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Footprints: beacon of hope

Updated Mar 21, 2017 08:52am

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The Mishal De-radicalisation and Emancipation Programme in Swat has re-integrated more than 1,800 former militants.—Photo by writer
The Mishal De-radicalisation and Emancipation Programme in Swat has re-integrated more than 1,800 former militants.—Photo by writer

MINGORA: There is nothing about the man that suggests he was once part of a ruthless killing machine. His face is haggard; his body frail. I assume he is in his late ’30s, but he is 25, he tells me, eyes fixed on something on the floor.

Eight years ago, this man was willing to kill; indeed, he trained for it. But before that, he was made to watch: men, women, young, old, children. It was justified, he was told. But children? That’s when the nightmares began. The scenes he witnessed continued to haunt him, keeping him up at nights. This is the face of a man who relives his worst nightmares every day.

Sher Muhammad, a resident of Khawazakhela, was lucky. Because his hands were clean, he is one of approximately 1,800 former militants who have been released after going through a three-month de-radicalisation and emancipation programme in Mishal Centre, Swat. The sprawling complex on the bank of the Swat River, once the Pakistan-Austrian Institute for Hotel Management, is perhaps the ideal location. Taken over by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007 and turned into a ‘court’, it now houses an internment centre and de-radicalisation centre. The programme offers a second shot at a new life, but to be eligible, there must be no blood on the hands. For men like Sher Muhammad, Mishal represents hope.

Contrary to popular perception, not everyone that joins militancy is a committed ideologue. The psychologists at Mishal have screened hundreds of former inmates, and tell me the typical reasons why men turn into terrorists: many were coerced, some joined under peer pressure, others sought money, adventure or worse, revenge. But there are some common patterns: low IQ levels and a lack of critical thinking, ignorance and neglect in large and broken family structures, and physical abuse during childhood that led to the development of personalities that were emotionally unstable.

But some joined up for ideological reasons. Sher Muhammad decided to join after listening to a fiery radio sermon by Mullah Fazlullah. “When their campaign started, we thought they were on the right path of Islam. When I first listened to Fazlullah, I was willing to give up my life for the cause,” he says. Sher Muhammad left his family to join the TTP in the mountains, receiving training with small arms and explosives.

But as he proceeded towards inner circles, there were signs he did not like. He claims that the senior figures were addicted to power. What happened after the deal between the government and TTP served another hint. “They were never peaceful people,” he says. “Even though the government agreed to their demands, they continued to fight and spread terror.” The real eye-opener came later. “I saw them killing people who were praying in the mosque, ransacking houses with no regard for women. They destroyed the lives of many innocent people and children. The worst was when they beheaded and butchered people. It still wakes me up at night.”

Sher Muhammad had experienced what psychologists refer to as abhorrence to indiscriminate violence, a key factor that helps people disengage. “The key is to keep them busy through lectures on religion with references, so they never take someone’s word, and offer them skills to earn a livelihood,” says a psychologist here. The other key consideration is providing a respectful environment to the inmates. At Mishal,the beneficiaries can watch TV, play games and even exercise in the in-house gymnasium. Meetings with family members are arranged regularly.

Hayat teaches woodwork to inmates. He is a former inmate, but he offers little insight into his own personal life. Hayat learned woodwork during his time at the centre and set up a shop of his own with financial assistance from the programme. Now he teaches the craft. “I learned the value of life after spending time in the de-radicalisation centre. And I want others to learn it too,” he adds. His one regret is that his father could not afford to send him to school. This, he says, is going to change. His children, he promises, will become doctors and engineers.

Funding is one of the main concerns of the military administrators. Even so, this is not the only limitation of the programme — which on paper is innovative and effective. There are few trained staff members, and a lack of independent evaluation, with the military keeping tight control. And the main question is whether the inmates who are released have truly been de-radicalised. “They are released only after the guarantee of the family and community,” I am told. “They are not allowed to leave their area. There are regular checks and they are required to check in with the authorities at regular intervals.” The administrators of the programme claim the success rate is 99 per cent with very few cases of released persons going missing.

But will these people in their hearts remain true to what has been taught them? It seems so, in the case of Sher Muhammad. Now a married man, he says he wants his only daughter to go to school and have the education he could not. For a man who was once willing to blow up a school if ordered, this is the change that Mishal aims bring to many lives.

(Names have been changed to protect the identity of the persons interviewed)

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2017


Comments (15)

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Mindshare ,tx Mar 21, 2017 08:33am

Good job. There's nothing effective than winning mind and heart.

Saba Mar 21, 2017 08:45am

What a masterpiece written by dawn. I never got this solution of emancipation from terrorism. Though it's highly challenging but on the other hand we ain't living a peaceful life too. This article provided us a new way to fight against terrorism.

Malik Zaman Mar 21, 2017 08:49am

Proud moment for any Pakistani.

Ravi Sankar Mar 21, 2017 09:30am

Small beginning, but gives hope. Again shows that investment in education, health and welfare gives peace and prosperity, military spending does not

M. Emad Mar 21, 2017 09:36am

In the ‘De-radicalisation’ programmes for former militants, Pakistani Mishal Centre (Swat) may promote Sufism and Rabindranath Tagore's literature (translated in local language). The core of Sufism — peace, love, tolerance, enlightenment — and Tagore’s philosophy are essentially the same. Like the Sufis, Tagore has message for the soul.

Feroz Mar 21, 2017 01:09pm

Funds must be made available for such programs and similar centers must be set up across the country. All those who can be put back on a path of non violence must receive all the assistance possible.

Nahrad Muni Mar 21, 2017 02:46pm

Good article. Nice work by Pakistan to de radicalize misguided youth.

Alba Mar 21, 2017 02:58pm

@Mindshare ,tx ... ... I don't believe him. If he did not kill people himself he would not be having nightmares. To pull himself up from the mess he made of his life, and get an education he has to convince them he never committed murder. His eyes were down on the floor for one reason. He did not want people to discover his lie.

adventurer Mar 21, 2017 05:55pm

Extremists and the ruling apparatus cant work hand in glove. It has to be controlled at its nip and not allowed to spread. Isn't it good to have prevention rather than curing it later.

israr khan Mar 21, 2017 07:06pm

instead of sending them home I am in favour of using their training for betterment of Pakistan and area, lets see keep an eye on 100 of them as trial as nigheban as policemen as fc as aman commettie as may be mukhbir I mean one way traffic so we get information from them and we don't give them any information plus they seems brave and want to fight ... anyway its down to authorities

Riaz Ullah Baig Mar 21, 2017 07:13pm

Adhoc remedies will suppress the malice for a while but we shall need to go for a wide spread of reforms to our judicial and social system. Operations and exterminations will do very little to help the cause but a new social contract with quick justice, quality education system and transparent financial system. In presence of rampant corruption, I do not see any hope but people in arms in the name to religion to revenge their grievances against the oppressors.

Imran Mar 21, 2017 07:49pm

Wonderful work,with the success rate is 99 percent, govt would continue to support this and such other type of organization if the success Rate is 50 percent.

zafar Mar 21, 2017 07:52pm

India has done the same in rehabilitating Kashmiri millitants who have put down their guns. Such initiatives are welcome.

atif Mar 21, 2017 08:56pm

nice share of views in such depressed environment ...only hope for our so called nation is education for all and same that will bring merit and it will bring us together....

SAM Mar 22, 2017 04:10am

@M. Emad Tagore was not a sufi