Swat Youth Front (SYF) is a non-profit youth organisation which has worked in for peace in the Malakand Region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, since 1997. SYF was established by a group of highly motivated and civic minded young people. Mainly, the work of SYF has focused on sustaining peace in the post-conflict valley of Swat, which was home to militancy and violence from 2007 to 2009. SYF aims to bring, with the help of the locals, changes in policy that can lead them towards a prosperous and peaceful society, particularly by promoting volunteerism among young people. Because of the uniqueness of the work of SYF, and their relevance to the situation in Swat Valley, I arranged an exclusive interview of Amjad Ali, Program Manager of SYF to find out more.
Amjad Ali started out by explaining that the purpose of SYF is to create conditions of social and political justice, and a conflict-free environment among different social groups to ensure a prosperous, peaceful, enlightened and justice-based society. Under its project for peace and human rights, SYF has initiated a campaign to promote understanding of the universal declaration of human rights to the general public through dialogue, awareness campaigns, and youth participation in activities and seminars.
The urgency of their work is caused by the seriousness of the social problems in the Swat Valley are enormous, as Ali explained: 'Talibanisation', militancy, terrorism and military campaigns mean that the local population have lost many lives, suffered massive displacements and live with long-running curfews and check points. The social disruption and political instability has harmed not only the local economy but also recreational activities like sports, tourism and other activities. “Sports have been indisputably the most popular leisure activity in the area, not only for children and youth, but for men as players, coaches, leaders, administrators and spectators, but due to above mentioned situation and the paralysed economy, such activities have been pushed to the background”. For this reason, SYF proposed the "Sports for Peace" project to Public Affairs Section US Consulate Peshawar, and were awarded a grant of $12,000 to encourage initiatives where sport can assist in creating a platform for peacebuilding and development. The organisation facilitated and equipped 3360 players from 330 teams with sports goods and began establishing a network between them.
The "Sports for Culture of Peace" project, funded by the Commonwealth Foundation, was implemented in April 2010 to encourage initiatives to provide structure in an unstructured and destabilizing environment and serve as a means to channel energies away from aggression and self-destruction. According to Ali, “such activities revive and promote sports activities and provide a valuable tool for building resilience and helping conflict survivors to overcome trauma by allowing a brief period of relaxation. This switches attention away from the experience of the loss and provides an opportunity to reinforce educational and safety messages along with welcome respite for parents and caregivers. The youth in particular and communities in general were in need, and hence the initiative was highly appreciated by various segments of the society”.
With the gradual improvement in the security situation, SYF is proposing to initiate sports activities for girls to ensure gender equality and motivate them to play their role in the promotion of peace and development. They inted to extend the sports projects to better promote gender equality and women rights.
It is always important to explore the point of view of the people participating in a project, so Ali shared a couple of stories of players under the Sports for Culture of Peace project.
Husain Ali, 26 years old and captain of a cricket team which participated in the tournaments, commented that “the armed conflict, Talibanization, continuous curfews and civilian exodus in the area had pushed back the sports activities in his area and the youth of the area and the spectators have no platform to share their feelings and experiences . The sports for culture of peace project enable my team to hold matches with the network members. The revival of their sport activities allow the team players a brief period of relaxation, focus attention away from the experience of the loss and provide an opportunity to reinforce educational and safety messages along with welcome respite for parents and caregivers. In addition to this the cash prizes awarded to my team as a winning team enabled us to equip our team with relevant sports goods and organize such tournaments on self-help basis in the future”.
Zahid Husain is 29 years old and resident of the most affected area, Tehsil Kabal. On the eve of final volleyball match at Koza Bandai, he said “such sporting activities are the backbone for promoting peace and development in the post conflict situation and provide leisure opportunities for both the players and the spectators. On the one hand the players are provided with safe space to avoid drugs, crimes and develop their sense of belonging and lead to team building skills while on the other hand the traumatized spectators are provided with a safe, structured and friendly environment for the people to share their emotions through verbal and nonverbal communication”.
Ali further added that during an interview with the volleyball team about the benefits and usefulness of sports and cultural activities, the team members highly applauded the efforts of SYF to provide structure in a highly unstructured environment. Hence sports and cultural activities help to build cohesive, empowered and active communities. They added that sports and culture are fundamental to our communities as they offer places for people to come together, find common interest and a sense of shared identity. They give children and young people like us the chance to enhance our understanding of the world and develop new skills and knowledge and hence ultimately make places more pleasant, providing attractive environments that improve the day to day experience of all who live and work there.
The work of SYF also received appreciation and encouragement from local elders. In this regard, Ali shared the views of Muhammad Hayat: “all young people require the knowledge, skills and understanding to live in and contribute to a peaceful society and this begins with an understanding of the world in which we live. The first-hand experience that we can gain from sports and cultural activities is to enable young people to acquire knowledge, skills and understanding and hence such activities will help to develop self-esteem, self –confidence and independence and hence provided young people with the opportunity to experience other areas’ cultures, meet and develop new friendship and thus broaden their horizons and knowledge”.
When asked, if he really thinks that involvement in sports helps in healing the wounds of the victims of conflict in Swat, Ali replied by saying that the complex emergency in the area has a negative impact on the economy of the area and has led to high unemployment ratio and such negative impulses are put into the back ground during sports and leisure activities. Besides, the civilian exodus and impact of the conflict situation, void of sports facilities for the youth were also responsible for the postponing of sports activities. He believes that the sports for culture of peace project helps to promote social integration and foster tolerance, helping to reduce tension and generate dialogue.
It has been challenging for SYF to motivate the traumatized students and young people to actively participate in peacebuilding, but their work demonstrates that sports have the power to not only heal the wounds of the victims of conflict but also to give hope of sustainable peace to the ones who have lost substantially.