According to the UNHCR Pakistan gives shelter to 1.7 million refugees, the majority of them Afghan. In addition there are nearly half a million people currently displaced due to conflict in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).
Although I have never visited, I have spent the past month or so talking to people from this area as part of a research piece. I have to say, before I did so, my mental picture of the place was built from almost caricatured images gleaned from news stories: Turbaned terrorists living in badlands under the shadow of the drone; mysterious tribes with women under lock and key; and the tough-skinned, hard-staring, throat-slitting mountain men that feature in The Pakistani Bride. I gently chide myself for allowing my impressions to be formed this way when a) I spend my life urging people to not generalise based on media-built perceptions and b) the mainstream media has little genuine access to the region anyway.
One person I spoke to on the telephone laughed at the notion of accurate media coverage of events in Fata: “It never represents anything close to the truth of what is happening on the ground here – either in the Pakistani or International media”.
My Skype calls have been interesting. Speaking with smart, moustachioed gents in shirts and ties (no turbans), sitting in offices (not caves), their gentility has impressed me. I listened to articulate and rational people who are working towards an improved quality of life for the people there. I saw doctors, who - whilst frustrated by the failures – are a testament to the region in that they themselves are committed to change. There are plenty of examples of people locked in a never-ending quest for betterment – another being the Peshawar based DOST charity, already written about in my blog about street children, which does great work reaching out to marginalised people in the region, many of them refugees.
Drones have been mentioned in my exchanges, but there are many other concerns – such as finding work, or ensuring children getting a good education. The US has finally articulated that it is at war in Fata, and as Reuters journalist Myra MacDonald wrote – “it might even lift us out of what until now has been a polemical debate between supporters and opponents of drone strikes, with little attention paid to the voices of people who actually live there”, who, she goes on to say, are so often ignored.
This article is not here to present pithy conflict analysis, nor gloss over the struggles of people living in the area. Instead, it suggests, that during refugee week, we look a little differently at Fata and KP – and if possible, we hear the voices of people living there over the drone of the drones. And as the US announce “war,” we announce compassion and pledge not to get caught up in the media stereotyping of an area that has already begun.
I asked a few friends living in the area what was the nicest thing that happened yesterday. One finished all their work on time, another finalised a research paper. One felt appreciated by their father and another met up with an old friend. These are all feelings and events that could happen to any of us. Nobody wrote “I escaped a drone”. When I asked people who they most admired they answered with mothers, fathers, friends – one even said their boss! Nobody wrote “the Taliban”. The reasons given for the admiration were hard work, compassion, selflessness, fairness, co-operation and “doing a great job for Fata”. Let us remember that these qualities exist in this place.
The visiting Reuters journalist was struck by how different Fata looked from her own mental image. I am hoping that my research piece leads to an opportunity to see and experience the area for myself – for to count on each finger the number of invitations I have had to visit I would need two hands.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.