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Pakistan's National Games Come To Peshawar

The 31st Pakistan National Games seems to be an oasis of peace in a country of increasing violence.
The 31st Pakistan National Games seems to be an oasis of peace in a country of increasing violence.
On December 25, as worldwide Christmas celebrations were in full swing, a burqa-clad woman exploded herself at World Food Programme (WFP) distribution point in Khar, a city in the Bajaur Tribal district, close to the volatile Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The blast killed 47 men, women, and children, and wounded 80 more.

About 140 kilometers away from the blast, 7,000 athletes -- including women -- have gathered in the Qayyum Sports Complex in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, to celebrate life and sport and to send a message of peace to the war-stricken, flood-devastated residents of North Western Pakistan.

The 31st Pakistan National Games, titled "Play for Peace," were postponed twice in 2010 due to the horrible security situation in the region. Some estimates put the total of violent deaths in Pakistan in 2010 at 12,600 -- 14 times more than in 2006.

"My friends discouraged me and asked me not to attend the games," a female athlete named Balqis told Radio Mashaal. A participant in the karate competition, her family originally hails from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but now lives in Punjab, where her father works as a government official.

Women compete in hurdles in the 31st annual Pakistan National Games in Peshawar.

"They were afraid I would be blown up in a terrorist attack. But, I assured them everything will be OK. This is wrong -- the perception that Pashtuns [will] carry out such attacks. Now that I'm here, I feel extremely happy and excited."

In November 2009, terrorists attacked senior Minister Bashir Bilour minutes after he addressed the concluding ceremony of inter-provincial games a few kilometers away from the stadium. Three people were killed, and 12 others wounded in the attack.

Bashir Bilour is a senior leader of Awami National Party (ANP), a secular Pashtun nationalist party that rules Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. According to party estimates, militant groups have killed more than 400 party members, since the ANP formed a government in the province in February 2008.

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the charismatic provincial minister for information, has been unflinching in his desire to defeat religious extremism by reviving sports and cultural activities in the province. Talking to RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, Hussain said, "We are fighting terrorism on many fronts, but this is one of the most important fronts that we have -- sporting events like this one."

Two women compete in Taekwondo, one of the seven events open to women in the Pakistan National Games.
Hussain, who lost his only son in a terrorist attack, says he is "happy from the core of his heart" that this time they were able to organize the National Games -- which will culminate on the 31st of December. "The event was postponed several times, but this time we did it. This assures us that terrorism will be defeated, and peace-loving forces will emerge victorious," he says.

While that may be a stretch, Radio Mashaal correspondents are reporting that young athletes in colorful uniforms are competing in 21 events, songs are being blasted in the stadium, and dancers are performing traditional dances. Thus far, there has been sport without incident.

Still, the heightened security arrangements in and around the stadium and increased number of security check-posts keep a large number of sports fans away from their favorite games. "It is not easy for everyone to go through the scanners and security posts," one spectator from the nearby town of Shabqadar complained. "It’s irritating, and many sports lovers are unable to enjoy the event."

- Shaheen Buneri