Footprints : Dangerous child's play

February 13, 2015

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NESTLED among the shops selling pashminas in Mingora town’s China Market are a number of pushcarts. It’s 10am but the area is already congested with honking passenger vans and daily wage earners waiting to be summoned. Amid the pile of colourful markers on one pushcart are grey daggers, pistols, swords, a hand grenade and small rocket launchers. It is only when the vendor takes the lid off most of these items that a pencil nib emerges. The price of these weapon-shaped pencils ranges from Rs20 to Rs30.

Sensing questions, the pushcart seller informs others in Pashto about a “possible raid” and says the stationery can’t be photographed, then explains that selling it is the only way to make ends meet.

Amidst the cacophony, another shopkeeper, Mohammad Sulaiman takes me inside his shop and says the weapon-shaped stationery is available only “in a select few corners of Mingora”, because of a two-month ban imposed by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government last year on selling toy guns or anything resembling a weapon to children. “These pushcart sellers are particular about selling this stationery to children only because an adult buying it would ask questions. But chances of that happening are small. Most people here don’t understand the repercussions of its sale the way some of us do.”

However, one can’t make assumptions about a place that has already seen its fair share of violence as Swat did before the military operation of 2009 against the Taliban.

In such an environment, three people from Swat — a student, a painter and a documentary film-maker — are fighting against the acceptance of weapons in any shape and violence in any form.

Among them, 24-year-old student Neelam Chattan brought the sale of weapon-shaped stationery to the authorities’ attention in 2012 by writing articles in local newspapers. At her home in Shagayi in Saidu Sharif, Neelam says: “We saw the worst of the violence. You may not see sacks with body parts of unidentified men near street corners anymore, or their bodies hanging in the middle of Green Chowk — better known as Khooni Chowk — but it all happened. And because they couldn’t fight it, the people accepted it. But the internalised violence may look for an outlet.”

She speaks of the beautiful town of Kabal, three kilometres from Swat. “People are still seething with rage over their missing family members and those they found in pieces. Children who grew up witnessing such violence may want revenge. Handing them weapons — carefully disguised as stationery — will exacerbate the alienation they feel.”

On Dec 1 last year, a two-month ban was imposed on the sale of toy guns by the Mardan deputy commissioner after two children shot each other from a gun they thought was a toy. Soon after, an Awami National Party leader raised the issue in the KP Assembly after which legislators have been working towards a proper province-wide law to restrict the sale of toy guns.

But just as the ban expired in February, weapon-shaped stationery made its way into the market. Neelam claims it is exported from China through the Afghan trade route to KP.

So far, her campaign ‘Peace for the young generation’ is focusing only on mothers, and making them aware of the consequences of carrying weapon-shaped stationery. “I don’t want to set up an office. Because then we’d need funds to run it, which in turn would make us dependent on our donor’s whims. Working voluntarily works for all three of us. The only funds I need at the moment are for refreshments for the neighbourhood women who come to my place for the meetings,” says Neelam.

During the meetings, mothers narrate the kind of games their children play. One game includes asking a younger, usually female, sibling, to “stay at home, or face the consequences”. Another is called ‘hangings’, in which one child holding a weapon-shaped pencil is supposed to ensure the one hanging is properly dead.

Neelam recounts her personal experience. “The other day, my younger sibling narrated in detail how a commando at their school was holding an SMG. Then he told me the number of bullets it has and calculated the number of people it could kill.”

To deal positively with such cases, mothers are asked to bring their children to painting classes offered at her home by her colleague Mohammad Sattar.

In Swat, activism comes with a price. Recently, while returning from a meeting, she was approached by a man who warned Neelam to stay at home otherwise he would shoot either her or her younger brother. Since then, she has started hiding her face which she never felt the need to do before. “When I narrated the incident to my mother and elder brother, they asked me to continue working. They argued if we won’t speak up then who will. My father worked as an activist till the day he died in 2011. This work comes naturally to me. I’ll have a clear conscience that I at least did something for my country.”

Interestingly, the year Neelam started her campaign, another campaigner for girls’ education, Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the face by the Taliban. Was that the motivating factor? She denies it. “That incident pushed parents to be more open about educating girls. I derive motivation from my surroundings. I was a polio worker deputed 13 kilometres away in Murghazar in early 2012. It was during one of our immunisation rounds that I saw a child playing with a weapon-shaped pencil. That started it.”

Perhaps for the girls of Swat, taking a stand against injustice comes far easier than suffering in silence.

Published in Dawn February 13th , 2015

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