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In Pakistan's Tribal Areas, Organized Sports Have All But Collapsed

  • Majeed Babar
  • Charles Recknagel

The participants at a tournament in the Khyber Agency town of Landi Kotal made their desire clear.

The participants at a tournament in the Khyber Agency town of Landi Kotal made their desire clear.

In many societies, organized sports are a major part of integrating young people into mainstream life.

In Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), that used to be as true as anywhere else. But not anymore.

Amid the decades of radicalization and conflict that have riven the tribal areas since the 1980s, organized sports have slowly crumbled.

Their collapse has been quieter -- but no less certain -- than that of poetry contests, song contests, and traditional dance festivals. All once composed the fabric of FATA's indigenous social life, which today is in tatters.

How did this happen? The story is partly one of what happens in any society when violence disrupts normal life, and fighting forces people from their homes.

But it is also a story of neglect and of Islamabad and its international allies failing to recognize that when opportunities for organized sports are no longer available, time does not just hang heavily on youths' hands. It also directly helps militants.

Haroon Shinwary, a spokesman of the nongovernmental FATA Rural Development Project in Khyber Agency, recalls that on Pakistani Independence Day, August 14, there was a traditional sports festival in Khyber Agency ever year. "It started in 1982 and was inaugurated by our Sufi poet Humza Baba," he said.

Shinwary said the festival included "every sort of sport, such as martial arts, a marathon, target shooting, and a soccer tournament, with some 50 to 60 teams from all over FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa participating. But now, for the past several years, all of it has faded away."

Nothing But Violence

Today in Khyber Agency, the once-vibrant sports contests have been displaced by violence. Militant groups are active in the area and terrorist bombings targeting gatherings are a constant fear.

Just this week, militants targeted a cricket game. "Two mortar shells hit the side of the playground and a nearby mountain, so we called off the match," one of the players told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "As we getting into the car to leave, a third mortar shell hit us, injuring some of the players. I suffered injuries to my back."

Security officials inspect the site in Peshawar where a suicide bomber blew himself up at a packed sports stadium in 2008.

In other parts of the tribal areas, the situation is the same or worse.

Next door, in the Kurram and Mohmand agencies, military sweeps intended to root out militants have intermittently displaced hundreds of thousands of people to displaced-persons camps across Pakistan.

In North and South Waziristan, U.S. drones target militant strongholds and gunmen openly control some areas.

And across FATA, more than 630 government schools have been bombed by militants since 2004. The destruction of schools, which weakens the very foundation of organized sport and prevents the flourishing of new talent, continued with two more bombings this week.

Now, isolation is the norm for athletes in the FATA instead. With almost no sports tournaments to attend, formal team competition has given way to pickup games with friends.

The Taliban Against Sports

As organized sports -- with its command hierarchy of team captains, coaches, leagues, and sports heroes -- becomes a bare shadow of the civic institution it used to be, young people who once might have stood collectively against the Taliban now find themselves alone and exposed. As if recognizing this, the Taliban themselves have helped to hasten organized sports' demise.

"South and North Waziristan were once major centers for every kind of sport, said Hafiz Ullah, a tribal elder in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan.

"But ever since 2001, the situation here has badly deteriorated, especially in Wana. Our city has a large population and lots of level land for playing fields, and for that reason it was a major sports center. But now we face bans [by the Taliban] that have greatly diminished the sports activities."

So far, militant groups in the tribal areas have not issued any bans specifically against playing sports. But they are well-known to be contemptuous of sports as a waste of time.

Taliban militants themselves have no formal sports activities. Students at madrasahs, or Islamic religious schools, are allowed only to play informal games at recess.

Official Neglect

Perhaps most worrisomely, there seems to be no sense of urgency in Islamabad, or among international donors, to create sports facilities in the FATA to stop youngsters from falling into the hands of the militants.

A boy runs on a sports field at a college converted into an emergency shelter for flood victims in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province in 2010.

"The government, too, faces limitations. Sometimes it's lack of funds, sometimes we can't find a piece of land," said Faisal Jamil Shah, FATA's director of sports and culture. "I want to say that, if God is willing, the ground may be delayed and take time, but sooner or later we will be able to give this good news to the peoples of the tribal area that we are building a sports stadium."

In the meantime, even some of the tribal areas' best-known sports heroes, like national soccer team player Ateeq Shinwary, find they have to leave the tribal areas to practice, robbing the youth at home of potential role models.

"In the tribal areas there is no lack of talent, but yes we are facing a lack of facilities," Shinwary said. He added that he left for Peshawar to train because of the lack of fully equipped, grass playing fields. "We face a lot of problems in keeping up our training."

So long as this situation continues in the FATA, the militants have every reason to cheer.

They want to forcefully create a society where people do not express themselves as individuals physically or intellectually but dedicate themselves collectively to jihad instead. And the lack of organized sports -- and all that entails -- only helps them do so.