In the past five years, the Swat valley in Pakistan has become a haven for religious extremists. Suicide bombings are frequent, women are banned from shopping in public, adulterers can be stoned to death, and those who renounce the faith killed.
The Youth Peace Network, run by our peacebuilding partner Aware Girls, is a brave band of young peace activists who reach out to local people and protect them from recruitment into extremist organisations. Here’s how they helped one militant to leave violence behind and build a better future in peace.
Asif is a 28-year-old father of three children from a village in Swat. A pious man, he joined the militants back in 2008, but soon became horrified by the brutal acts he was obliged to commit, and fled. Terrified of being caught and punished, he took refuge in a town where no-one knew him.
A year later violence in Swat became so bad that the army moved in to restore order and Asif was able to return to his village. But he found that his community no longer accepted him. The violence of his past had caught up with him, and he was unable to find work. He faced a desperate choice. Unable to feed his family, Asif considered rejoining the militants, where at least he would earn a little money.
At this pivotal moment, Asif was approached by a young Youth Peace Network activist, Dawood, who lived in his village. Dawood’s father is an elder there who commands respect among all parties. Dawood called a village council, or jirga, at which Asif’s past and future were discussed by the community and its elders. In this traditional setting, Asif publicly renounced the militants and asked for forgiveness. He promised to live peacefully among his neighbours, and Dawood guaranteed this pledge.
Ex-fighters need more than promises to live on. So Dawood helped Asif to set up a cattle rearing business. Now Asif can feed his family, and the militants are far from his thoughts. He has even removed his children from an extremist religious school and sent them to a local one instead. The cycle of violence has been broken.
In Pakistan, many provinces are beyond the reach of the international organisations – and many communities respond best to local approaches, from people they know and trust, like Dawood at the jirga. In our experience, local peacebuilders like this are the key to resolving conflicts and preventing violence. They are respected, knowledgeable and close to the conflict. Their work is the best way to break recurrent cycles of violence and build a sustainable peace.
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