far off the mark?

Those who don't live in Swat need to then ask themselves that why do they not feel the same empathy and/or sympathy for the people of Swat that they feel for the people of Gaza. Why are they not doing anything to pressure the government to act and do something to improve the lives of the people of valley? How would we all like it if we were perennially living in curfew, if there was the military on the one side and fanatical extremists, not hesitant to cut our ears, hands or even behead us, just because we disagreed with what they were doing and wanted to stand up and live our life according to our own code and values? How many women reading this would ever want to live in a place where they could venture out of their homes on their own, go to work or attend school or college only under threat of death?

The woman mentioned by Hamid Mir surely cannot be alone in her predicament. There must be dozens, probably hundreds of such women, whose lives -- and those of their children as well -- have already been placed in jeopardy by the extremists? Would we allow this to happen if it were our children?

The writer is Editorial Pages Editor of The News.


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