Since 9/11 more than 50,000 people have been killed in terrorist incidents in Pakistan. According to reports, there have been 235 suicide bombings, 9,257 rocket attacks and 4,256 other bombings in the past five years.
14 years ago, when I was 13 years old, my father was put to trial under the Blasphemy Law because he dared to say publicly – during a human rights rally – that the government of Pakistan should stop training and supporting the religious militants, because in the long term they will be a threat, not only to neighboring countries, but will also be a threat to our own state. It was a period when militant organizations were getting open support from the government; the militant organizations were publicly recruiting adolescents and young people, training them, and later sending these young militants to Kashmir and Afghanistan for war. My father had to face the trial for many years, yet – sadly – his words turned out to be accurate when it was proved that these militants were a threat to world peace.
I come from the North West of Pakistan and was raised in a family where we believed in the philosophy of nonviolence, and interreligious tolerance – needless to say – this wasn’t a very common mindset in northern Pakistan. My father’s expression about the religious militants, as well as the troubles he had to go through because of his peace activism, left a deep impression on me. I was already involved in working on the empowerment of young women because young women in my society are marginalized, discriminated and are considered powerless. While I was working to promote leadership among young women, the incident my family had to go through made me think that young people have the power to change the world. It gave me the hope that young people can build peace, and that there are various ways to do it that wouldn’t put them in a big risk! This experience opened up both my mind and heart, and gave me the energy to start exploring the power of young people when it comes to peacebuilding. It in 2009, that I, along with a group of other young people established “Youth Peace Network” as a platform to promote leadership among young peacebuilders and peer educators for peace, nonviolence and tolerance. The members of the youth peace network are all young people, girls and boys from all over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The Youth Peace Network is a group of trained young volunteers who identify young people at risk of radicalization in KPK (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and engage them in intensive dialogue, one to one or in small groups, to offer an alternative view of Islam and dissuade people from violence as a mean to solve their problems. They also address other drivers of radicalization such as living conditions and conflicts within society. After the appropriate training, each trained volunteer is expected to work with an average of 10 young people over the course of the first year. The inclusion of youth in peacebuilding activities and initiatives bring vibrancy and creativity to peacebuilding efforts and thus – making this process more effective and participatory.
The members of the Youth Peace Network took different initiatives including the campaign of writing peace messages on rickshaws which is a common transportation source in the cities. Extremists use the rickshaws as a canvas to spread their ideology and to foster hatred towards different sects, non-Muslims and the West, so in response peace activists use them for peace-related projects. Other Youth Peace Network members have established resource centers for Madrassa students where youth can learn scientific subjects, mathematics and English. Members take innovative initiatives at the community level and conduct various programs such as peace education sessions in universities, colleges and communities or interfaith dialogues among Muslims majority and other minorities in the region etc.
To this day, I have worked with more than 12 groups of young people and I have found that young people are very passionate about challenging the status quo in a country. Together, we’re bringing change to the socio-political reality of communities and to entire country in general. Nonetheless, working for peace is life-threatening in Pakistan and I have faced many challenges and threats from the extremists groups. These threats and difficulties – however dangerous they are – always gave me courage and strength to continue my work as a peacebuilder and I will never be silenced.
Story: Saba Ismail (27) is one of the founders and Vice Chairperson of “CRY (Coalition on Rights and Responsibilities of Youth)”. CRY works to develop a sense of Responsibility among adolescents and young people by organizing them into groups and building their capacities so that they can play their role as agents for change in their communities for promotion of Rights, Responsibilities and Tolerance.
Artist: Victoria Martos