Thursday, August 27, 2009

Loss of 4 relatives traumatises Swati student

PESHAWAR: A young MBA student traumatised by the death of four members of her family due to the violence in Swat is finding it difficult to continue her education.Razia, a student of Qurtuba University Peshawar, living in a private hostel, said she was unable to concentrate on her studies due to unbearable loss. “After enduring all those sufferings, it isn’t easy to focus on my studies,” she told ‘The News’.
Hailing from Matta tehsil, Razia lost her 13-year-old brother Mehran Khan, her uncle Muhammad Nisar, and cousins Kashif and Arif Khan. Her father, Yousaf Khan, a trader, was seriously injured, while the rest of her family moved to her grandfather’s home at Sumbat Cham, Matta, and later to Peshawar.Razia is the eldest daughter of Yousaf Khan. She has four sisters and three brothers enrolled at various educational institutes in Swat. She said their schools had been destroyed as a result of militancy and military operation.“My younger brother, Imran, developed a psychological disorder while my father is still hospitalised,” she added. Razia shared her tale with ‘The News’ how her family suffered and her life turned tragic. She said: “Following the launch of the military operation in Swat in the first week of May 2009, the Taliban occupied our mosque named Masjid Sidiqqia. On May 7, the security forces started pounding our area with mortar guns. Four of our family members died in the shelling and our market, dealing in cement, bricks and iron bars, was also destroyed.Our two trucks and two cars parked there were buried under the falling debris of the buildings due to the shelling.” Razia has fond memories of her hometown, Matta. “It was a beautiful town and in summer tourists would come to enjoy the scenery and pleasant weather. Now the infrastructure has been destroyed due to Taliban attacks and the subsequent military action. People live in fear and there is uncertainty and hopelessness,” she opined. She pointed out that most of the government-run educational institutions for females were already closed due to fear of militants’ attacks. She said that many parents were convinced that it would be unsafe to send their daughters to schools. She said female teachers too are worried while performing their duties at the schools. “I think people of Swat have been pushed back by 20 years due to the militancy and military operation. The economy has been damaged, tourism is finished and educational institutions, markets, hotels, banks, etc have suffered irreparable damage,” she added.

Struggling to earn a crust in Swat
MINGORA- People living in and around Swat Valley's principal city of Mingora are facing tough economic choices as a direct result of the recent clashes between government forces and militants in northwestern Pakistan. "There is a curfew in many places outside Mingora. People cannot work or move freely, and this means they cannot earn," said Shaukat Salim, a Mingora-based lawyer and human rights activist. Many people were being forced to sell household goods, jewelry or any other belongings to survive. "Soon they will have nothing left to sell," he said. Others say they have lost their livelihoods because of the damage caused to infrastructure by over two months of fierce fighting.
"I used to earn around Rs 200 [US$2.40] per trip by transporting goods to the market for farmers or those who manufactured small items of various kinds. But now the roads are so badly damaged only donkeys or other animals can move along them, and my van is useless," said local trader Daud Ali. "I was terrified my vehicle would be destroyed during the fighting. Now I wish that that had happened. It serves no purpose for me," he said, adding that checkpoints were also restricting movement. The destruction of shops, schools and offices has led to income loss for many others. "My husband was a cleaner at a local clinic. But it has been closed as the building was damaged and the owner has gone to Peshawar for good. Now we beg from our neighbours," Azra Bibi, a local resident, told IRIN. She said local shops had stopped giving her and others credit for fear they would not be able to pay it back.
Restoring livelihoods
Sebastien Brack of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has been active in conflict-hit areas for many weeks, said: "Livelihood is a key concern, as many people used up their savings during the time of displacement and had to borrow large sums." Food packages were being distributed so that "people don't have to spend more and build up more debt," Brack said. Despite such efforts, people who have returned to Mingora and other conflict-hit zones after weeks of displacement are struggling to manage. "Our land has been destroyed; we have no stocks of food and it will take a year before we can grow vegetables to sell," said Karimullah Khan, a farmer from a village on the outskirts of Mingora. Mian Iftikhar Hussain, minister of information in the North West Frontier Province government, said: "We are aware of the problems people face in Swat and are doing everything we can." Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani earlier this month announced a development plan for Swat which included programmes to increase access to livelihoods.
High cost of food
Meanwhile, food prices remain higher in Mingora than in places outside the conflict zone and supplies are erratic. A 20kg sack of wheat flour costs US$10-20 in Mingora, but under $7.40 outside the conflict zone. "There is a need for food assistance in Swat, especially for people who remained stuck there through the weeks of conflict and received no help at all," Amjad Jamal, a spokesman for the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Pakistan, told IRIN, adding that WFP would be carrying out an assessment to ascertain exactly what help was needed.

Fraud claims cloud growing Karzai lead
The head of Barack Obama's team monitoring Afghanistan's election said yesterday that he was "extremely concerned" about persistent reports of fraud and that he would press for the claims to be fully investigated.

Timothy Carney made the comments during a meeting with Pashtun tribal chiefs and and the presidential candidate they had supported, Sarwar Ahmedzai, after the chiefs threatened to stage a protest against alleged attempts by President Hamid Karzai to steal the election.
Meanwhile, a second partial release of election results showed Mr Karzai widening his lead over his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

The latest count showed that the incumbent president had boosted his lead over his former foreign minister from just over 10,000 to 91,000. The latest returns lift Mr Karzai's share of the vote to 44.8 per cent, with Mr Abdullah now at 35.1 per cent. The count is based on returns from 17 per cent of polling stations nationwide.

The announcement of the latest count was interrupted by another candidate, Ramzan Bashardost, who claimed that the public tallying of the votes before more than a thousand complaints of electoral malpractice had been investigated was unconstitutional. Mr Bashardost had run a poorly funded but suprisingly well-supported campaign on an anti-corruption ticket.

The tribal leaders from Paktiya in the southern Pashtun belt descended on the capital, Kabul, to hold a protest rally against what they claimed was the theft of their votes by representatives of Mr Karzai. The protest, organised by the candidate from their area, Mr Ahmedzai, was called off after an appeal by Western officials who thought it might spark violence in the current atmosphere of public anger and disillusionment over the elections.

One Pashtun elder, Mir Ali, said to Mr Carney: "We will take to the mountains and fight as we have done in the past if this election is decided by fraud. Karzai may call himself a Pashtun but he has sold himself to the warlords."

Mr Carney said: "Our view is that all evidence of fraud should be given to the investigators and thoroughly examined in deciding the result [of the election]. The US and the international community are very concerned that this takes place."

Mr Ahmedzai said: "Karzai has surrounded himself with corrupt people and his brothers are corrupt. We reserve the right to take any action necessary if the fraud is not dealt with. More of our people are coming to Kabul and they are not going to tolerate the election being stolen."

Five presidents to mourn at funeral for Edward Kennedy

Five American presidents are due to attend the funeral mass as Senator Edward Kennedy is laid to rest on Saturday.President Obama will read the eulogy, breaking off his holiday on Martha's Vineyard once more to pay his respects to his "dear friend", and former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. Bush and Jimmy Carter are expected to be among the mourners.The private Catholic mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Hope in Kennedy's home town of Boston will be the climax of three days of mourning for the head of the Kennedy clan and patriarch of the Democratic Party, who died of brain cancer on Tuesday night at the age of 77.The solemnities begin at noon today (1600 GMT), with a private Mass for family members at Kennedy's sprawling home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.An hour later a motorcade will leave the compound for a slow journey to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, where the Senator's body will lie in state until late Friday.On the journey the hearse will pass milestones in Kennedy's life — St Stephen's Church, where his mother Rose was baptised and buried; the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenaway Park in Boston, which Kennedy helped to create; and the site of Kennedy's office in his first job as an assistant district attorney for Massachusetts from 1960-62.As the motorcade drives past historic Faneuil Hall, the Mayor of Boston will ring a mourning bell — one of innumerable tributes to the departed politician.All government buildings across the country have lowered the Stars and Stripes to half mast, and last night the Lightship Nantucket, which has marked the dangerous shoals off the Massachusetts coast for 150 years, steamed in alongside Kennedy's house and illuminated his schooner.The Senator's body will lie in a closed casket at the library, while a military honour guard and members of his family, friends and staff stand vigil.Thousands of members of the public are expected to file through to pay their last respects, past enlarged photographs of Kennedy at different stages of his life.On Friday night, an invitation-only memorial service will be held at the library during which Joe Biden, the US Vice-President, and Senator John McCain, last year's defeated Republican presidential candidate, are both expected to speak.The family chose Our Lady of Perpetual Hope a cavernous 19th-century building that seats 1,300, for Saturday's funeral Mass because it was the church where Kennedy went every day to pray while his daughter, Kara, was being successfully treated for lung cancer in a nearby Boston hospital."Over time, the Basilica took on a special meaning for him as a place of hope and optimism," said a statement released by the Senator's office.
After the service Kennedy's body will be transported to Virginia, where at 5.30pm (2130 GMT) it will be laid to rest alongside the graves of his brothers, John and Robert at Arlington National Cemetery, on a hillside overlooking Washington.John F. Kennedy's wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and baby son Patrick, who died aged just two days, are also buried nearby.Kennedy is eligible to be buried at Arlington because of service in Congress and his two years in the Army from 1951-53, as a military policeman stationed in Paris.As the arrangements are made for Kennedy's obsequies, other moves are being made to adapt to the void he has left in American political life.Deval Patrick, the Governor of Massachusetts, has thrown his support behind a proposal to change state law to allow the Governor to nominate an interim senator until a fresh election can be held.Kennedy himself made the request in a letter to Governor Patrick last week, writing that it was wrong for Massachusetts to go without a senator "at such a critical time" — a reference to the epic congressional battle over Mr Obama's healthcare reforms. Since his death, the state only has John Kerry in the Senate."I'd like the legislature to take up the Bill quickly and get it to my desk and I will sign it," said Governor Patrick.Meanwhile Democrats in Congress appear to be using the death of Kennedy, known as a liberal lion who championed social reform, as an extra weapon in their battle to get Mr Obama's legislation through.Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, has argued that the healthcare reforms should be passed in Kennedy's name and spirit.Republican Rush Limbaugh has said that any such sentiments would make him "vomit".But the tactic has been used successfully before. Two years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson invoked the Kennedy name to pass the Civil Rights legislation, as well as the welfare state laws Medicare and Medicaid.

About 90% IDPs in Pakistan's Swat return home
Around 90 percent of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to the military operations in northwestern Pakistan's Swat have so far returned to their homes, a UN humanitarian official said here Thursday.

"Around 90 percent Swat displaced have returned back to their homes. The figure so far stand at 1.6 million out of total 2.3 million IDPs from different areas," said Martin Mogwanja, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Pakistan.

"During past week, average 500 families returned to their homes daily. Earlier, the return rate was faster as 1,400 families use to return their homes every day," Mogwanja said at a news conference.

He said as large number of IDPs have returned to their homes, now only 454 school buildings are under their use out of total 4,700 school buildings.

"All the rest buildings have been vacated by the IDPs and hopefully will be used for educational purposes with the start of the educational session," he said.

Revealing the findings of the recent mission to Swat area, Mogwanja said, due to scattered attacks by independent groups, still there are some security concerns. Secondly, he said, check points and barricades are causing significant delay in movement of IDPs and relief goods. Thirdly, he said, early recovery activity for provision of basic facilities was urgently required as 600,000 IDPs were on their way back home.

"They will also be needing basic facilities, infrastructure and livelihood. Four distribution hubs have been set up for providing them food and non-food items," he said.

Adding to Mogwanja, the WHO Country Representative Khalif Bille Mohamud said, 25 health facilities were partially and five were totally damaged during the operation.

Mohamud said after recovery five facilities out of these 25, have started functioning and he mentioned the shortage of human resource, especially lady medical workers.

Girls victimized by Taliban find safe haven to learn

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- In Pakistan's combustible Swat Valley, some girls refuse to wear uniforms so they can make it to school without being harmed.Other girls hide textbooks in their shawls to escape harassment.School-age girls are among the victims in the fierce fighting between government soldiers and Taliban militants in the Swat Valley. The Pakistani government said it has flushed much of the Taliban out of the area, but some fighting persists.Many girls remain banned from schools. Dozens of their schools have been bombed, and militants have burned books.A new program has taken 26 girls out of the battle-scarred region to Islamabad for a 10-day retreat, where they can learn in safer surroundings.A group of college students of Pakistani background is helping the girls. Among them are Shiza Shahid, 20, from California's Stanford University, who organized the program called Shajar-e-llm, or Tree of Knowledge.Shahid said she was moved to help after hearing about how the girls struggled to get an education."I think we were so angry, upset and emotional that we decided we have to do something," she said.Though well-intentioned, the program sometimes seems disorganized."We need support. We need unfortunately more organization, more of the bureaucratic nitty-gritty that you don't want to do, but you have to," Shahid said. "We are young, and that does come with the burden as not being equally trusted or seen as capable."Nonetheless, the group has ambitions for a boys' learning retreat as well.The lessons are simple enough -- confidence-building exercises, critical-thinking lessons -- all framed in the context of Islamic values.
The girls -- ages 11 to 14 -- spoke about their dreams. One wants to meet a poet; another wants to learn calligraphy. Another wants to grow up to lead Pakistan.
"I want to become president and rule this country in a good way," said 12-year-old Malila.One day during the retreat, the girls were taught a song about freedom of speech. As a guitarist strummed, the girls sang that God gives everyone the right to free speech and no one can take it away.Free speech seemed to end with the song, however. The girls could not risk talking about Taliban harassment, because the militants' version of Islamic law lingers. Such Islamic law, or shariah, also keeps females from going to school or going outside without their husbands.The United Nations estimates that 375,000 Swat Valley residents fled their homes during fighting that started in April. In all, 2.5 million Pakistanis were displaced in what was said to be one of the largest human migrations in recent history.Many residents have returned to their homes, but peace has not been completely restored to the region.
And soon, the girls at the learning retreat will return home to the Swat Valley as well.Organizers said they hope the girls will carry a new love for education.
"There were tears and there were tough moments," said Madihah Akhter, a volunteer with the program. "But the girls surprised me. They were really resilient. They were beyond their years."

Afghanistan Election Results On Hold for at Least Two Days

Afghanistan's voters are going to have to wait a bit longer to receive further results of ballot counting from last week's presidential election.

Results from Afghanistan's disputed presidential election are in a further state of limbo. The organization tabulating the votes says no further returns will be made public until Saturday, at the earliest.

The Independent Election Commission has announced no reason for the delay. But one official with the IEC acknowledges the counting is proceeding slower than expected because of computer software glitches.

The senior project officer for the team in Kabul from Democracy International, Bill Gallery, tells VOA News this should not be a cause for alarm.

"We are not super concerned about a couple days delay," he said. "We have been looking at the numbers released so far and there is some information there to use. We would be worried if they delayed any further. But I think this could just be an administrative issue."

It has been one week since the election. Results from only 17 percent of the polling stations have been released. Those returns show incumbent President Hamid Karzai with 43 percent of the vote. His closest rival among a long list of challengers, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, has 34 percent.

Mr. Karzai will need more than 50 percent of the total to avoid a run-off election next month.

A number of the contenders have alleged widespread irregularities. The Election Complaints Commission, partly appointed by the United Nations, says it is prioritizing dozens of serious allegations for investigation.

Violence involving Taliban insurgents who vowed to disrupt the election is continuing.

Officials in Paktika province say a regional Taliban commander and five of his followers have been captured following a fierce six-hour gun battle at a hospital there.

The Taliban leader, named as Mullah Muslim, had gone to the medical facility to seek treatment. Provincial officials say the commander had been wounded during election-day violence.

U.S. and Afghan forces, tipped off that the Taliban had entered the hospital, responded with troops and a helicopter gunship.

Officials say 12 insurgents and one soldier with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force died in the clash.

At Least 22 Dead in Pakistan Bombing

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A suicide attacker pretending to offer food to a group of Pakistani police officers detonated his explosives among them on Thursday, killing at least 22 people as they gathered to break the Ramadan fast on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, officials and witnesses said.

The attack in or near Tokham, a post on the main route for moving supplies to NATO and American forces in Afghanistan, took place just before dusk, as the men prepared to eat on the lawn outside their barracks. Because the attacker offered food, he was welcomed to join the gathering in accordance with local tradition during Ramadan, said Sajid Shinwari, a policeman who witnessed the attack.

A militant group affiliated with the Taliban later claimed responsibility for the attack, and a spokesman for the group called a local reporter to warn of further strikes against security forces if Pakistan did not stop NATO supplies from passing through its territory.

Medical workers described a chaotic scene at the hospital and blast site.

“So far, we have 22 bodies brought here, but there are many others so we don’t know the exact casualty figures,” said Dr. Zar Alam Shinwari, a local doctor. “We have asked for ambulances from other towns. The situation is bad.”

It was unclear how many of the dead were police officers.

The group that claimed responsibility for the attack, the Dr. Abdullah Azzam Brigade, is based in the Orakzai tribal region and is named after a fiery Palestinian scholar who was a mentor to Osama bin Laden and was killed in a car bomb in Peshawar in 1989.

In another episode, at least four people were killed earlier Thursday in the South Waziristan tribal region in a missile strike by a remotely controlled United States aircraft aimed at a meeting of local Taliban militants, according to local news reports.

The attack took place in the town of Kanigurram, in an area considered to be a stronghold of Waliur Rehman, the man the Taliban chose as its regional leader after Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, died from injuries sustained in another drone attack earlier this month.

A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the number of dead from the strike could rise and that some foreign militants might also have died.