By Ashrafuddin Pirzada

Militancy inspires fear in Pakistans FATA region

Landi Kotal Bazaar  a 27-year-old vendor pushes his cart through the streets of his Khyber Agency community in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas near the Afghanistan border, selling nail polish, pocket mirrors, lipstick, toothpaste and toothbrushes, face cream and other cosmetics.

He used to earn $5 to $8 a day selling cellphones and ringtones in his shop, but now he said he attracts two to five customers a day and takes home just $1.50 to $2.

The father of four, ages 1 to 7, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he closed his shop five years ago after threats from unknown militants.

"I was compelled to abandon the education of two of my children, as we have no money to pay school fees," he said.

FATA militancy has forced hundreds of tribal people to change jobs or even flee the country, fearing for their lives.

From singers to tribal police officers, about 500 people have been injured or killed, or have lost property to militancy in the last 10 years, local government records and media reports show.

Doctors, journalists, barbers, artists, electronics dealers and members of minorities, including Christians and Sikhs, are among those who say they have sacrificed money and property to appease militants from groups like the Taliban. Dozens of others have suffered injuries in explosions and target killings.

Many professionals have escaped to safer zones in Pakistan and abroad. In some cases, militants forced them to change their professions or go underground.

Under the Frontier Crimes Regulation, Pakistan's Constitution does not apply to FATA residents. So, by law, Muslims and non-Muslims alike do not enjoy full citizenship and other privileges, including basic rights.

Mutahir Zeb, the Khyber Agency political agent, a senior local official, told FV Next more than 200 government employees, including health workers, teachers and tribal police in FATA, were not performing their jobs because of threats and have hired proxies.

Data collected in Khyber Agency by the Community Appraisal and Motivation Program, an Islamabad-based organization, suggests that dozens of barbers have changed jobs or moved from the Bara, Landikotal and Jamrud administrative areas of the agency, where militancy has reached its peak, to Peshawar and other Pakistani cities.

A 34-year-old barber, speaking on condition of anonymity, told FV Next he used to have a shop in a Bara bazaar but moved to China in 2009 with the help of a rich man from Peshawar after threats from militants, whom he refused to identify out of fear.

"I came to Pakistan to see my parents and other family members and will leave soon to avoid any mishaps," he said during a visit back to Peshawar, during which he also renewed his visa.

Seven blind brothers in Landikotal, who used to perform as a band, stopped performing 10 years ago when militancy increased in FATA and they lost their sole source of income.

The brothers remember playing in men's guesthouses in nearby villages. One of the brothers, now 40, told  FV Next on condition of anonymity that growing militancy in the area after the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan forced them to dismantle the band.

"I hope peace will soon be restored in FATA and people will again start arranging musical nights celebrating cultural and traditional events," he said.

A tribal police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told FV Next several tribal police officers had been killed in attacks that drove many others underground.

Gunmen assassinated two officers Sept. 22 in separate incidents in Khyber Agency, the official said. There have been several other cases of threatening lives and kidnapping for ransom, he said.

Similarly, a former tribal police employee, also speaking on condition of anonymity, told FV  Next he had received many phone calls threatening that he would be targeted if he did not resign. He quit after two years and now drives a taxi to support his family.

Many members of the Khasadars and Levies forces, tribal police directly under the control of the political agent, the top administrative officer, have died and many were kidnapped in militancy-related incidents.

In a single incident in 2009, when the Bara subdivision of Khyber Agency was under the control of Mangal Bagh, head of the banned militant group Lashkar-e-Islam, 600 Bara Khasadar personnel collectively refused to perform their duties after Lashkar-e-Islam warned Khasadar personnel to resign or face dire consequences. The government fired them for negligence, although some were reinstated.

Thirteen journalists have been killed since 2001 while reporting on FATA militancy, the Tribal Union of Journalists says.

Mehboob Shah Afridi, the organization's general secretary, told UPI Next 25 journalists from Khyber Agency and 50 others from elsewhere in FATA had migrated to Peshawar and other safer areas of Pakistan. He said militancy peaked between 2005 and 2012, making it a hard time for journalists.

His colleague Nasrullah Afridi, a Bara-based reporter, was killed in a car bomb attack in Peshawar Saddar on May 11, 2011.

"Nasrullah Afridi was a brave and experienced reporter who never bowed down," Mehboob Afridi said.

After he was killed, "international media and journalists' safety organizations advised FATA journalists to shift to Peshawar and elsewhere to ensure security for some time," Mehboob Afridi said.

Nasrullah Afridi left behind three children, two of whom are disabled. His family now lives in a small rented home in Peshawar. His only healthy son, Ihsanullah, 18, told UPI Next tearfully his mother "stopped me from adopting the profession that took my father from us and left us helpless."

Pakistan's former army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Perviz Kayani, invited Ihsanullah Afridi to Islamabad on Yaom-e-Shahadat, the Day of Martyrdom, and praised his father's contributions to journalism.

Mehboob Afridi said the loss of the 13 tribal journalists has been a loss not only for journalists, but also for the tribal people. Their deaths have been protested with processions, sit-ins, boycotts and seminars across the FATA and Pakistan, with participants demanding the government provide foolproof security for all tribal people, including journalists.

Tribal journalists Shams-ur-Rehman and Muheb Ali left the country after threats to their lives. Shams was once kidnapped, and Muheb Ali escaped a shooting. Shams, a cameraman with a private television channel, said he had been forced to cover the stories militants wanted to show their dominance over security forces.

Jahangir Azam Wazir, a senior administrative official in Khyber Agency, told UPI Next that since he was posted there as assistant political agent in Jamrud Khyber Agency he has developed a security plan and started raiding suspected militants' hideouts. He said 200 people had been arrested in the Jamrud area.

Wazir said the administration had tightened security in Khyber and was checking all individuals and vehicles at entrances and exits to Jamrud to ensure safety and security.

"An organized intelligence setup has been established to ensure long-lasting peace in Jamrud," Wazir said. He noted the recent arrest of Javid Iqbal, who is suspected in many murders and kidnappings for ransom.

Wazir said he tells people that peace has been restored and they should not delay starting activities such as sports, debates and cultural celebrations in Khyber Agency.

Meanwhile, tribal people say they appreciate government and security forces' efforts and hope for lasting peace that will allow them to return to their home towns in Bara and the Tirah Valley soon.

"The dark days have gone as security forces have flushed out militancy," said Khalid Khan, an engineer with a mobile telecommunication company in Peshawar. "And now we will again be able to have a peaceful and prosperous life, reinstating the culture and traditions we had before."

                                    (By Ashraf Uddin Pirzada senior tribal journalist)

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