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Pakistan: Artistes Caught in Crossfire

by Ashfaq Yusufzai, 17 January 2009

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Inter Press Service

Peshawar, Jan 15 (IPS) - Arson attacks and killings have shut down girls’ schools and brought a thriving entertainment industry to its knees in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

On Monday, renowned Pashto comedian Alamzeb Mujahid was abducted in broad daylight from the upmarket Hayatabad Township here in NWFP’s capital city by suspected Taliban gunmen.

The famous Pashto actor, who has been associated with national Pakistan Television (PTV) for the last two decades, has a fan following among the majority Pashtuns or Pakhtoons in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan.

"He had just left his residence for office when three armed men bundled him into a truck and sped off," says Tariq Jamal, president of the Artistes’ Welfare Association Zoom (AWAZ).

The Taliban brazenly killed a traditional female dancer, Shabana, in violence-wracked Swat district, in the NWFP, on Dec. 22 Her body was left hanging from an electric pole; the ground littered with CDs of her music, money and pictures from her albums — seemingly as a warning to others not to defy the Taliban ban on ‘un-Islamic vices’.

As the Pakistani Taliban assert control over swathes of the NWFP and bordering tribal areas, they have cracked down on shops selling music and films, stopped barbers from shaving beards, and closed down girls’ schools.

Some 300 schools, the majority girls’ schools, have been burnt in Swat. Also, all the CD and music shops have closed down.

"Taliban consider music, art, songs, dance and drama as un-Islamic, and those involved face the music. Artistes face execution or kidnapping," says academic Ashraf Ali of Peshawar University who is an expert on the Taliban.

A famous singer Anwar Gul died of bullet injuries in hospital after he was fired at by unidentified assailants in the Malakand district near Swat on Dec. 30. Gul was returning late at night from a performance at a wedding reception.

In NWFP, before the Taliban imposed a ban, social festivities were considered incomplete without the hiring of professional dancers and singers.

The threat of violence has forced most artistes to flee areas under Taliban control, says AWAZ’s Jamal.

Jamal says "because of the threats" he has grown a beard and started a street eatery, selling cooked meat. "I also survived an attempt on my life when some miscreants fired gunshots in my direction on Nov 11 last year," he told IPS.

Peshawar-based vocalist Haroon Bacha, 36, who is a star in NWFP and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with dozens of albums and videos, travelled to the U.S. in August last year for a concert, and stayed on, seeking asylum.

"I was receiving telephonic threats from the Taliban asking me to quit music. But it’s my passion, I cannot do it," Bacha told IPS in an interview over the phone from New York.

Filmmaker Tawab Sarhadi says he is going to shoot his films in Punjab province. "Taliban have warned me to stop making films. But I cannot do that because I have eight children to feed," he adds.

PTV actor and recipient of a regional award in 2008, Arshad Hussain, was kidnapped in Mardan Agency, FATA. He was released after a week. "They (his abductors) warned me that they would kill me if I didn’t stop acting," he says in an interview.

Talibanisation here has coincided with the fall of the Taliban regime in Kabul in end-2001. The Afghan Taliban, ethnic cousins of the Pakhtoons in Pakistan’s north-west, fled across the porous border to sanctuaries in FATA. The government is engaged in fierce military operations with Islamic fighters in Swat and the tribal areas. Civilians are caught in the cross-fire.

Journalist Hameedullah’s house was blown up by Pakistani military in Shakar Darra, Swat, on Jan. 2. The army was reportedly unhappy with Hameed’s reporting and had warned him to stop writing on civilian deaths.

In 2008, nine journalists were killed in Pakistan, five of them in militancy-related incidents.

Suhail Qalandar, president of the Khyber Union of Journalists, NWFP, says he is immensely perturbed by the problems faced by journalists working in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Swat.

"On Dec. 22, the elder sister of Sherinzada a reporter with Express TV died when unidentified people hurled explosive matter into his house in Swat," he says. Journalists are not liked by the army or Taliban, he says. According to him, journalists were not liked either by the army or the Taliban.

Well-known singer Khial Mohammad, who was recently felicitated with a lifetime achievement award, issued a peace appeal to both sides. While it is the duty of the government to protect artistes, the Taliban should realise "our only skill is entertaining people", he says. (END/2009)