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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

That girl in Swat

Looking for hope in a ravaged land....

Written by Ejaz Haider |
December 26, 2009 3:12:23 am

Faiza Khan is my metaphor for Swat’s future. And if I am right,turning Swat around post-military operation should not be difficult.

I was standing in the open quad of the Government High School for Girls in Mingora,my crew setting up cameras for the shoot there,and I could see girls peering through the windows of the classrooms all around. Getting there was not easy. I had to earlier meet with the district’s education officer to get his permission. There were two problems: schools have armed police guards throughout the area and,in this particular case,cultural sensitivities were involved.

“You cannot move freely,” the principal told my producer,a young woman who was my only hope to get through the cultural shackles. With the weight of the education officer’s permission behind me and a lot of persuasion,I was told I would get limited access to a group but only after the girls had themselves covered properly. They were told to stay inside the classrooms while we set up the cameras,and yes,to keep their heads down.

Curiosity and their vigour to challenge the principal’s order came to my rescue. I could see them looking out,faces uncovered and exhibiting the artless freedom that comes natural to young women. And then one of the doors opened; I heard giggles; some girls were trying to push another out of the classroom.

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But then the sluice gates went up. Another door opened and out walked this girl,uncovered head and face,confidence bordering on cheekiness. She walked up to me,extended her hand to shake mine and said in accented Urdu: “I hope I am not disturbing you,sir. But would you tell me when your programme is aired and on what TV channel?” I shook hands with her and asked her name: “My name is Faiza Khan.”

I wrote down the details of my programme for her in a notebook and while I was doing that,doors opened one after another and girls came rushing out,surrounding me,shaking hands and chattering animatedly. As I watched the footage later I was convinced,more than before,that Swati women are not just beautiful,they have it in them to turn Swat around. If only the government could understand this.

Ironically,Fazlullah,the Radio Mullah,did. When he began his FM broadcasts,his first target were women. He used them for funding as well as to motivate their men-folk. That was 2002. Six years and much bloodshed later,the people of Swat are waking up from that nightmare. This is the time for the government to use Fazlullah’s strategy to reverse that process.

The army realises this,to some extent,if not fully. It has done two things. It suggested that Radio Pakistan set up FM96,known as Radio Swat,to start broadcasting just before the operation began. Radio Swat was beamed from Islamabad through satellite and began its transmissions on March 1. Within weeks Fazlullah felt the pinch. Not only would he and his cohorts appear on the channel to present their viewpoint,Fazlullah himself allowed his men,restrictedly,to play Pashto music to counter the RJ on Radio Swat whose programme was becoming a hit. Radio Swat is now immensely popular with its multiple programmes that target women and the youth.

The army’s second post-operation contribution is the setting up of Sabaoon,Pashto for “a new dawn”. Sabaoon is a rehab centre for captured youth who were either being trained as fighters and suicide bombers or spies for Tehreek-e-Taliban Swat.

I met the doctor and her staff,all female,who are working with these boys and the results are promising. The exercise is also very useful because it is the first attempt to seriously study the phenomenon and get data on the background of these boys and the techniques used to indoctrinate them.

The checkpoints are still there,manned by the army,Frontier Corps jawans and local police. As I drove to Kanju,crossing Swat River east to west and then drove up north along the western bank of the river to various other towns and villages,it was overcast. But from the east,where the clouds were thin,a ray of sunlight had penetrated and was falling on the eastern bank. It was a perfect setting,nature depicting Swat,the murkiness of fear combined with hope.

The people are back,life is picking up,the markets have come alive,roads are too often blocked because of rising traffic. But the pickets are there,soldiers ready with guns and suspecting everyone. The suicide bomber is the lurking fear and he can penetrate through all cordons and security measures.

That is exactly what happened at the hujra of Shamsher Ali Khan,the Awami National Party member of the provincial assembly. Just as the gate opened and he was getting into his car,the lone bomber entered the compound and blew himself up.

It is very difficult to counter the suicide bomber,an army officer told me. That’s where investing in the people,in the Faiza Khans,becomes so important. The only way to stop the suicide bomber is to ensure a society where he can’t be found,bred and trained.

The writer is a consulting editor at ‘The Friday Times’,Lahore

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