Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Taliban of Timbuktu

BEFORE the recent French intervention in Mali began, 412,000 people had already left their homes in the country’s north, fleeing torture, summary executions, recruitment of child soldiers and sexual violence against women at the hands of fundamentalist militants. Late last year, in Algeria and southern Mali, I interviewed dozens of Malians from the north, including many who had recently fled. Their testimonies confirmed the horrors that radical Islamists, self-proclaimed warriors of God, have inflicted on their communities. First, the fundamentalists banned music in a country with one of the richest musical traditions in the world. Last July, they stoned an unmarried couple for adultery. The woman, a mother of two, had been buried up to her waist in a hole before a group of men pelted her to death with rocks. And in October the Islamist occupiers began compiling lists of unmarried mothers. Even holy places are not safe. These self-styled “defenders of the faith” demolished the tombs of local Sufi saints in the fabled city of Timbuktu. The armed groups also reportedly destroyed many churches in the north, where displaced members of the small Christian minority told me they had previously felt entirely accepted. Such Qaeda-style tactics, and the religious extremism that demands them, are completely alien to the mainstream of Malian Islam, which is known for its tradition of tolerance. That openness is exactly what the jihadists seek to crush. “The fact that we are building a new country on the base of Shariah is just something the people living here will have to accept,” the Islamist police commissioner in the town of Gao said last August. Until military action began this month, local citizens were on their own in resisting the imposition of Shariah — and they fought back valiantly. A radio journalist was severely beaten by Islamist gunmen after speaking on the radio against amputations. Women marched through the streets of Timbuktu against Islamist diktats on veiling until gunfire ended their protest. The acting principal of a coed high school in Gao told me his school had been occupied by militants from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. They announced that they had come to protect the premises. Instead, they quickly stole its computers, refrigerators and chairs. “We consider ourselves under occupation,” the principal told me. “We consider ourselves martyrs.” He has risked his life to keep his school open, to continue to educate boys and girls together, though he must put them on opposite sides of the classroom now. “My presence creates hope for my students. I cannot kill this hope,” he told me. Since the jihadist takeover, Gao’s economy has come to a standstill. Every Thursday, there are theocratic show trials in Arabic, a language many residents do not speak. The fundamentalists focus on teaching the predominantly Muslim population of Gao “how to be Muslim.” Like Al Shabab in Somalia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, they have a morality brigade that patrols the city, checking who is not wearing a sufficient veil and whose telephone sins with a musical ringtone. Speaking to a woman in public is an offense; this ban has caused such terror that some men flee in fear if they simply see a woman on the street. The principal had been attending public punishments to document the atrocities. This meant repeatedly watching his fellow citizens get flogged. He has seen what it looks like when a “convict” has his foot sawed off. Close to tears, he said: “No one can stand it, but it is imposed on us. Those of us who attend, we cry.” Some local and international opponents of military intervention have advocated negotiation with the rebel groups as an alternative. But negotiating with groups who believe they are God’s agents and whose imposed mode of governance is utterly alien to the people of northern Mali is unlikely to succeed, especially while the north remains occupied. “The population is not for the Shariah” is the refrain I heard again and again — from those displaced from Timbuktu and Kidal; from women and men; from Muslims and Christians. The preservation of Mali’s tradition of secularism is essential for them all. Policy decisions regarding this potential Afghanistan-in-the-Sahara must be informed by the fact that what is happening there is not simply a question of regional or global security, but of basic human rights. The current intervention in Mali could deal a decisive blow to the recent advance of fundamentalism across North Africa, but only if French and West African soldiers take care to distinguish between civilians and their jihadist oppressors, who hide among the innocent. They must also avoid simply shifting the problem elsewhere in the region. After all, one of the causes of the Islamist occupation of northern Mali was the displacement of armed men from Libya after the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. Algeria had lost hundreds of thousands of its own people to fundamentalist armed groups since the 1990s. Since then, many Algerian jihadists have crossed the border into northern Mali, reproducing the problem there. Some Malians fear that foreign intervention may have grave consequences for their homes and livelihoods. But most of the displaced northerners I met last month, before France intervened, had already decided that “the risks of nonintervention are 10,000 times worse than the risks of intervention,” as a women’s rights activist told me in Bamako. Or, as a young refugee from Gao whom I met in Algeria put it: “We do not want war, but if these people don’t leave us alone, we have to fight them.”
Karima Bennoune, a professor of international law at the University of California, Davis, is the author of the forthcoming book “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories From the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism.”

Balochistan: WFP gives medical equipment worth Rs16.2m

The Express Tribune
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) on Wednesday handed over medical equipment worth Rs16.2 million to the health department in Balochistan. During a ceremony, Dr Masood Qadir Nosherwani, Director General Health Services received the equipment from Jean-Luc Siblot, the WFP representative in Pakistan. Siblot said, “During 2013, we are investing in the nutrition department to overcome food security situation and malnutrition problem.” He said that WFP has also trained over 1,400 staff of the health department and NGO partners in managing supplementary feeding and in commodity management. The current donation of equipment includes blood pressure apparatus, delivery tables, oxygen cylinders, infant scales, and furniture for patients and staff.

‘US, Pak moving out of tense phase’

The United States and Pakistan are moving away from the tense phase that marred their relations last year, according to a senior US commander in Afghanistan. At a Pentagon briefing, Deputy Commander of the US Forces in Afghanistan Lt Gen. James Terry said that after 2014 the United States would focus on providing `right resources’ to the Afghans so that they could hold territory from insurgents. “From a military perspective, we are moving away from the tense phase with Pakistan,” said Gen Terry when asked about relations with Islamabad which nose-dived after a series of incidents last year put the two allies on a collision course. The general, however, conceded that a trilateral mechanism, which aims to improve cooperation among the Pakistani, Afghan and US militaries will `take time to get in shape’. But the US commander also noted that Pakistan and Afghanistan were now talking directly to each other on border issues, which was a good sign. He noted that Afghanistan and Pakistan were also talking to each other on political levels, which had a `potential’ to improving their ties. He said the cooperation centres the United States helped establish at Pak-Afghan border were also a mechanism to address these issues.The process of flag meeting of Nato, Afghan and Pakistani military officials had also started. Responding to a question, Gen Terry said it was difficult to say how many insurgents were still operating along the Pak-Afghan border, although some estimated them to be around 20,000. Asked to comment on media reports that the insurgents may resurface after the US withdrawal, he said it’s difficult to predict future scenarios at this stage.Gen Terry rejected a suggestion that the US withdrawal would make Afghanistan more vulnerable. “We want Afghans to stand up, not stand alone,” he said, noting that the international community had made commitments to support Afghans during the transition period. He pointed out that Afghan security forces had already started shouldering security responsibilities, terrorist safe heavens in the country had been greatly reduced and insider attacks were also being checked. The US commander pointed out that some Afghan clerics had also started speaking against suicide attacks, which was encouraging. Gen Terry said that since Afghan forces would not have adequate close air support, the United States would boost their surface fire capability. He also signalled that US forces won’t just be sitting on their bases and advising headquarters staff. “This is not simply about doing less,” the US general said, but rather about giving the `right resources’ to the Afghans, at the battalion-level and above, so they could hold territory from insurgents. Gen Terry noted that `some of this training of Afghan forces will obviously have to be done in contact’ with insurgents — especially providing some of the `enabling capabilities’, like the air support that only the US can provide for now.

13 children hurt in Peshawar school fire

Thirteen children were injured when fire broke out in a private school located in Nothia area of Peshawar Thursday morning, Geo News reported. According to sources, fire started to engulf the classrooms of a private school due to short circuit that occurred in a mobile tower fixed within the school boundary. As a result of blaze, thirteen children received burn injuries who have been shifted to Lady Reading Hospital for treatment. Fire brigades and rescue teams reached the site soon after getting the news.

Balochistan cauldron

A Business Recorder exclusive notes that only 11 out of a total of 39 clauses of the Aghaz-e-Huqooq-e-Balochistan Package (AHBP) - a package that was specifically designed to heal the festering wounds of the Baloch people - have been implemented so far and that too partially. Nasir Ali Shah, a long time PPP loyalist who has never hesitated from telling it like it is, categorically stated that the government failed to implement the economic aspects of the package. He highlighted the government's failure to connect Gwadar port with other parts of the country leave alone develop the port as promised, or to comply with its commitment to provide jobs to 5,000 Baloch youth in federal institutions. Funding committed for special incentives to the Bugti and different tribes from Kohlu have not been released and while some teachers were hired under the package yet in spite of the passage of two years they have not been regularised. Shah acknowledged that some 4,000 jobs were provided but only to those from the Marri tribe from Kohlu, a factor that smacks of political favouritism. The politically challenging aspects of the package have also not been complied with including constituting a commission that would investigate the death of Nawab Akbar Bugti leave alone actually initiating the probe itself. Targeted killings have not abated and though the numbers of the disappeared has declined mainly due to what is regarded as Supreme Court intervention yet few are under the misapprehension that the policy itself has changed in the relevant circles. There is no doubt about the fact that the PPP-led government's start in terms of healing the wounds of the Baloch people was propitious with the Chairman of the party Asif Ali Zardari, who had not then been elected as the country's President, publicly apologising to the Baloch people for atrocities committed against them. This was followed by the announcement of the AHBP in 2009, however, thence began a series of government decisions that not only allowed the status quo to continue but also further alienated its exiled leadership with no government functionary opting to meet exiled leader Sardar Akhtar Mengal who came to the country for four days to make a statement before the Supreme Court. Fortunately, Sardar Mengal did meet with several leaders of the Opposition including Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan leaving one with the hope that the process of dialogue with the disgruntled Baloch leadership is not dead. While resources remain an issue and there is little doubt that the treasury remains strapped for cash with analysts arguing that the fiscal deficit would be double what was budgeted (ie 7.5 percent instead of the budgeted 4.2 percent) yet the Ministry of Finance has been disbursing development funds to the PPP and coalition partners' parliamentarians for political gains in the forthcoming elections; yet unfortunately Balochistan remains a non-priority. In addition, recent events have led to the realisation that the Baloch people are living under conditions that are reminiscent of the Wild West with the elected leaders and police officials engaged in illegal activities including kidnapping for ransom. The decision by the federal government to sack the provincial government was not voluntary as one would have hoped but instead in response to the peaceful protest on Alamdar Road in Quetta for four days in sub-zero temperatures by the Hazara community, a protest that echoed in other major cities of the country including Karachi. The protesters refused to bury their dead in the aftermath of another targeted genocide till Governor's rule was imposed. The Prime Minister finally accepted all the demands though the law and order situation remains tense and the army has not yet been called. In short, it is imperative that implementation of AHBP begins in letter and spirit if the country is to succeed in forestalling further alienation of the common man in Balochistan.