Saturday, March 5, 2011

Swat Valley, Picking up the pieces

In a few weeks the owners of a small, three-room flat above a tea-shop in a noisy Peshawar bazaar in northwestern Pakistan will be looking for a new tenant because the current occupant, Fayazullah Jan, is leaving.
The 34-year-old drummer from Swat Valley used to play at weddings to earn a living until Taliban militants seized control of the area in 2007 and declared music un-Islamic.

Out of work, Fayazullah moved from his home town of Mingora (the principal city in Swat) and rented the flat in Peshawar. But he was unable to find regular employment, and life proved hard.

“I had been doing this [playing music] since I was 12 years old, like my father and grandfather before me,” he said. Then the Taliban stopped music from being played. “I had no means of earning a livelihood and was scared for my safety. I left Swat in December 2008 for Peshawar.”
With militants on the retreat since the summer of 2009 and a victory over them declared by the military in February 2010 life has begun returning to normal in Swat and neighbouring districts such as Buner and Dir.
“I have spoken to people in Mingora and it now seems safe to go back,” Fayazullah said. He is confident he can resume earning on a regular basis and “put my three children back in school”.
Fayazullah is not alone. Many others in Swat, including barbers who were prevented by the Taliban from shaving beards or cutting hair in a stylized fashion, have resumed work.

Hopes for tourism sector

The valley, a former tourist resort area some 160km from Islamabad, has also seen evidence of a revival of tourism - a primary source of livelihood for many before the insurgency.
The conflict displaced an estimated 200,000 of Swat’s 1.8 million inhabitants in early 2009 as government forces battled Fazlullah's followers who were calling for a holy war against the government and the establishment of a strict version of Shariah law.
"My hotel, which stands by the River Swat had been damaged by floods last summer, but we had seen tourists return early in 2010 and I had earned some money [so I] had enough savings to re-build,” hotel owner Khan Muhammad told IRIN from Mingora.
He is confident there will be more tourists this year, as hotter weather in the plains brings people to the cooler north.
“The revival of tourism in an area like Swat would bring income to many households, because waiters, cooks, guides and others would be able to go back to work,” economic analyst Sikander Lodhi told IRIN.

Livelihood revival

In Malakand Division (an administrative zone of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province which includes Swat District), where more than three million people have suffered economically since the conflict escalated between Pakistani government forces and militants in early 2009, initiatives like the Sarhad rural support programme are helping to improve livelihoods through skills enhancement.

“The need for revival of livelihoods was felt because of the wide-ranging impact that the conflict had on the lives of local populations,” Shakeel Ahmad, a programme officer with the UN Development Programme, told IRIN.

“According to the Conflict Early Recovery Needs Assessment exercise carried out by the UN system towards the start of the return of IDPs to their home towns, 99 percent of people reported that the conflict had significantly and negatively impacted their non-farm-based livelihoods… The interventions will help people revive their sources of livelihoods.”

Mingora-based social activist Jamil Khan said: “Right now many people here are hopeful. Many have been able to resume work, especially groups such as barbers, or CD and video shop owners who were targeted by the Taliban, and this means money has again begun to come into households.”

However, with the 2 March assassination in Islamabad of Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who had urged reforms to the blasphemy laws, nothing in Pakistan can be taken for granted.

Tawakkul Karman ...A woman leading change in Yemen

With two presidents unseated in Tunisia and Egypt and highly publicised protests across Libya, the recent demonstrations in Yemen are catching the world’s attention. The escalating violence is worrying and only time will tell if it will lead to a quick overthrow of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh or whether change will take much longer in Yemen. But one thing is different in Yemen: the

international face of the Yemeni pro-change movement is a woman. Profiled in high profile outlets including The Washington Post, The Toronto Star and Time Magazine, journalist and human rights activist Tawakkul Karman represents a positive image of Yemeni women. Long before she was photographed leading February’s protests against the government, she was called a brave defender of freedom of expression and human rights in Yemen. In a January 2010 interview with Al Jazeera, she spoke of detained journalists, a sheikh’s tyranny against villagers in Ibb, a governorate south of the capital, the lack of justice for the family of a murdered doctor, and - long before January’s WikiLeaks revelations - even went so far as to accuse the

government of being “in alliance” with al-Qaeda. Today, she continues to protest, demanding peaceful change. Finally a refreshing change from the “over-sized post box” image of the Yemen’s women in the niqab (a garment that covers the female body, face and hands), or the photos of child bride Nujood Ali that have fuelled Yemen’s early marriage debate since April 2008. Of course, all is not rosy for Yemen’s women. Yemeni parliamentarians (one out of 301 is a woman) still have not agreed on a minimum age for marriage to prevent girls like Nujood, nine years old at the time of her divorce, from being married before they finish school. Illiteracy among women is still a whopping 67 per cent, women are typically the first victims of food shortages (one in three Yemenis suffers from severe malnutrition according to the UN) and many have difficult and limited access to healthcare. Women’s participation in politics is minimal and, despite two female ministers, Yemen has consistently ranked at the bottom in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index since it was first included in the ranking in 2006. But there is hope. Karman and fellow female human rights activists, such as journalist Samia al-Aghbari, are on the frontline of protests in the Yemeni capital. They may not be representative of Yemeni women in general, but they are indeed inspiring. In fact, one Yemeni man was so impressed by al-Aghbari’s courage during the protests of 13 February when she was knocked onto the pavement by a member of security, that he wrote her a poem, “Revolution of the Green Hijab... To Samia al-Aghbari and all the other revolutionaries”, which was published the following day on the Nashwan News website. Although they are not all out on the streets, there are a number of inspiring women in Yemen. In addition to Karman and al-Aghbari, Yemeni women are human rights activists, journalists, doctors, educators, members of civil society, academics, wives of political detainees, photographers, and even tweeters. Dozens of brave women have run against all odds and lost in local council and parliamentary elections. According to Nadia al-Sakkaf, female Editor-in-Chief of the independent Yemen Times, winning is difficult without the support of a political party, and most politically ambitious women at the moment are waiting to see how the current situation develops. Then there are the women who quietly start their own revolutions. In May 2010, a literacy eradication course inspired women in rural Dhamar, a governorate south of Sana’a, to go home and ask their husbands and brothers for their rights to education, inheritance and political participation. Course organisers received phone calls from confused male family members asking what they had been discussing. Participants also rallied together and prevented a man from marrying off his 12-year-old daughter. When Karman was detained by security for organising protests on 22 January, she made the most of a bad situation by chatting to her fellow female detainees about their rights. “I was happy to discover the prison and talk to the prisoners,” she told The Yemen Times after her release. But perhaps the most inspiring thing about Karman is that she is not speaking up only for Yemeni women, but for Yemeni society as a whole, addressing national grievances such as unemployment and corruption. It may be too early for a female president in Yemen, but Karman adds a new, welcome dimension to the media coverage of a country usually associated in the Western mind with al-Qaeda, poverty and oppressed women.

VEENA MALIK: Very Fashionable

Pakistani actor-model Veena Malik changes her pitch. After tantalising viewers on Bigg Boss 4, she's back in India to make her cricket commentary debut with two shows

Everybody in this world is hungry for publicity. I enjoy it too. I didn't know I'll grab so many eyeballs in Bigg Boss 4 or earn so much fame," says Veena Malik. A channel's website cites her age as 32, but she claims to be 26. "My date of birth is 1984. I have my passport to prove it," she says in her defence.

The Pakistani actor and model who drew the media's attention after exposing her ex-boyfriend as well as cricketer Mohammad Asif's foul play, further gained popularity for her notoriety on the reality show Bigg Boss 4, last year. She's now making her cricket commentary debut.

Malik who admires Indian commentators such as Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar is hosting not one, but two shows on cricket Cricket-o-tainment along with other experts of the game; and Big Toss with Rakhi Sawant. "People have invested a lot of money and most of all, they have invested their confidence in me," she smiles. "The channel has chosen me as the face of the World Cup."

Quiz her about the terminology of the game What happens when the no-ball goes for four runs? What does it suggest when the umpire raises his one leg? Who's the captain of Zimbabwe? she isn't entirely stumped. "If you think I am an expert, let me tell you, I am not," she says. "But I know the basics of the game. I know when Sachin Tendulkar will enter the stadium he'll break the record of Sanath Jayasuriya and even Miandad."

She promises that the glamour quotient in her cricket shows will be high and is also up for any kind of wardrobe scrutiny. "Obviously, if I am there, the fashion element is going to be there," she stands firm. "I am very fashionable.

People always love my sense of styling. So many young girls out there look up to me. But I am not all fashion and beauty only, I have brains also."

Malik's rooting for India, but her prayers are with Pakistan. "I want to see India and Pakistan in the finals and may the best team win. But if you compare the two teams, then India is in way better form. And yes, it wouldn't help for Pakistan if Asif was playing," she mentions.

It isn't only her previous liaison with the Pakistani cricketer which stimulated her interest in the game. "Like India, people in Pakistan also consider cricket a religion. I have been following the game since childhood and I am emotionally aroused towards it."

In fact, Malik insists she even exposed Asif's match-fixing scandal for the love of the game. "I am a cricket lover. He didn't cheat on me; he cheated on the crores of people who love this game. Cricket is a gentleman's game and he didn't behave like one.

When I met him, he was nobody. He was banned and had so many cases against him. I helped him out in his dark days. I used to beg him to stay away from it, but he still continued," she drawls.

However, photographer Dheeraj Dixit, who was allegedly in cahoots with Asif, has accused Malik of being a bookie. "Really? If I am a bookie then what am I doing here? I was the one who provided the contact numbers and the truth. He's one silly guy who only knows to make stupid comments. Why is he not coming up with any proof? Why is he just a babbler?" she shoots back.

Post her World Cup shows, Malik hopes to visit Mumbai to do some charity along with her 'close friend' Ashmit Patel. The two became friendly on the sets of Bigg Boss 4. "Ashmit was an emotional support inside the house. We have great chemistry. He's very much interested in working in Pakistan, but right now, I have my own problems to deal with over there," she reveals.

She has also been offered roles in Bollywood, apparently, but has rejected all of them and remains unperturbed. She does not wish to start her innings doing B or C grade films. "I am like a river dariya hota hai woh apna raasta khud bana deta hai... Likewise, I work on my own terms. Things will happen when they have to," she signs off.

SAUDI ARABIA: Demonstrators stage rare protests to demand release of political prisoners

Saudi Arabia has so far escaped the demonstrations and popular uprisings that are sweeping the region, but recent developments suggest the ultraconservative kingdom is not immune to protests and unrest.

Media reports say demonstrators took to the streets of areas of Saudi Arabia's oil-producing eastern province Thursday and Friday to demand the release of political prisoners they claim are being held without trial.

According to CNN, one of the main rallying points at Friday's protest was the outspoken Shiite prayer leader Sheikh Tawfeeq Amer who protesters claim was arrested Feb. 25 after calling in a sermon for Saudi Arabia to become a constitutional democracy.

The video above, posted on YouTube, claims to show prosteters marching in the streets in a town in the eastern province Friday to demand Amer's release.

The demonstration comes a day after around 100 Saudi Shiite Muslims gathered for a rally in the same province to call for the release of Shiite prisoners they say are being arbitraily held by the Saudi authorities.

A report from the Reuters news agency said young men were seen marching through Awwamiya, a town near Saudi Arabia's Shiite epicenter Qatif, chanting "Peaceful, peaceful" while waving pictures of Shiites they say have been detained unjustly. A group of policemen observed the protest without intervening, added the report.

Thurday's and Friday's protests, however, were reported to be much smaller in size than the demonstrations that occurred down in Awwamiya in 2009 after Saudi police launched a crackdown and search for the Shiite preacher Nimr Nimr, who back then had suggested in a sermon that Shiites could one day seek their own separate state.

The vast majority of Saudi Arabia's Shiite community lives in the country's eastern province -- home to most of the kingdom's vast oil resources and also near protest-stricken Bahrain, where members of the majority Shiite population recently have staged massive protests against their Sunni rulers.

Shiites in Saudi Arabia regularly complain about discrimination and say they still face restrictions in getting some jobs, although their situation has improved somewhat under King Abdullah and the reforms he has implemented. The government denies charges of such discrimination.

Last month, more than 100 Saudi activists and intellectuals called on the king to set up a constitutional monarchy and implement sweeping reforms.

Saudi youth push ahead with demands

Tens of thousands of Saudi youths protesting the government's policies have posted their demands for greater civil liberties on an internet website.

The website Honein Revolution calls for the election of the Consultative Assembly members by the people, the impartiality of judiciary, and the release of political prisoners as the most important demands.

The youths have called for the removal of "illegal taxes imposed on poor classes of society, wage increases and job opportunities for young people."

Saudi Arabia is suffering from a high unemployment rate among young men, according to government figures, which indicate that more than 43 percent of citizens aged between 20 and 24 years are jobless.

The young protesters in Saudi Arabia have also called for the formation of an independent organization to supervise the country's fight against corruption.

Freedom of speech, removal of "illegal restrictions” on Saudi women, and a foreign policy based on national interests are among other demands posted on the website.

Meanwhile, more than 100 Saudi academics, activists and businessmen have called for reforms, including the establishment of a "constitutional monarchy," in the conservative Arab kingdom.

"We will submit these requests to King Abdullah at a later stage," Khaled al-Dakhil, a teacher of political science at the King Saud University said in a statement published on the internet.

"We have high hopes that these reforms will be implemented. Now is the time," said the academician and one of the 123 signatories of the petition.

Saudi youths have called for protests on March 11, dubbed as the "Day of Rage"

Saudi women rally for prisoners' release

A group of women in Saudi Arabia have protested their husbands' detention in Saudi prisons, amid the emerging signs of anti-government uprisings across the kingdom.
The women say their husbands have been behind bars for at least 15 years without trial.They chanted the men have been “forgotten” and have called for their immediate release.On February 24, another demonstration was held in the oil-producing Eastern province of Qatif. The protesters carried pictures of prisoners and demanded their release.Two weeks ago, a similar protest was also held in the neighboring town of Awwamiya, after which, Saudi authorities freed three prisoners.Tens of thousands of people are preparing themselves to attend the protests after Saudi youth named March 11th the Day of Rage on the social networking website, Facebook.On February 23, Saudi King Abdullah suddenly promised a $36 billion-package of extra benefits for his people, upon his return from a long medical trip to the US.He also granted pardon to some prisoners indicted in financial crimes and ordered the implementation of a 15-percent pay hike for state employees as well as an increase in the cash available for Saudi housing loans.
Analysts believe the huge hike in benefits introduced by the Saudi king is actually intended to avert an uprising in the country.
In recent weeks, a wave of revolutions and anti-government uprisings has spread across the Arab world.


Saudis staged protests in two towns in Saudi Arabia's oil-producing Eastern Province on Thursday

Desperate to avoid mass uprisings against the House of Saud, security forces have deployed in huge numbers across the region.

King Abdullah is also reported to have told neighbouring Bahrain that if they do not put down their own ongoing Shia revolt, his own forces will.

In response to the massive mobilisation, protesters are planning to place women on the front ranks to discourage Saudi forces from firing on them.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh set off a deadly battle for survival last night as he rejected an opposition peace proposal and ordered troops to fire on demonstrators, killing four. Efforts to suppress demonstrations by the key ally in the “war on terror” could jeopardise rising volumes of Western aid flooding into the country, diplomats warned.

President Saleh rejected an opposition proposal that would have brought demonstrations to a standstill in return for a promise to step down by the end of the year. Yemeni troops used rockets and machineguns to attack demonstrators in the north of the country, killing four and injuring nine.

Punjab's pro-Taliban government

Naeem Tahir
The support to the PML-N is strongly committed from the violent minority. Funds, muscle and street power are all made available by exploiting the fair name of ‘Islam’. The future is incredibly depressing for those who believe in the vision of Allama Iqbal and the statesmanship of Quaid-e-Azam

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has been almost ‘kicked out’ from the Punjab government. The uncomfortable marriage between the PPP and the PML-N has come to an end with little grace. The end of the ‘coalition confusion’ will, hopefully, be good for the people. The game of good cop-bad cop is over and both can show their true character. But their true characters are also a matter of concern. The PPP has so far appeared very spineless, incompetent and ineffective. The PML-N has shown a pro-Taliban mindset and support for pro-Taliban activists. The PML-N is known to have provided over 50 million worth of financial assistance to Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a banned network, in its provincial budget. Senior leaders of the PML-N are seen campaigning with extreme rightists and aggravating interfaith discord. The PML-N stands with them while inflammatory and hate speeches are delivered and ensures that the extremist, pro-Taliban vote bank continues supporting them. The PML-N leadership has shown little sensitivity to the damage they are doing to the social fabric by standing with the extremists. The PML-N has made no effort for inter-cultural harmony. It relies on ‘Punjab support’, and plays that ‘card’. It has also diverted attention from its own corruption and incompetence.

The change has come according to the PML-N game plan. The much denied document of ‘pardon’ for Nawaz Sharif and others did actually exist and the Mian sahibs informed the Saudi authorities that they have completed the period of abstinence as per the contract and now they are entering the regular political scene. In the meantime, a flirting game to keep the political image was played and the contract was also violated by Chotey (little) Mian sahib, Mr Shahbaz Sharif. Many somersaults were made; first the PML-N joined the federal government and put up an erratic behaviour. Then they realised that being in the government will gradually erase their identity and the opposition will gain as usual. So they decided to move from the treasury benches to the opposition benches. The PML-N adopted the strategy to throw the bait of sharing the government in Punjab, which left the PPP neither here nor there.

The PML-N held 60 percent of Pakistan, but sat in the opposition in the National Assembly and thus enjoyed the position of being in power as well as in the opposition! Why the PPP liked this arrangement is hard to understand. Why did the PPP not take an opposition role in Punjab from the beginning? Also, why did Prime Minister Gilani keep showing up at Raiwind every week dutifully and almost as a subordinate of the Mian brothers? It must have further demoralised the PPP workers. If one goes back in the chain of events it is evident that most of the decisions made by the PPP were endorsed by the PML-N. Then the PML-N shared the deliberations in the Constitution Committee and got everything that was in its favour. So the PML-N marked time, kept its chief minister on the basis of a stay order of the courts, played with the simple PPP prime minister and prolonged its life. On the other hand, the PPP’s Mr Gilani thought he was playing safe and ensuring the PML-N support in case the divide in his own party and the coalition partners became worrisome. As these manoeuvrings were going on to make sure that the political situation maintains the status quo, actual governance was non-existent. The PPP obviously wants to stay in power for five years and reap a rich harvest, the PML-N wants to dig deeper and consolidate with rightists, extremists, and General Zia sympathisers and their mysterious financiers. ‘Financiers’ may not be much of a mystery for those who claim with confidence that substantial funding from al Qaeda was made available to Mian Nawaz Sharif. Also something to think about is that the murdered, Benazir, Taseer, Bhatti, all were enlightened leaders from the PPP. The next target is to involve Musharraf by hook or crook.

The support to the PML-N is strongly committed from the violent minority. Funds, muscle and street power are all made available by exploiting the fair name of ‘Islam’. The recent launching of the total control of Punjab by the PML-N appears to have been ‘celebrated’ through the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti by the Punjabi Taliban.

The future is incredibly depressing for those who believe in the vision of Allama Iqbal and the statesmanship of Quaid-e-Azam.

The important question here to consider is what role the PPP is going to play now. Is the leader of the opposition in Punjab happy with the perks and will stay quiet and let the PML-N continue and expedite the process of radicalisation in Punjab? Would the PPP really stand up and expose and struggle for a Punjab free from fear? Is the federal government of the PPP going to continue to live with the murder of its leaders in Islamabad or is it going to do something about it? Is the PPP left with any commitment, energy or will to stem the tide of radicalisation? At the present time not much can be expected from this party. It seems to be content with the status quo at the cost of the blood of its leaders and maybe does not plan to be an effective political force in future. Its inner conflicts and the disappointed coalition partners are ready to write the postscript to the PPP story. The Bhuttos have been used long enough, so now what?

The PML-N strategy would be to extract every ounce of advantage and seek fresh elections. Sounds simple but politics is not always so. The masses have seen the performance of these parties, they have also seen prices sky-rocketing, law and order shattered, supply shortages, and in-fights within the parties. Would the masses still vote for these feudal and power brokers? They may, under fear.

The writer is a culture and media management specialist, a researcher, author, director and actor

Three schools blown up in northwest Pakistan

Three government-run schools were blown up by militants in northwest Pakistan’s Khyber, Kohat and Swabi regions on Saturday, DawnNews reported.

Government sources said unknown assailants used explosives and destroyed a school in Khyber tribal region’s Bara area Saturday morning.

The school’s walls and ceiling were badly damaged in the attack.

Moreover, another school was attacked by militants using explosives in the Kohat region. At least three rooms in the school building were demolished in the attack.

Whereas, in Swabi, militants blew up a government-run primary school. The school was destroyed as a result.

It is pertinent to note that over 500 schools have been destroyed in attacks across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).

Peshawar to get Rs1.1bn facelift

PESHAWAR, March 4: Dusty and crowded Peshawar can hope to get a cleaner look as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has reached an agreement with a Lahore-based company to establish a solid waste recycling plant in the city soon.

Not only the ambitious project is promised to improve cleanliness in the city by converting the tons of garbage it produces daily into organic fertilizer, and useful household items, but also to provide jobs to about 200 people.

Official sources said the Rs1.1 billion project was discussed at a meeting held on Friday under Senior Minister Bashir Bilour. Secretary local government Aurangzeb Khan, secretary Local Counsel Board (LCB) Attaul Haq, DCO Peshawar Siraj Ahmed and other officials attended the meeting.

Mr Attaul Haq told Dawn that the project would be inaugurated in April and the Lahore-based company would be provided all facilities for installation of the recycling plant.

Already, the provincial government has leased the company 10 kanals of land for the purpose in Dheri Baghbanan area on the outskirts of Peshawar city.

Mr Haq said that under the agreement the company would provide 12 vehicles for shifting waste from different areas to the site of the plant.

He said that solid waste would be converted into organic fertilizers, plastic chairs and other household items. He said that the government would share the profit with the company.

Mr Haq said that it was the first project of its kind in the province and after its success more such projects would be started in other cities.

The management of the proposed recycling plant will buy solid waste from the administrations of four towns at the rate of Rs100 per ton, Mr Haq said while citing rules of the agreement. He said that 1,000 tons waste would be bought daily from the four towns of Peshawar and 200 tons collected from the Cantonment areas.

The LCB secretary said that the city district government was bound to provide 500 tons of solid waste daily to the recycling plant.

Mr Bilour told the meeting that around 200 people would get jobs with the establishment of the recycling plant, says a handout issued after the meeting. He directed the company to ensure swift work on the project.

Early disposal of garbage for ensuring cleanliness in the city was a longstanding demand of the people of Peshawar. They had been calling for creation of a special office of trash commissioner to deal with the continuing garbage crisis.

Mounds of garbage spreading stinking smell could be noticed in the streets of the city. Residents have been resorting to setting trash on fire, raising fears of toxic smoke.

Dumps of garbage in certain parts of the city have been a permanent feature for the last many years, but despite repeated protests of the residents the municipal staff could not respond in an effective way to clean the areas.