The dangerous road to truth By Ayesha Hasan

On October 31, the Tribal Union of Journalists (TUJ) Pakistan was awarded a human rights award by a German organisation in a ceremony held in Berlin. The union president, Safdar Dawar, a native of Miramshah, North Waziristan, accepted the award on behalf of the union, his fellow journalists in Fata and all his colleagues who were killed while on duty.

When I first met him, he shared with me the story of his abduction by the intelligence agencies in Khost, Afghanistan in early 2000. He was released nine hours later following intervention by some influential people, and after he was found ‘clean’. The last time I met him in Kabul, he broke the news of the award to me. But the journey towards this award has not been easy. A lot of effort has been made and sacrifices rendered, with little or no appreciation and recognition.

Journalists in the tribal areas make daily attempts at survival in the rugged mountains that are witness to gunshots, cross-border shelling, militant attacks and targeted killings. In 2012 alone, five journalists lost their lives in the area. Being a native of the region myself, I realise how difficult it is to pursue a career in journalism. While I have seen journalists in my contact-chain being killed, I have also seen several quit and move to relatively ‘safe’ careers.

The pursuit of truth has never been free of risk but the peril level that journalists in Fata now face is something they have never encountered before. The journalist fraternity mourned for Abdul Haq Baloch, an ARY News correspondent who was shot on September 29 in Khuzdar and it condemned the October 7 killing of Mushtaq Khand in Khairpur, who worked for Dharti TV Network and Mehran, but what steps has the government taken to make this job safer?

Media organisations do not provide their war and militancy reporters life insurance or a job to a family member in case of loss of life on duty. Eighty per cent of journalists are underpaid and do not have health insurance.

What drives them on is the quest for truth and the hope to be recognised one day, as the TUJ has been, 20 years after it was formed.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 5th, 2012.

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Understanding our neighbor!

Islamabad/Kabul: Why do we feel the need to understand our neighbor? We can’t choose our neighbors, can we? No, I don’t think so. What we can do is, to have good relationship with our next-door neighbors and live happily ever after. *Fairytale style

Can you tell, who is a Pakistani and who is an Afghan? Ayesha and Farkhonda.

Who wants to live in a place where one is always suspicious about the role of his/her neighbor. Oh, my neighbor blocks my water pipe. My neighbor is planning to bomb my house. My neighbor is stinky. Who wants to live a life like that? Stop ranting about your neighbor Pakistan and Afghanistan! Stop it! Life is not a Hollywood film and we are not James Bond. You can’t air lift your country and take it somewhere else and choose your neighbors.

Let’s have the courage and give voice to your complaints and tell your neighbors, how you feel about them. You don’t have to hide it from them that you don’t like them. You never know, how pissed they are at you. It is possible that you are annoying them more than they annoy you. Come to think of it, everything is possible.

Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologist said that to understand ‘others’ we have to understand them with ‘others’ point of view not our own point of view. We have to leave our pre-conceived notions, myth, stereotypes and biases and understand others with an open heart and mind, without judging them for what they are and most importantly, what they are not.

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We are very happy that we achieved this goal. The 22 journalists from both side of the Durand Line are the living example of what we achieved in two-phase project, FES-Af-Pak Journalists Exchange Program: Understanding the Neighbor.  They will make the world understand the Af-Pak relation with their new understanding. They are ready to challenge the decades old established narratives about their neighbors- the narratives that are missing in the public sphere. I am very happy while writing this that these journos are no more neighbors, they happily call each other friends now. Mission accomplished!

Kabul Rocks! We will come again:)

Author: Annie Zaman

Afghanistan emerges as new job market for Pakistanis by Delawar Jan

KABUL: Afghanistan is emerging an unlikely new job market for Pakistanis as the number of the youth who are employed in the war-torn country crossed 100,000, officials here say.
“Around 100,000 Pakistanis are working in Afghanistan as chartered accountants, bankers, teachers, engineers, doctors and labourers,” said Muhammad Sadiq, Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan. He said the Pakistani workers were preferred for hiring because of their skills and experience. He revealed that $2.6 billion official exports to the country, which makes it the biggest exporter to Afghanistan, had created 3.5 million jobs in Pakistan.
The Pakistanis who work in Kabul suggested that the number of the workers in Afghanistan was well over 100,000. “The ambassador might be talking of the workers having official record. I think a good number of unregistered Pakistanis have also been working in Afghanistan which is in addition to the 100,000,” said Afzal Ahmad, manager at a food company.
The Pakistanis said they had taken up jobs in the war-struck country due to the saturated job market in Pakistan. Many of those interviewed said handsome salaries in Afghanistan had enticed them to seek job in the country that has been a theatre of a long war.
However, the number of Afghans who have been getting economic benefits from Pakistan dwarfs the total of Pakistani workers in Afghanistan. Muhammad Sadiq said 56,000 Afghans crossed into Pakistan every day for different needs including jobs. Around three million refugees who have jobs or businesses aren’t part of this count.
Daud Badshah, a resident of Shergarh in Mardan district, said he was underpaid in Pakistan. “A measly Rs4,000 salary was offered to me by NHA which was insufficient for the needs of my family,” said Sher Badshah, whose father is a watchman at a factory in Shergarh.
The 26-year-old man, who could study only up to 9th class, works for 14 hours daily (7am-9pm) at a restaurant in Kabul where he supervises a staff of 35 people and is able to make good money. “I am getting Rs16,380 (Af.9,000), plus the tip,” he said. “My family tried to stop me from taking up the job in Afghanistan but my poor economic conditions forced me to come here. Four years later, the pressure continues,” he added.
Sher Badshah’s job encouraged his brother Sardar Badshah to come to Afghanistan in search of a job. Now, he gets a salary of 500 US dollars as a cook.“Afghan police harass us despite the fact that we have visas. They demand bribe and misbehave with us. But people here are nice and respectful,” he said.
At the same restaurant, Muhammad Ayaz from Peshawar and Muhammad Ali from Skardu receive salary of Rs23,660 (Af.13,000) and Rs30,940 (Af.17,000), respectively.
Waqar Ahmad came from Peshawar to Kabul in 2007 to find a job. Now he is holding an executive position in a company for the last almost six years and gets an undisclosed ‘handsome’ salary. “The road that winds through the troubled areas into Pakistan is very dangerous,” he said. “I have seen bombs exploding in front of me. I have seen Taliban blocking the road and checking. I have been caught up in crossfire. But thanks God, I have remained unscathed each time,” he said of the threats.

Originally published in The News International on 19th October 2012

Palatial mansion: Pakistan’s biggest and busiest diplomatic mission

By Robin Fernandez

KABUL: Situated in the Karte Parwan neighbourhood of Kabul is Pakistan’s diplomatic mission. Steeped in history, the embassy building and the adjoining ambassador’s residence together form the country’s single biggest mission in the world – a frontispiece to our public diplomacy abroad.

Inaugurated in July 2012, the sprawling grounds of the Quaid-e-Azam Complex cover more than 26 acres of land that once belonged to the British Legation in Kabul. Today it may well be Pakistan’s busiest diplomatic mission.

On any week day (from Sunday to Thursday) one is likely to find thousands of Afghans queuing up outside the Pakistan Embassy for a visa. “Up to 12,000 multiple [entry] visas are issued every day. Not a single application has been rejected so far,” says Ambassador Muhammad Sadiq. This figure may seem high, according to officials, but it pales in comparison to the sheer number of people who make border crossings every day between the two countries. Currently, Pakistani officials say, 56,000 people travel between Pakistan and Afghanistan through both designated and undesignated crossing points daily — mainly for trade and business purposes.

The main embassy buildings are now housed in what used to be the dispensary of the British Legation buildings in the Afghan capital. In one corner of the premises, English-language and computer classes are held for Afghan students, especially those in the neighborhood. “The classes are free and are part of the embassy’s effort to encourage education,” says an official.

The next door residential complex of the ambassador is much grander, still reflecting the colonial glory that Lord George Curzon, the then foreign secretary, had wanted Britain’s top envoy in Kabul to have. Curzon, also a former viceroy general of India, did not live to see the majestic Legation structure, dying two years before its completion. The Legation buildings in Kabul sprang up some eight years after Britain signed the 1919 Treaty of Rawalpindi which officially recognised the independence of Afghanistan.

Though Pakistan’s right to the Legation buildings’ ownership was recognised by the early 1960s, Islamabad had to wait three more decades for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to finally accede to its possession. But the property did not pass into Pakistan’s hands until another decade and a half. By that time it had already been ransacked by a violent mob and suffered a vicious arson attack. Several buildings, including a church and smaller residences, were razed to the ground. Perhaps the only building that escaped harm was the clock tower that stands near one of the boundary walls.

When Ambassador Sadiq moved into the gleaming white palatial building this year following a massive renovation of the premises, President Hamid Karzai took a gentle swipe at the envoy. “I see you have moved into your vice-regal seat,” Karzai was quoted as telling Sadiq.

The entire building was reconstructed in a record time. “Despite the huge challenge, it took us about six months to restore the complex,” a Pakistan Embassy official said. Another official said the funds saved through the [earlier used] Wazir Akbar Khan mission were spent on the restoration work. “We used that money for restoration and saved thousands of dollars in the bargain,” the official explained.

From the vantage point of the ambassador’s residence, one can see a freshly-manicured cricket ground and an equally impressive soccer pitch. And in the distance one can see the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains. The sight would have certainly pleased Curzon no end.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd,  2012.

A Day in Kabul by Raza Rumi

Originally published in The Friday Times

As we landed in Kabul, the place was familiar, unfamiliar. The city reminded me of Quetta for its locale and topography and cultural diversity. But then for many Pakistanis, Afghanistan is a remote figment of imagination. A place which has sent many refugees and where Pakistan directly and indirectly has been part of violent conflict and political upheavals for the last thirty years.


We were part of a delegation, which accompanied the beleaguered Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on his first foreign trip. That this trip was made to Afghanistan is a significant reminder of the importance that Pakistan attaches to the country both for the conventional strategic reasons and perhaps for the existential dilemma that the country faces now with multiple brands of extremists on both sides of the Durand line.

Kabul, once a happening place in the 1970s, is now a sorry reminder of its past. Whereas the recent years’ development efforts are visible through a housing boom and new apartment blocks, one cannot miss out on the mud houses and infrastructure deficits that are a direct result of what the world has done to this country. The world has treated it as an arena of war, conflict and pandering to ‘national’ jingoistic egos.


Be it the Soviet Union, the United States, or the self-appointed guardians of Islamic faith i.e. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, each country has contributed to where the Afghans are today. Little wonder that the younger Afghans have grown up resenting Pakistan – its immediate neighbour that has not once but twice been a party to US’ imperial games in the region. Who said that the Great Game was over? In fact its newest manifestation is the age that we live in and where terms such as ‘energy corridor’, ‘stability’ and ‘regional players’ denote the simple fact that no one is willing to leave the country alone and there might be yet another scramble for influence, leverage and gains. All I hope is that the Afghan youth, its vibrant civil society and skilled diaspora will negotiate with the world not to repeat what has been happening in the past.

The high powered Pakistani contingent was in Kabul to achieve several things: some symbolic, some substantive. The day began with the inauguration of the reconstructed Pakistan embassy in an area that is dominated by non-Pashtuns. The earlier building was destroyed during the time when when Pakistan backed Taliban were at loggerheads over the capture of central power. It is some measure of Pakistan’s diplomatic success – especially the untiring efforts of our Ambassador Mohammad Sadiq – that we are engaging with the leaders of erstwhile Northern Alliance, which has now permutated into several political coalitions. The leader of Afghanistan National Front, Ahmad Zia Massoud, who is also the brother of the slain Ahmad Shah Massoud, was present. Others in attendance at the embassy function included Ustad Mohaqiq, leader of the Hazara community, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and even the deputy of General Dostum. All of these leaders vilified by Pakistan’s Urdu press and their puppet masters indicated that for a change we were doing the right thing: By not reducing Afghanistan to the land of Pashtuns or ‘anti-Pakistan’ or ‘pro-India’ Northern Alliance. Ahmad Wali Massoud, Ahmad Zia Massoud is a soft-spoken man and is charismatic like his brother.


While talking to us he emphasized how Pakistan, not unlike Afghanistan, was a victim of extremism and how the two ought to be working together to counter these worrying trends. In fact most of the people present aired similar views in their informal chit chat. This reminded me of the recent declaration that the anti-Taliban forces had signed and released earlier this year: “…any negotiation with the Taliban can only be acceptable, and therefore effective, if all parties to the conflict are involved in the process. The present form of discussions with the Taliban is flawed, as it excludes anti-Taliban Afghans…The present negotiations with the Taliban fail to take into account the risks, sacrifices and legitimate interests of the Afghans who ended the brutal oppression of all Afghans.”

Symbolism always says a lot. Former Prime Minister Gilani had started the work on the reconstruction of the embassy as a small plaque reminded us while the completion and reopening of the building was being undertaken by his successor, another PPP Prime Minister. Ironic that we are always keen to play down the efforts of the civilians including the Foreign Office in the policy process but at the end of the day even Pakistan’s security establishment needs them. The inauguration ceremony took place in the presence of the all-powerful ISI chief Lt Gen Zahir-ul-Islam.

As we departed from the high security zone and passed through the empty roads of Kabul (apparently the traffic was closed to ensure that there was a secure passage of the delegation) one could see how Kabul represents a series of protected zones given the onslaught of Taliban who remain powerful in the South and East of the country.

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In a few minutes we were entering Karzai’s palace, another fortress where layers of security kept the President of the country safe. This is not all too different from Pakistan where the President’s movements are limited and he operates in a highly protected zone. But the palace with its pine, chinar and other old, rare trees is immensely beautiful. Parts of several buildings have been reconstructed given the recent history but one can see the old and new forms of architecture layered on each other.

We waited as the PM, Foreign Minister, Interior Adviser Rahman Malik and DG ISI met President Karzai, visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron and presented themselves before world cameras. Perhaps all sides want to show that there were engaged and this is what diplomacy is all about. Getting conflicting views laid out on a table and finding a common ground and not letting conflict become a means of ironing out such differences.

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Karzai and Raja held detailed parleys while we waited in the annex of the Presidential Palace. I spotted a lovely painting which depicted Afghan musicians at work. The image made me both hopeful and sad. That Afghan were celebrating their culture, the threat of a medieval ideology had to be addressed. Reintegration of Taliban warriors is once again a common challenge for both the countries.

The regal press conference was held under the shade of huge chinar trees and a lovely breeze kept on ruffling the arrangements. Both the leaders were poised and gave a friendly feel to their public appearance. There were tough questions raised from both the sides especially by the AlJazeera correspondent based in Kabul. The latter asked our PM if the civilian government actually controlled the military and ISI. To his credit PM Raja handled this question rather well and displayed his well honed political skills by citing the Pakistani constitution and how it distributed powers. Of course we are miles away from such ideal constitutional governance but to hear this being said in a foreign land made me a little proud. Unlike the Zia and Musharraf eras, which constitute my lived memory, there was a beginning howsoever tenuous the civilian rule might be. Small mercies in a martial state, I told myself.


As we drove back to the airport the posters and iconography around the ‘national’ martyr Ahmad Shah Massoud could not escape my attention. His presence is ubiquitous. How will a 1990s repeat take place under such circumstances? This is what Pakistan needs to reflect and also the Pakistanis who dream of crushing India on Afghan soil to ensure that there is a ‘friendly’ government next door.

It is time that we engage with Afghans as our neighbours, respect their autonomy and also not shy away from talking to our feared adversary India. We cannot stop India from investing in Afghanistan if that is what Afghans want. But we can trade with India and also agree on a common ground. Most importantly, after the repeated tragedies in our Afghan expeditions we should have learned a lesson or two. For instance we may have to focus on the Taliban off-shoots that endanger our way of life at home. Perhaps that should be our top priority.

Raza Rumi is Director Policy & Programs at Jinnah Institute in Islamabad. The views expressed are his own. He is also a consulting editor at TFT. His writings are archived at www.razarumi.com

‘Pakistan lacks a clear policy against militancy’

Exclusive interview with Author Zahid Hussain by Beenish Javed

Islamabad, July 25, 2012:

Last week, I had an opportunity to meet Zahid Hussain, who is the author of two famous books, Frontline Pakistan and The Struggle with Militant Islam. He has an expert view on Pakistan’s tribal areas and the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Q. 2014 is fast approaching, but the world still thinks that Pakistan is not serious in stabilizing Afghanistan. Do you think this perception is correct?

Zahid Hussain (ZH):  This perception is incorrect. It is the responsibility of American and NATO troops on the ground to stabilize Afghanistan. Peace in Afghanistan is largely dependent on the U.S. policy. Would U.S. want to leave a stabilize Afghanistan? And it is possible through a political reconciliation in Afghanistan. A combined political settlement might help in bringing peace.

Q. Everyone has hopes from the reconciliation process. Do you think Pakistan has the potential to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghans and the Americans?

ZH: Firstly, we have to see if the U.S. really wants to talk with the Taliban.  The   negotiations have been stalled from last six months. The process depends on both the Taliban and the U.S.  I think it’s incorrect to say that Pakistan can convince Taliban to talk because it’s wrong to think that the Taliban will ultimately do what Pakistan asks them to do.

Q. Is the government and the military of Pakistan taking steps to bring peace in Afghanistan?

ZH: The differences between Pakistan and the U.S are an obstacle in bringing peace in Afghanistan. And if the relations between the two countries don’t improve than it would be difficult to achieve a political settlement in Afghanistan. It is not only the responsibility of Pakistan to make efforts to improve relations with the U.S. The U.S should also try to address the issues that are the cause of the differences between two countries. And with the continuation of drone attacks , peace is difficult to achieve in this region.

Q. Do you think there is a consensus in Pakistan’s military about fighting the terrorist groups?

ZH:  Pakistan has suffered the most from militancy and a big reason for that is we do not have a clear policy against militancy. We don’t understand how to deal with this problem which is a big threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty.  Terrorists are now all over Pakistan. Militancy has not reduced from last few months we see an increase in attacks by the militants. It is high time that we devise a national policy against the militants as they are a big threat to Pakistan’s existence.  The interview can be viewed by clicking on the following link.

The interviewer’s more work can be seen on: Beenishjaved.com

Hi

Greetings!

We are 22 young  journalists from Afghanistan and Pakistan. We got an opportunity to meet each other in Bara Gali (KPK) and Islamabad from 19-24th June, 2012. We worked together and produced 10 journalistic pieces. We will post our joint efforts on these pages soon.

This blog is a collective effort of  all of us to stay connected and to understand our neighbour better.

Together we will bridge all the gaps and mend all the fences that keeps us away from each other.

Power to Pen!

Peace