Claiming 'victory' too early
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
A day after the ruling Awami National Party (ANP) declared "victory" in Malakand Division and its provincial president Afrasiyab Khattak congratulated his party leaders on what in his view was a successful military campaign in Swat, Buner and Dir, three ANP workers, and cousins – Shamsher Ali Khan, Gohar Ali Khan and Usman Ali Khan – were killed by Taliban militants in Malikpur village near the shrine of the famous saint Pir Baba in Buner district. Gohar Ali Khan's brother, Jamil Ali Khan, had been kidnapped a month ago and the militants are demanding Rs10 million as ransom for his release.
This was surely embarrassing for the NWFP government. But by then there was one more embarrassing news circulating in Peshawar and the rest of the province. Rather, the news had spread to the whole country and beyond, and was also being discussed on the Facebook. The houses of two senior journalists from Buner had been torched and their families rendered shelterless in their ancestral villages. On the night of July 8-9, the spacious nine-room house of Geo TV correspondent Behroz Khan was put on fire in Balo Khan village near Pir Baba town after having been looted by the militants. The same night, in the nearby Polan village, the newly-built house of Rahman Bunairee, associated with the Pashto-language Deewa Radio of the Voice of America and the AVT Khyber television channel, was demolished with explosives.
Houses are built with love and lots of money. Often, life savings are spent on building a house. One loses so much if deprived of one's home. Imagine the house of your dreams being burned to ashes or dynamited and turned into rubble. One was relieved to know that Rahman Bunairee's family wasn't harmed by the 60-or-so armed men who introduced themselves as Taliban and, rather intriguingly, told them in polite words to vacate the house before it was blown up with expertly planted explosives. The shocked family members have now joined Rahman Bunairee in Karachi, where he is based. In Behroz Khan's case, he had wisely shifted his family to Peshawar sometime back. The militants subsequently occupied his home and used it as a base before looting everything that could be carted away and breaking the goods that were immoveable. His family suffered another huge loss when its privately-owned forest was burnt down by the security forces fearing the forest could be used by the militants as a hideout. The forest was the family's labour of love because every tree had been tended.
While on the subject of forests, it would take a while to calculate the losses inflicted upon the environment as a result of the militancy and military operations in Buner, Swat, Dir, Shangla and the rest of Malakand Division. Stretches of forests caught fire and turned into ashes when the artillery shelled or bombed landed there. The fires thus started have raged uncontrollably in the forests in summers. Villagers in the Salarzai area in Buner and in the bordering villages in Mardan district narrate how the thick forest in Namser on the Buner side and in Sangahu towards Mardan was burned this summer following a military action against the militants. Mountain communities in Malakand Division and the tribal areas, dependant to some extent on forests for their means of livelihood, are certainly heading for a life of more poverty, timber prices will rise due to supply shortages and the wildlife is getting deprived of habitat. Afghanistan, particularly its forested southern and eastern provinces such as Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Kunar, Nuristan, Laghman and Nangarhar, lost its forests due to decades of war and lawlessness and Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, which area-wise had the largest forests in the country, is now facing the same fate.
Behroz Khan and Rahman Bunairee are the latest in the long list of journalists who have suffered human and material losses as a result of the conflict in the NWFP. Those who have paid with their lives include Amir Nawab Wazir and Allah Noor Wazir in South Waziristan, Hayatullah in North Waziristan, Noor Hakim and Ibrahim Jan in Bajaur, Naseer Afridi in Darra Adamkhel and Sirajuddin, Qari Shoaib, Abdul Aziz and Musa Khankhel in Swat. Others lost a family member or were shot and injured and many were forced to move from their place of work to safer places. Some had no choice but to give up the profession or agree to work on the terms dictated by the militants and the government.
Pursuing honest and truthful journalism has become the most risky job in the Frontier, more so in the tribal borderland where there is rule of the gun.
Behroz Khan fearlessly spoke for his journalist colleagues when he remarked that that the destruction of his house wasn't going to break his resolve and deter him from performing his professional obligations. In his words, the enemy was faceless but journalists were required to speak the truth under any circumstances. Rahman Bunairee, who like many residents of Buner took pride in identifying himself as a Buneri, Bunerwal or Bunairee, was also unaware about the identity of those who targeted him and destroyed his house. He remembered having criticised both the militants and the government, the former for inflicting suffering on the people of Buner, Swat and elsewhere, and the latter for its failure to protect the life and honour of the population and look after the needs of the displaced persons.
However, it is obvious that those in the habit of harming journalists are sending a strong message that the journalists must fall in line or face the consequences. The militants have openly threatened members of the media, and their anger against journalists is boiling over in view of their falling support among the masses and lesser coverage compared to the past in newspapers and on radio and television. For obvious reasons, the journalists are also scared of the intelligence agencies and critical of the government and the security forces for imposing a media blackout in the conflict areas. They find themselves helpless in doing a proper job while reporting the conflict. Unafraid to risk their lives and willing to travel to the frontlines of the ongoing war, they could do a far better job despite lacking in resources, training and support from the media organisations.
In fact, greater media access to the conflict zones would provide a credible portrayal of the situation and help remove the cloud of doubts regarding the military operations and the claims about the army's battleground achievements.
Instead of declaring premature victory, the ANP leadership should admit that the war is not over yet and that it is going to be long and bitter. There is no harm in conceding that the situation is still precarious, that the Taliban leadership in Swat and the rest of Malakand region has largely survived the military action. The incapacity and inefficiency of the provincial and federal governments in coping with the issue of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) should also be conceded. Instead of downplaying the challenge, it will be better to highlight the enormous task of repatriating and rehabilitating the IDPs and providing them the much-needed security in their villages and towns.
More than 150 ANP workers were reportedly killed in Swat alone during the past two years of violence and now they are also being targeted in Buner. Earlier, many ANP members had publicly dissociated themselves from the party in Swat, Malakand Agency and other places in the area to escape harm at the hands of the militants. The insecurity felt by the ruling party workers would scare away common people from supporting the government and the security forces. And the much-publicised attacks against members of the media would send home the message that anyone critical of the militants could expect the same fate. This is just a glimpse of the uncertain situation prevailing in the conflict areas. Those pronouncing the start of the repatriation process of the IDPs as a signal of victory would be well-advised to keep their celebrations on hold, as it isn't over yet.NEWS 14-7-09
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org