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Listen to them

November 16, 2011


ALTHOUGH Peshawar seems to have regained something of its traditional social flavour and the bazaars are full of shoppers the best treat it offers is the possibility of meeting community workers and human rights activists from different parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, especially those belonging to the tribal area.

These activists are the pride of Pakistan's civil society organisations because many of them are working in an incredibly hostile environment and exposing themselves to the highest possible risks. Their concerns are numerous and diverse but one is struck by the fact that for most of them the biggest problem confronting their communities is the lack of adequate facilities for children's education.

No doubt armed conflict is going on in some areas and incidents of targeted killing and abduction for ransom are taking place all the time, but nothing causes greater anxiety than the state's indifference to children's educational needs.

The problem is particularly acute in case of children belonging to displaced families. For instance, the number of children among the 12,000 or so displaced families, that have been living in camps or other places of shelter in Tank district for about three years, is said to be around 46,000. Absence of schooling arrangements for them is giving rise to serious issues. Many of these children are going to substandard seminaries and quite a few in the 12-16 years age group are being recruited by militant groups for combat duties, including training as suicide bombers.

Likewise the families displaced as a result of raid and search operations in Bara and other parts of Khyber Agency are greatly worried about their children's loss of education opportunities. An idea of the importance the people attach to this problem can be had from the success a group of Afridi activists has achieved by persuading a Peshawar businessman to donate more than a million rupees to provide for the education of children displaced during the Bara operation. And more funds have been promised.That the tribal community is more concerned about children's education than the other consequences of conflict in their territories is indicative of their desire to change their life pattern that the country's leaders and policymakers must seriously address. This widely demonstrated hunger for knowledge also explains why the retrogressive extremists consider schools, particularly those meant to serve girls, one of the first targets of their vandalism.

A programme to establish and expand the network of schools across the tribal areas now offers the most effective means of people's uplift. A beginning should be made by ending the non-educational use of schools and secure community support for repairing and rebuilding the educational centres that have been damaged during the long years of conflict.

In addition to lack of medical care and employment opportunities, the activists from Fata as well as the so-called settled districts mention a variety of other public grievances. For example, the people of Buner are greatly concerned at a wave of killing of women for 'honour'. In Bajaur, the members of peace committees are being targeted by militants who are said to have resurfaced. In Khyber Agency, incidents of kidnapping for ransom are on the rise.

The communities affected by last year's floods in Upper Dir, Charsadda and Swabi are yet to be properly rehabilitated. Many families have not received Watan Cards. The long delay in the release of the second instalment of the relief grant is a huge scandal. The work of rehabilitating the conflict-affected families in Swat is slow and stories of corruption are quite common. Perhaps the worst sufferers among the hordes of people uprooted from their homes as a result of conflict or the 2010 floods are the groups of Sindhi villagers who had travelled northwards to Swabi and a couple of other towns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in search of refuge and relief.

Many of them have been reduced to begging in the streets. Their plight calls for immediate relief and the sooner their return to their homes province can be arranged the better it would be. One wonders whether the Sindh government is aware of the suffering of these unfortunate people.

Working for human rights, for women's rights in particular, is not easy anywhere in the tribal belt but nowhere is it harder than in conflict zones, such as South Waziristan. The agency is believed to have been freed of militants' stranglehold and Wana traders are back at their posts but the people still face many difficulties. The main public grievances are related to lack of educational and health facilities. The use of schools for non-educational purposes is a sore point. Only a small proportion of the people that had been displaced during the conflict and taken refuge in D.I. Khan has returned to South Waziristan Agency. The ordinary people still have difficulties in securing identity cards.

Conditions are bad for journalists throughout Fata, and the Tribal Union of Journalists has done much commendable work towards spreading awareness of the hazards that journalists working there face. In South Waziristan, they are under pressure from the administration and the militants both. Something urgently needs to be done to protect them and enable them to pursue their calling in peace.

Of course, civil society activists do not ignore conflict-related issues such as the drone attacks, the return of extremists in some parts of Fata, the angry reaction to the new regulation for the trial of detainees, the slow progress on the peace deal in Kurram Agency, et al. But they have either got used to these matters as unavoidable parts of the routine or they have decided not to be distracted from their mission by any untoward occurrence. After all, people do not abandon their homes and hearths even in close proximity to battlefields, one is often told.

The authorities will certainly claim to know more about the trials and tribulations of the people in the troubled parts of Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa than anyone outside their fold. Still, it is time they listened to civil society activists before fixing their priorities and thus discovered the way to develop community-backed initiatives that have better chances of success than any schemes conceived by bureaucrats who have no idea as to what is happening to ordinary citizens or what is going on in their minds.