My real name, Malala, means Grief Stricken..
For Pakistan and people across the globe, the good news is that Malala Yousufzai appears to be recovering. The 14-year-old was shot a day ago by gunmen who stopped her school van in Swat and singled her out by name. The Pakistani Taliban (as opposed to the Afghans) have claimed responsibility. Her crime was to speak out against the bombing of schools in her district where she felt that she and every other girl had the right to an education. After the Taliban took over the Swat valley in 2003 they issued an edict, saying that all schools for girls would be closed. Thus began a slow but systemic move to shut, attack or bomb schools across the area.
“Since today was the last day of our school, we decided to play in the playground a bit longer,” Malala wrote in a diary that was published by the BBC Urdu service in 2009. She was just 11 years old when she started to write anonymously. “My mother liked my pen name 'Gul Makai',” says an entry from January 15, 2009. “[She] said to my father 'why not change her name to Gul Makai?' I also like the name because my real name [Malala] means 'grief stricken'.” Gul Makai means sunflower in Pashto.
As I read her entries, I was taken back to my childhood when I read the words of another girl – Anne Frank. She wrote in a different time and place, to be sure, but there was something that I
felt tied them together. There were echoes of courage and sheer dint of spirit that perhaps only children can have. Malala’s diaries were written at a time when very few journalists really had the proper information on what the Taliban were doing. The picture certainly wasn’t clear in the rest of Pakistan. Gul Makai gave a human face to a region that was otherwise inaccessible in the national imagination.
From February 23: “After assembly the headmistress advised us to cover ourselves properly and wear the burqa because it is a condition put by the Taliban.” From January 19: “[My friend said that no one has made the Taliban suffer but when they are hurt they take it out on our schools. But the army is not doing anything about it. They are sitting in their bunkers on top of the hills. They slaughter goats and eat with pleasure.”
Her work was later featured in two New York Times documentaries and she was short-listed in 2011 for the International Children Peace Prize, awarded by the Dutch organisation KidsRights. The Pakistani government gave her a national peace prize too.
But Malala began to receive threats and on the morning of Tuesday, October 9, 2012 three masked men hunted her down to school and shot her in the school van as she was on her way home from an exam. The news broke in the morning to the horror of the nation.
This was the latest message from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) whose policy has been over the last year to systematically pick off key peace negotiators (Maulvi Arsala Rahmani), prominent law enforcers who battled them (Sifwat Ghayoor) and now, as an Awami National Party representative, Bushra Gohar, told BBC, they are picking on “any symbol of peace”. First they targeted the schools to bomb us back to the stone ages and now they are targeting our children, she said.
For whatever it is worth, investigations have been launched and apparently, if the interior minister is to be believed, her assailants have been identified. My newspaper, The Express Tribune, reported today that nearly 200 suspects are being questioned.
I learnt last night that the journalist ‘AH’, who was instrumental in having her diaries published in the BBC was on the hit-list of the TTP, according to its spokesperson in the Malakand Division. He telephoned a journalist I know in Peshawar (who I cannot name here) to say that AH was responsible for ‘corrupting’ the young writer. AH has been a fierce critic of the Taliban himself and was forced to leave the country a while ago because of his ‘anti-establishment’ writings, said the Peshawar journalist to me.
What does this mean for Pakistan
It is up to Pakistan now to choose whether they want a future as envisioned by Malala Yousufzai or one as envisioned by the Taliban, said Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar yesterday. Indeed, this has been our choice for a very long time.
Pakistanis still don’t have clarity when it comes to human rights, religion and state and its position in the world. Islam has, for many of us, just become a religion of fear and oppression as interpreted by the far too strong extremists and terrorists. Let me give you an example:
The Peshawar reporter who spoke to me about Malala yesterday reminded me of how dangerous his work has become. Around Sept 21, when radical and right-wing groups were up in arms over the film ‘Innocence of Muslims’, burning and vandalizing public property, he tweeted that this was not ‘Ishq-e-Rasool’ or Love for the Prophet (PBUH) but ‘organised crime’. An international news service in Pakistan picked up the tweet and quoted him by name. “The next thing was a phone call from Waziristan,” he said. The caller, who refused to identify himself, asked the journalist what the hell he thought he was doing by tweeting such stuff. When the journalist asked the caller to identify himself, he said something to the effect of “I have my ways of letting you know who I am”.
I asked that journalist about what the Malala attack meant for Pakistan. Obviously the first point is very clearly that the Taliban can strike with impunity.
Pakistan has, over the decades, either inherited or developed pockets of areas where the writ of the state simply does not exist. This is the most frightening part of living here, even though I write from the safe confines of Karachi (which has one of the world’s highest homicide rates). Swat is one of those areas as is Waziristan.
Flushing them out
The army went in to Swat in 2009 for an operation but clearly it is impossible to completely cleanse an area of ‘militants’. The journalist from Peshawar wrote to me: “I am witness, to all the killings, some reported some unreported, it wasn’t a farce. A lot of military men went down in that war. I was stuck in curfew for over 70 days. Every morning when I woke up, there were just scattered bodies. Long story, will tell you sometime…”
I asked him if it was safe to say that the Taliban are still around. (It may seem like a simple question, but I do not generally consider it ethical to comment on the situation on the ground in Swat if I am sitting in Karachi.) He replied: “They are very much present in Malakand Division. There were reports of the[m] regrouping but then again for the people of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Fata this is redundant; where aren’t they regrouping? One can’t go 5km outside Peshawar and we talk of the writ of the government.” (Fata is the Federally Administered Tribal Areas).
Another journalist explained that the entire region is simply so porous that the Taliban can move around freely. The dilemma with this ‘fight’ is that the Taliban are in many cases, Pakistanis. So even though the army went in to clean out Swat, and is now in parts of Waziristan trying to do the same thing, it seems to be a cat and mouse game because they are fighting their own people.
I asked the journalist in Peshawar who were these Taliban, in the sense that the government has talked about a ‘foreign’ hand or ‘third hand’ or foreign militants when it comes to the Taliban. “If you particularly talk about Swat, yes they were locals as well as non-locals, and I don’t mean foreigners, militants from other districts of Malakand. An interesting story, I once did for […] was when the families were ousted from Swat because their ‘Talib’ relations did not surrender. The story never went into publication. It gives you some idea, that these men were local.”
There are many stories to tell, he said to me, about the way the Taliban were made, which is key to understanding how Pakistan is going to deal with this phenomenon. In our editorial today in The Express Tribune, we wrote: In the first place, during the military action against the Taliban, they were nearly driven into the neighbouring districts of Afghanistan but have since been able to make a comeback reaching right into Dir. Others who went into hiding were never arrested. Some have now resurfaced and people in Swat, as well as in other conflict-hit areas where the military has acted, remain unconvinced that the militants have been vanquished for good. Maulana Fazalullah, the man behind many of the atrocities in Swat, is still a free man.
I believe a major part of the problem is that the media has not been able to get in to properly tell the story. It has simply been too unsafe. That is an important ingredient. The media, the government, the people, the army are part of this picture. My journalist friend from Peshawar is terribly disgusted by the way the story has been told. But it is simply too dangerous to tell it in many circumstances. “There is space left vacant to tell original tales of insurgency, which only the locals can do BUT they are too scared. Hence, all the façade and commotion.” He says that when he puts the paper to bed and goes home, he is on tenterhooks till the next midday because he never knows who will be offended to what they’ve printed and who will react to it. “It’s scary when you don’t know who the enemy is,” he said, referring to being unable to ‘see’ them.
The stories will perhaps have to be told slowly over time. For example, this journalist had a theory that many of the young men who went over to become Taliban did so out of reasons other than ideology. Some of them were just poor boys who fell in love with rich girls and were not allowed to marry them, in the simplest of cases. Others had been sexually abused by tribal ‘elders’ higher up the food chain. I’m afraid these are not stories for me to tell and hence I cannot go into them as much as I would like to. I merely mention this to try and insert the possibility that other narratives exist in this one.
What worries me more and more each day in Pakistan, however, is that the government has not hit back at radicalism with education. All Malala wanted was to go to school and indeed that is what many young people in Pakistan yearn for. But it is not just enough for them to go to school. They need to have the hope that they have prospects of a job after they graduate.
However, the reality is that even though 60% of our population is under 30 years of age, their future prospects are grim. Our youth bulge is going to need serious investment or we will face, and indeed have been facing, an internal crisis when you have a young population with no hope and no jobs.
The Taliban have been brazen enough to attack army installations and spring jailbreaks for their comrades. Malala was a soft target for them. What I find difficult to understand is what it is going to take to change the way our radicalized population thinks. There has been an outpouring on Twitter and Facebook and on my newspaper The Express Tribune’s website, so clearly one segment of the population holds a different view. Why does this not translate on to the ground? We have elections rolling around, hopefully. Will ‘liberal’, ‘educated’ and tolerant Pakistan vote for change? I doubt it because they don’t have choices. To me, none of the political parties have enough of a progressive agenda or plan to tackle extremism. (And as a side note, the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan who everyone seems to love these days, doesn’t seem to have an answer for the Taliban either).
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