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By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR – Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) officials are promoting sports to tribal youth as a healthy alternative to the Taliban militancy. “Launching of sports activities has proved a blessing … for youths of FATA as they are coming in droves to take up a variety of games,” Shahid Shinwari, secretary of the FATA Olympic Association (FATAOA), told Central Asia Online.
Watching the final match at the under-14 National Badminton Championship between FATA and Balochistan at the Qayyum Sports Complex Peshawar January 18, an upbeat Shinwari said the association had registered more than 5,000 young people for sports activities, including 800 females from all tribal agencies, since its founding in September.
Sports steer youth away from militancy
“We want to utilise sports to keep youths away from going the Taliban’s way, and we are successful in our mission,” he said.
Rehmanullah Afridi, 13, a badminton player, agreed and said sports would help keep youths from the violence-wracked tribal areas occupied with healthy activities.
“My elder brother was impressed by the Taliban, and he wanted to join them,” he recalled. “One day, I took him to the ground where he started playing football and now he is regular player of the FATA team,” he said of his 18-year-old sibling.
Like Afridi, the jubilant FATA youths have been enjoying sports. “We are now levelling land in tribal areas to provide playgrounds to the boys,” Shinwari said. “Fifty percent of the 8m-strong FATA population are youths, who can be lured towards sports to save them from … militancy.”
To encourage young women, the Pakistani government has approved a grant of Rs. 150m ($1.7m) to build female-only indoor sports facilities.
“Another Rs. 180m ($2m) has been pledged by the federal government to build sports facilities for men in FATA,” FATA Sports Director Faisal Jamil told Central Asia Online
“The youths of FATA are physically strong, energetic and brave due to which they can perform good in all games,” he said.
“We have already some facilities in Bajaur, Kurram, Khyber and South Waziristan agencies which are being renovated,” he said. The prime minister had also issued directives to make funds available for promotion of sports in FATA, he said.
“We are giving sports kits free of cost to the players,” he said. “We have already held volleyball, football, table tennis and cricket tournaments in FATA, and the people’s response is unprecedented,” he said.
The kits provide the essentials to play cricket, field hockey, badminton and other sports.
FATA has great potential for sports, as Maria Torpeka from South Waziristan won the national women’s squash championship (in 2010), he said.
Sports can combat a creeping militancy, he said.
One example is the Malik Saad Sports Trust (MSST), formed to honour popular police officer Malik Muhammad Saad Khan, who was killed in a 2007 suicide attack. It has organised more than 30 events in the tribal areas since its founding in 2010 with support from Pakistani federal and provincial governments as well as foreign aid organisations.
“It was the dream of Malik Saad, a known lover of sports, to put in place sports facilities as he thought it was the only way to defeat terrorism,” MSST Secretary Amjad Aziz Malik said.
50 sports academies planned
“We have planned 50 sports academies in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP),” he said. So far the MSST has set up seven academies in KP and six in FATA.
“Until now, FATA lacked sports facilities, leaving (youth) with no choice but to engage in negative activities. The gap was filled by the Taliban, who offered demoralised youth (a chance) to act as violence-makers,” Shaukat Ullah Khan, federal minister for states and frontier regions and FATAOA president, said.
Elders are coming out to watch games at the sports academies in Khyber, Mohmand, Bajaur and Kurram agencies, he said, adding Orakzai and North and South Waziristan soon would have an opportunity to watch sports.
Academies are becoming vital to stemming violence since volleyball, cricket, football, etc., are becoming a major source of entertainment, Khan said.
A January 1-4 Bajaur volleyball tournament attracted thousands of spectators who showed there enthusiasm with loud applause, he said.
FATA women’s indoor sporting facilities will come
FATA women’s table tennis and badminton tournaments have taken place in Peshawar because FATA lacks indoor sporting facilities, Shinwari said, adding FATAOA has asked the government and MSST to build those facilities as soon as possible.
“We plan to organise a sports gala somewhere in FATA in March this year. We have already started a campaign in this regard,” he said.
Jaweria Shah, a badminton player and 10th-grade student in Mohmand Agency, said she was overwhelmed by the launching of sports activities in FATA.
“All the female students from FATA want to play sports,” she said. “We hope that sports would go a long way in promotion of peace in tribal areas,” she said. The government’s efforts to promote sports in FATA will bear fruit and ultimately bring peace, she said.
“In KP, we have started sports activities in schools and regional levels,” Sports Minister Syed Aqil Shah told Central Asia Online. Shah, who has survived two assassination attempts, added: “We are giving priority to holding sports events in the militancy-hit areas of the province. We can stem tide of terrorism by winning over the youths.”