Saturday, March 7, 2009

Militants force artists out of tribal regions

KARACHI: Mohammad Shahid scrapes together a living in a city slum by painting birds, flowers, animals and celebrity portraits onto minibuses – and vows never to return to the horrors of Swat valley.After pro-Taliban vigilantes beat and threatened him at gunpoint, he swapped the green pastures and sweeping mountains of his birthplace for the concrete jungle of Pakistan’s smoggy metropolis.It was heart-breaking to leave the idyll of his youth, he said, but there was no choice.‘I had to come here because there was no other chance for me or my family to survive,’ said 45-year-old Shahid.
The memories of the terrifying campaign waged by hardliners to enforce sharia law are still fresh for Shahid, and no fledgling truce between the government and those who chased him out will persuade him to return.‘I’m a painter, an artist. I can’t do anything else to earn a living. The Taliban won’t allow people like us to do our work, which saw my family suffer.’‘What would I do if I return in these conditions? They will remain in control of the region and no one will have freedom to work at will.’The one-time ski resort became a battlefield. Rotar blades from helicopter gunships sliced through the once-clear skies. Warplanes roared overhead.Anything deemed ‘un-Islamic’ was banned. Opponents were beheaded, more than 120 girls’ schools were bombed, entertainment was outlawed.Shahid said he used to make a good living painting landscapes, birds, Pakistani and Indian film stars, pavement caricatures and portraits, which were popular with tourists who flocked to the once-friendly and tolerant valley.But then the fanatics came, the tourists left and life changed for those who made a living from the arts.Suspected Taliban militants kidnapped and murdered a dancer, Shabana, who ignored warnings to quit her profession. Her bullet-riddled body was dumped on the main roundabout of Green Chowk in the main town of Mingora last December.One after another, artists, dancers and singers renounced their profession or fled to more liberal cities such as Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad.Those who flee are haunted by beheadings and bombingsOne day, Shahid said, gun-toting vigilantes walked into his studio.‘They beat and insulted me for doing something that they said was forbidden by religion,’ Shahid said.‘From now on, don’t paint creatures’,’ Shahid quoted one of them as saying, ‘otherwise you’ll suffer an unprecedented punishment’.’Shahid rang his brother, a construction worker in Karachi.‘He asked me to leave immediately. I took my wife and four children, caught a bus from Mingora and came here.’He rented a place in Karachi’s western Baldia Colony slum, found a job painting trucks and buses, and put his children in school.
Shahid said the humidity and pollution of Karachi frequently make his children ill, but he insists he will never again put himself at the mercy of the ‘unpredictable’ militants in Swat.‘One’s life will still be in danger no matter what guarantee they give,’Shahid said. ‘I don’t want to disturb my daughter’s studies. She’s in school
here. The militants could reverse their pledge any moment.’Even in Peshawar, artists have come under threat from the extremists.Nishtar Hall, the only theatre in Peshawar, has been closed for six years.Militants kidnapped Alam Zeb Mujahid, a famous Pashto comedian, from the upscale Hayatabad neighbourhood in January, held him for five days and let him go only after he renounced all drama and film work.Haroon Bacha, a renowned Pashto singer Swabi for the United States when militants demanded he stop singing.‘I started getting threats from the Taliban about a year ago. I was told to stop singing. There were letters, there were phone calls and there were text messages,’ he wrote to AFP in an email message from Washington.‘They used to come to my home very frequently, telling me to stop music or I would be killed.’CD and music shops, Internet cafes and barbers who shave beards – all have been targeted and many shut down. Some of those brave enough to stay open have hired private security.
And for many of those who have left, the bombings and beheadings stay with them.
‘My little children still scream when they see planes flying. Children run for shelter in Swat when they see planes or helicopters,’ says Hashim Khan, a 37-year-old labourer who lives near Karachi airport.‘They saw planes bombing in Swat. It still haunts their dreams. I saw bodies lying near Green Chowk, the roundabout where Shabana was dumped.‘The area once symbolised our city’s beauty but now it has become ‘khooni’ (bloody) Chowk,’ he said.


ANKARA, Turkey - For one of his first foreign visits, President Barack Obama will call on NATO ally Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country viewed as critical to aiding the U.S. pullout from Iraq, turning around the Afghanistan war and blocking Iran's nuclear ambitions.The invasion of Iraq has strained the long friendship between the U.S. and Turkey, a Western-style democracy that straddles Europe and the Middle East and has an Islamic-oriented government. Obama's visit, expected at the end of a European trip in early April, would mark an improvement in ties."We share a commitment to democracy, a secular constitution, respect for religious freedom and belief and in free market and a sense of global responsibility," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Saturday in announcing Obama's plans after meeting with Turkish leaders in the capital.The visit is "a reflection of the value we place on our friendship with Turkey," the chief American diplomat said on the last stop of her weeklong trip to five countries. The president asked her to make the announcement, she added.Turkey had advised against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and refused to permit U.S. ground forces to launch elements of the attack from Turkish soil.In a more cordial atmosphere now, Washington and Ankara are consulting on ways Turkey can help facilitate the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Turkey has said it is ready to serve as an exit route for the Americans. The U.S. air base at Incirlik, Turkey, has been used for transfer of U.S. troops and equipment to Iraq and Afghanistan."We have to discuss what will pass, what kind of equipment," Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said at a news conference with Clinton. "We are ready to cooperate."Neither Clinton nor the White House would confirm a date for Obama's visit. But it probably will follow his trip to Europe from March 31 to April 5 that includes a NATO summit and meetings with European Union leaders; Turkey is seeking EU membership. Obama's only trip since taking office Jan. 20 has been a day visit to Canada.The announcement drew an immediate question about whether Obama, who has pledged to work to repair America's reputation worldwide, had settled on Turkey as the site for a promised major speech in a Muslim capital. The answer was no — that will come during a later trip. Speculation has run high that Obama might give it in Indonesia, the world's most populous Islamic nation and his home for four years as a child."We've got a unique opportunity to reboot America's image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular. So we need to take advantage of that," Obama said in a December newspaper interview, though he declined to say whether the speech would happen in his first year.Obama's ascension to the White House won cheers around the globe as a sign that America would be more embracing and open to change. In his Inauguration Day address, the new president said, "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." Obama also gave his first formal television interview as president to the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya network.Before Obama sees NATO leaders, his national security council plans to finish an Afghanistan policy review. The manner in which that policy is announced is expected to be packaged with direct outreach to the Muslim world.The U.S. has about 38,000 troops in Afghanistan and is the largest contributor to a joint NATO force. NATO also has about 30,000 non-U.S. troops there.The war effort in Afghanistan has deteriorated the past two years as the Taliban and extremist insurgency has gained strength and U.S. and allied casualties have increased. Obama has approved sending an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan this spring and summer, but he also has emphasized the need to have a broader, unified international approach to the war.The Turks think the U.S. should put more focus on expanding and improving the Afghan security forces and on pressing Afghan authorities to reconcile with elements of the Islamic insurgency, rather than on putting tens of thousands more U.S. troops.Incirlik could take on a greater role following Kyrgyzstan's recent order that the U.S. vacate on air base on its territory that is a transit point for 15,000 troops and 500 tons of cargo each month to and from Afghanistan.Obama answered "no" when asked in a New York Times interview Friday whether the war was being won and raised the possibility of reconciliation with elements of the Taliban.On Iran, which shares a border with Turkey, the Obama administration has raised the prospect of diplomatic engagement as part of a new direction in U.S. foreign policy. But a chief source of friction is Iran's nuclear policy. The U.S. and other countries believe the program is intended to produce weapons; the Iranians say it is designed for civilian energy production. Yet during her trip, Clinton accused Iran of seeking to "intimidate as far as they think their voice can reach."Turkey supports Iran's right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful use but wants Tehran to be transparent about its nuclear program and favors dialogue.In addition to her talks with Turkish leaders, Clinton appeared on a popular TV talk show that focuses on women's issues. Several women asked Clinton about Michelle Obama, whom the secretary of state praised as a good role model. None brought up Clinton's personal life, but one asked her about a comment she made during her swearing-in ceremony at the State Department on Feb. 2 in which she thanked her husband for "a lifetime of — all kinds of experiences." The woman asked how she coped with those experiences.Clinton replied that she relied on forgiveness, friends, family and faith."I don't know anybody whose life is smooth sailing. If you meet such a person I'd like to know him because I've lived a long time and I've yet to meet such a person," she said.

Bombings kill 11 in Badaber, Darra Adam Khel

PESHAWAR: A bomb-laden car exploded Saturday in northwest Pakistan as police tried to pull a body from it, authorities said, killing seven police and a bystander as international fears grow over security and political stability in the nuclear-armed country.Al Qaeda, Taliban and linked militants have staged numerous attacks against security forces along Pakistan's northwest border with Afghanistan, but Saturday's appeared to be the first to use a body as a lure.It occurred in the Badaber area, where residents recently evicted militants with help from police, prompting threats of retaliation.Separately, a roadside bomb struck a military convoy in the northwest town of Darra Adam Khel, killing three passers-by and wounding four troops, government official Asif Khan said.On Saturday, officers were dispatched to Badaber, which lies on the outskirts of Peshawar, after an unknown caller told them a body was in a parked car, according to Police Chief Rahim Shah.'Police went there. They found the white car. They also saw a body inside, but when they were pulling it out, the car bomb went off,' he said, calling the set-up a 'new technique.'Footage from the scene showed a police van whose front was decimated.The attack occurred just outside the Khyber tribal region, a part of Pakistan's tribal belt where military forces have staged offensives to stem militant activity.


PESHAWAR: Terrified, locked up at home and courting death if they go out alone, women oppressed by extremists in Swat have nothing to celebrate on International Women’s Day.Nearly 100 years after the annual day was created to mark the struggle for equal rights for half the world’s population, most women in Swat look blank and go silent when asked about gender rights and discrimination.They’re too frightened to speak in public. They can only leave the confines of their homes accompanied by a male relative, their bodies hidden in veils.‘How can I tell you my name, are you crazy? I was told not to give my name to anyone because the Taliban could hurt me,’ one girl in the ninth grade told AFP by telephone from the former ski resort.The girl’s dreams of becoming a doctor are over. She worries the Taliban will stop her finishing school, regardless of her parents’ support.‘My mother told me I can do anything, but my inner soul is shattered.’‘Tell me if you stop women getting an education where will a sick woman go? Do you want her to go to a male doctor? I was told that education is compulsory for every man and woman in Islam but the Taliban destroyed our schools.’Militants have destroyed 191 schools in the valley, 122 of them for girls, leaving 62,000 pupils with nowhere to study, local officials say.Huma Batool – not her real name – is a 42-year-old mother of two who dices with death to teach girls at a private school in the region’s main town Mingora.‘We have to veil ourselves and wear shuttlecock burqas. We are not safe even at home. We fear the Taliban all the time. Life is becoming worse and worse for women in Swat,’ she told AFP by telephone.Educated and financially self-sufficient, she cannot even pop to the shops without a male relative, leaving her frequently couped up at home for hours, waiting for a suitable escort to become available.‘You cannot imagine how I manage to get to school, practically every day I think about leaving the job and sitting at home.’‘Life bores us to tears. There is no entertainment. We can’t even think about cable TV, cinema, film and music. Imagine I can’t even go shopping or to the bazaar as women are banned by Taliban.’Salma Javed, 35, is a nurse at a local hospital, where women – however sick – can only be admitted if accompanied by a male relative.
‘Every woman fears she will be killed if she comes out, so even sick and pregnant women have to visit hospital with their husbands.’Salma would love to leave, but she cannot scrape together the money to set herself up in Peshawar.‘Now we are waiting to see what will happen after the peace deal, but let me tell you things will not change for women,’ she said.The only light in Shahnaz Kousar’s life is that the Taliban – at least for now – are allowing her to go to school in Mingora. But outside her 10th grade classroom, the daily pleasures of shopping and make-up are gone.‘We are now totally depending on Taliban. There’s not a single shop left where I can go and buy cosmetics, all shops selling women’s things are either closed or empty.’‘I remember when I used to go to this market with my mother and sisters, but now it seems like a dream.’