PESHAWAR -- After Pakistani military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) paved the way for peace, local governments and NGOs are focusing on rehabilitating youth through sports and cultural activities.
As FATA recovers from years of violence and terror, many challenges lie ahead in the rehabilitation of FATA youth, said Khyber Agency Sport Manager Rahid Gul, adding that training sessions, awareness campaigns, cultural festivals and sports events aimed at engaging youth in productive activities can help this process.
"Peace has been restored in Khyber Agency after more than a decade of militancy," Gul told Pakistan Forward. "[Yet still,] the returning tribal people are struggling to deal with the situation."
Recalling the past, he said, "All day long [youth] used to gossip about which terrorist organisation was more powerful and influential. It was heartbreaking to see young children talking about joining terrorist organisations for a better chance of survival."
"Now the scenario has changed," he said. "Now our children talk about cricket, football and martial arts heroes instead of militants."
FATA has produced many national- and international-level athletes who qualify as role models for youth, he said. "This is a positive sign, and we are optimistic that our generation will have a developed future."
"To motivate people, especially the youth, and promote peace in FATA, the government has planned many sports and cultural events in various areas," he said.
Besides holding major tournaments in Landi Kotal and the Tirah Valley, officials initiated many other youth engagement activities, like cultural festivals featuring traditional foods and a jeep rally to promote a message of peace, he said.
A cricket tournament to promote peace began October 23 in the Aka Khel area of Bara Subdivision, Khyber Agency, with about 50 teams from Peshawar and Khyber Agency participating in the event.
Rashid Khan, a 21-year-old resident of Aka Khel, said he and his friends had been enjoying watching the cricket matches during the past week.
"It is a good occasion," he told Pakistan Forward. "All my friends get together, and we enjoy the cricket match. It has been a long time since we witnessed such a healthy and joyful activity on the Agency level."
Security forces guarded the event, Khan said.
Before the Pakistani military launched offensives in FATA, such as Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan in June 2014, militants destroyed many of the region's sporting grounds and festival areas, Khyber Agency senior journalist Ashrafuddin Pirzada said.
He praised the Pakistani army for its operation in FATA, crediting it for transforming the security situation.
"I witnessed many ... terrorist acts in the past," he told Pakistan Forward. "[Terrorists] targeted public gatherings and sometimes threatened the youth."
"From 2008 to 2014 the tribal youth could only dream of playing on sports grounds," he said, adding that during that period parents often restricted their children to their houses for safety.
"Now, everyone can feel peace in FATA and youth are enjoying outdoor games," Pirzada said. "Even in wedding celebrations people are freely playing loud music and arranging parties. That wasn't possible in the past decade because of terrorism and militancy."
The restoration of peace in FATA is "a big success" for both the government and the tribes, he said.
"If the situation had remained the same for a few more years, it would have been a nightmare as the youth would have had no choice other than to join terrorist organisations," he said.
The revival of sports and cultural activities in FATA is a blessing and a sign of development for the community, he said.
Unemployed youth are vulnerable to recruitment by extremists and criminals, who offer them money and protection, he said.
The government cannot create jobs for everybody, but events like sporting tournaments and festivals enable youth to engage in healthy activities, he said.
"Healthy and constructive entertainment activities for youth are imperative for the development of any society, and the government should make every effort to promote and support such activities," said Amir Afridi, president of the Khyber Youth Forum, a local non-profit organisation. "Such initiatives will help expose the hidden talents of youth in the tribal belt."
Aside from terrorism and militancy, another major threat to FATA youth is the widespread use of narcotics, he said.
"An empty mind is a house of devils," he told Pakistan Forward. "Youth must be involved in positive and constructive activities."
Afridi called upon youth to play a positive role in establishing lasting peace in FATA as security forces and the tribes made great sacrifices to reclaim the region from militants.
"I am happy that the political administration of FATA and security forces have taken a keen interest in engaging the youth in healthy activities, he said. "Besides sports and cultural events, they have also launched training and awareness programmes for youth counselling and advocacy."
The training programmes have taught tribal youth various job skills and ways to start small businesses.