In the turbulent mountain region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, a 23-year-old peacebuilder has founded a network of peace activists – a brave band of young people whose mission is to halt the spread of religious extremism and rescue their peers from recruitment into militant organisations.
Gulalai Ismail started this work aged just 16, after meeting a woman whose son had become a militant. The mother had taken delivery of her boy’s dead body. The boy was only 12 years old.
In Gulalai’s province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, religious extremism is an everyday event and militants a lurking presence. More than 4,000 people have been killed in over 250 suicide attacks, and many thousands more live in fear of the next attack. Women live under traditional law, and children – especially young girls – are discouraged by the extremists from going to school.
Gulalai began to recruit and train people of her own age as volunteers to go out into schools, universities and villages. Their mission is to counter the appeal of militancy and show there are alternatives. They aim to save the next generation.
Their power to persuade can be seen in the case of Muhammad, a young father from the region who believed in holy war. His belief was so strong that he enrolled his two young sons in a radical religious school sympathetic to extremist views – which include a belief in suicide for the cause.
One of Gulalai’s volunteers noticed this choice and challenged Muhammad. After a series of discussions, Muhammad began to question the legitimacy of violence and the choice he had made for his sons. He looked elsewhere. Muhammad’s two sons, aged 9 and 11, are now enrolled in a moderate school. For these two boys, this local action has had a real impact – and possibly saved their lives.
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