Sport beats terror in Pakistan's tribal belt
By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR - Pakistanis are no strangers to sports-related violence; in fact, many have come to expect scuffles and conflict, especially following a major cricket match. In the country's northern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), however, cricket has become a tool to promote peace.
For over a decade, FATA and its neighboring provinces, which form Pakistan's tribal belt that doubles up as the border with Afghanistan, have been a safe haven for Taliban militants fleeing the 2001 US-led invasion of Kabul and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its allied forces.
Countless attempts to violently crush the Taliban have failed to
completely root the militants out of Pakistan's rocky, mountainous terrain.
Desperate, the local government has turned its attention to alternative coping strategies, with sports quickly becoming a popular "weapon" in the arsenal against religious extremists, especially as a means of turning tribal youth away from militant activity.
An upbeat Shahid Shinwari, secretary of the FATA Olympic Association, told IPS he was pleasantly surprised by the massive turnout at the recent weeklong cricket tournament in which Mohmand Agency - one of seven districts that comprise the tribal areas - defeated the host Bajaur Agency.
Until 2012, Bajaur Agency was a veritable war zone, witnessing a major government offensive against the Taliban in 2008 that saw the deaths of 1,600 militants, 150 civilians and close to 5,000 injuries.
Of the 300,000 civilians forced to flee the fighting, only 18,000 have returned, with most of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in makeshift settlements with little access to the most basic services such as running water and healthcare.
That this troubled district could draw a crowd for purely civilian purposes, with residents "starved for entertainment" coming out in droves to support the 16 teams on July 7-14, signals a major turning point in the search for an "elusive peace" here, according to Shinwari.
He said the celebrations following Mohmand Agency's narrow eight-run victory stood in stark contrast to the climate of terror and anxiety that has prevailed here for years.
Buoyed by FATA's innovative approach to fighting off terrorism, a cricket team from the northeastern Afghan border province of Kunar also participated in the tournament sponsored by the Pakistan army.
Kunar's team captain, who asked not to be named, praised the hospitality extended to his team members, adding that such events were "vital for enhancing relations between the two countries", whose people endure similar hardships at the hands of the Taliban. "I only hope that sports continue to promote peace," he told IPS.
Seventeen-year-old Taj Ali, captain of the home team, told IPS that many young people from his generation joined the Taliban in the absence of outlets for their youthful energy. Now, he says, FATA has undergone a "sea change", with youth reveling in this newfound opportunity to "thwart the terrorists."
About 100 small cricket teams, by far the most popular sport among tribal youth, have popped up in remote villages throughout Bajaur Agency.
Eager to capitalize on local enthusiasm, the Pakistan government last year commissioned a US$4.9 million sports complex, complete with all the necessary facilities for training young athletes such as a gymnasium, cricket and football grounds, and indoor courts for basketball, volleyball, squash and badminton.
Already some 5,000 boys and girls frequent this complex, working with several trained professionals to master the sport of their choice.
Kashif Ali, a 17-year-old kabbadi player (a South Asian wrestling sport popular in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) from the Orakzai Agency, told IPS his brother was a militant for three years, but has now renounced insurgent activity in favor of football. Kashif says he personally knows at least two-dozen other boys who have done the same, bringing the total of militants-turned-athletes to just over 150.
Trainers say sports also promise low-income youth a decent income in the future, with many athletes from FATA joining national teams or professional organizations.
Regional governments are casting their nets wide enough to include women - long marginalized by the Taliban in Pakistan's northern regions - in the wave of sports fever sweeping the region.
Khanum Bibi, a 16-year-old badminton player, came to Peshawar, capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, in search of facilities that are severely lacking in her hometown. She says women are keen to engage in sports, despite strict religious codes that have excluded them from the playing fields for years.
"Sportswomen perform better academically because outdoor activities keep them fit and healthy," she told IPS.
Her cousin, who came to Peshawar to be trained as a table tennis player, echoed these sentiments, adding that the KP government ought to make investments in sporting facilities in rural areas so that residents can play with their "own people instead of strangers from Peshawar". Over 5,000 women in Pakistan's northern provinces are part of sports teams.
KP Governor Shaukatullah Khan says the local government has now begun a hunt for 400 acres of land on which to construct a billion-dollar international sports complex - complete with grounds, courts, hostels and medical facilities - for the tribal areas, after recognizing that "sports [are] the only way to defeat the Taliban."
The governor praised FATA's athletes for having bagged 16 medals at the recent National Games in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, despite their lack of training.
"Our players placed second in archery and third in basketball and judo at the nationwide competition, which surprised everyone," he said, adding that the honor spoke volumes about FATA residents' natural aptitude for sports.
Frontier Corps Major General Ghayyur Mahmood, in charge of military operations for FATA, told IPS that sports have also been crucial in efforts to improve law and order in the region, by promoting peace and "a sense of normalcy".
"We have several major events in the pipeline, for which we are putting in place modern indoor and outdoor facilities [capable of hosting] over 20 games," Shinwari said.
The most eagerly anticipated of these gatherings is the upcoming 11-day all-agency FATA club tournament, slated to begin on August 14, during which the winning clubs in this past April's intra-agency competitions will vie for the top slots in basketball, volleyball, cricket, kabbadi, badminton, squash, hockey, kushti (a form of local wrestling), netball, judo and karate.
Seventeen-year-old Kashif and his brother are training hard for the games, hoping to bring glory to their agency and win the respect of their family and community members.