Friday, March 16, 2012

Battling bullets with blackboards, Pakistan’s tribal youth struggle against extremism


By Sagar Atre
Copy edited and produced by Laura Straub

Jan Muhammad was born in the tribal province of Balochistan, a region devastated by decades of war, unemployment and extremism. But at 22, Jan Muhammad is a speaker at global youth forums for peace. Jan was part of a training workshop organized by the College of Youth Action and Development (CYAAD) to prevent youth from joining extremist groups.

CYAAD founder Raziq Fahim speaks to women in a village.


Lack of education
“The problem is the extreme lack of educational facilities and opportunities to earn a decent living,” said Muhammad. We have no real avenues for professional jobs. Extremist groups provide an income, and with no other option, youngsters often turn to violence. We have had violence here for decades now. Exploiting such sensitive situations is simple. I am lucky to have had the option of choosing a different path. Most of my friends don’t, and I want to change that.”

From the last few decades, residents of Balochistan, the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) and Khyber-Pakhtunkhuwa, all bordering Pakistan’s northern fringe, have seen conflicts in quick succession; the Soviet invasion, Islamic insurrections, tribal conflicts, and now, American drone strikes. Conflicts have destroyed basic infrastructure, farms and also factories and other workplaces.

The borders with Afghanistan are porous and the conflict there has a severe impact in these regions. Most people sustain themselves through small-time farming and odd jobs but shortages of water, food and opportunities to better oneself make these provinces a harsh place to live. Many generations of villagers are embittered, and become easy prey for religious indoctrination, and in turn, violent extremism. CYAAD aims to work against this problem.

Dissuading youth from extremism
Jan Muhammad conducts a workshop for tribal youth.
Raziq Fahim, founder of CYAAD, says, “These youth are alienated. They do not have opportunities or the economic and intellectual resources to create opportunities. This vacuum is exploited by extremists, who promise money and martyrdom. Youth here see loved ones die violently and have forever lived in poverty. We try to mitigate the bitterness arising out of this. We work to turn them away from violence and involve them in community building.” CYAAD runs training programs where youth learn about civic rights, community building, conflict resolution and peace. Six hundred youth have attended these workshops so far, and many have found work in the development sector.

Dr Muhammad Taqi, a columnist on Pakistan based in Florida, says, “Persuading a religiously indoctrinated, poor and angry young man towards extremism, which gets him a monthly salary is not difficult. Disillusionment with the government and anger towards the western world, combined with economic problems and helplessness are a perfect mix of what extremists are looking for. Right now, they are helped mainly by the voluntary organizations working there.”

The government is accused of ignoring the problem and failing to act. Officials at the education and social welfare ministries were not reachable for comment.

Computer training for tribal youth.
Sadiq Khan, senior faculty member at the Institute of Development studies and practices, (IDSP), is a trainer for IDSP workshops. Sadiq believes, “Our aim is to pull these youth back from religious fundamentalism. Our programs focus on giving youth a basic sense of some important areas: religion, local politics and the individual’s role in developing the community. We also work with women in communities; women are better anchors to a family. However, physical violence and hardships are stronger reminders of reality than our modules. Their devastated infrastructure and economic poverty must go for our trainings to become more effective. We can help them by equipping them with skills and knowledge, but the responsibility of providing them opportunities of earning and working must come from other agencies.”

Extremism begins young
Extremist recruitment begins from a very young age. Boys aged nine have been recruited by the Taliban and they have fought in tribal skirmishes alongside the Balochistan Liberation Army, a secessionist organization demanding a separate Balochistan. Dilawar Khan, a CYAAD fellow and faculty, says, “I was automatically a possible recruit when I lived in a rural region called Pishin. I knew who they were and how they recruited my compatriots. But my parents instilled in me a strong dislike of violence. Many of my friends were embittered by their losses. If anything, youth in those regions need to be cared for. We talk to them as friends. Showing them a different, more optimistic and peaceful side of life changes them and makes them more hopeful about the future. These youth need not be told the value of peace; they know it better than anyone.”
A peace rally for tribal areas.


The Baacha Khan Trust Education Foundation (BKTEF) is an organization which has established schools and developed curricula which mix academic learning with teaching various skills. Dr Khadim Hussain, Managing Director of the BKTEF, says, “We work simultaneously on school and college levels. Our school curricula focus on cultural skills, critical thinking, analytical skills, and other facets of education which enable the child to learn better. We also try to inculcate courses which emphasize peace and a better, more detached understanding of religion. For youth, we conduct dialogues and workshops. Talking to them about religion and its role in life and society is critical. We are working with the government to realize the need of economic investment and aid to these regions, and by doing so create a sustainable model which will empower the coming generations of the tribal areas not just psychologically, but also economically and professionally. We want tribal areas without poverty and violence. Their reputation as fertile recruitment grounds of extremism must end.”

Jan, Dilawar, and many other youth in the tribal areas now work with development agencies to help their compatriots build a better future. Youth are involved in rebuilding homes, running schools, improving the basic facilities in the tribal areas, and even involving more youth into these activities. Foreign agencies like UN Habitat are slowly adding more youth to their local cadre.

When last contacted, Jan was on his way to Egypt, to talk to youth there about resolving conflict. Change in the tribal areas is slowly coming, but violence, extremism and their aftereffects are a continual threat looming over these efforts of rebuilding Pakistan’s most desperate, barren lands and the morale of their people.

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