Additionally, and in recent days while working in Peshawar, he has been further "warned" regarding his critical position on how the Pakistani government is handling the growing terror concern not only in the tribal regions along the Pak-Afghan border, but throughout the country as violence and acts of terrorism are on the increase.
As many of you know, Muhammad and his wife Fatima, and their four children live in one of the most volatile and potentially dangerous areas in the world. Their tribal village and home is in the Bajaur Agency along the Afghanistan border and has long been considered a possible hiding place of Osama bin-Laden. Over the last few months, Taliban has been moving into the area in even greater numbers along with other extremist groups and fighting has been commonplace between all parties which include government militia, U.S. forces, and other militants all vying for control of the region.
Opinions and ideologies are as widespread and as unforgiving as the harsh, rugged terrain. But encircled by this escalating war of words, weapons and wanton violence are thousands of innocent civilians, parents and their children asking for nothing more than their safety and peace. They long for a normal day.
Recently, a threatening letter was sent to the Bajaur Press Club asking all journalists to cease writing what were seen as "negative" reports, otherwise they would be killed. One of Muhammad's brothers is a journalist working as a correspondent for Pakistan Television as well as a local newspaper in the Bajaur Agency. As Muhammad and others do, he takes these threats very seriously. Only days before this intimidating letter was received, a journalist from the area was murdered. It was not the first time nor will it be the last.
As Muhammad reported to me, "the mountains around our villages are occupied by increasing numbers of Taliban and other militants. There is a very real possibility of continued and escalated violence and clashes between them and security forces." In the past few months, fighting has broken out in this region and a number of civilians were killed. And as in the past, civilians will continue to be targeted or caught in the crossfire. Everyone is living in a state of terror. Many of the children are no longer attending school.
Last night, Muhammad's email sounded particularly urgent. He was in Peshawar where he works and spends a good part of every month. He worries about being away from his family for long stretches of time but has no choice as these days, work is particularly hard to come by. When he is home, he receives threats in his village, and when in the city his wife Fatima continues to hear these rumblings as well. She worries for his safety.
And now in Peshawar, as in his own village, he no longer feels safe. He has been openly threatened in recent days and for the first time, admits he is taking these latest threats more seriously than ever; he fears for his life.
His email is dark, and unlike most where there is a sign of hopefulness in his words, this one sounds like the voice of a desperate man. He is uncomfortable and embarrassed about asking for help. The help he asks for is nothing more than "an ear," someone, anyone, to hear his pleas, to know how he agonizes more for the safety of his family than his own. He's concerned about the failing health of his beloved wife, Fatima, who is living in constant fear, often within earshot of gunfire and bombs. She is nervous, agitated and cannot sleep. She suffers from headaches and heart palpitations.
When home, Muhammad, Fatima, and their four children, Sania, their only daughter, age 14, Muhammad Kamran, age 10, Muhammad Danyal, 7, and their youngest, Muhammad Ilyas, around 4, live near relatives in the village of Khar. Hopeful and undaunted by the threats that many journalists face, Sania aspires to follow in her father's footsteps. Muhammad Kamran, who "loves adventure" his father tells me, dreams of being a pilot. And Muhammad Danyal hopes to return to his classes. "He just wants an education as he loves school."
The family resides in a one room house all activities are conducted within this single diminutive room, cooking, eating, living, and sleeping. Their only comfort is being in the proximity of their many family members, all of whom have lived most or all of their lives in this tribal region. Safe or not, it is home.
When working in Peshawar, Muhammad acts a sub-editor for the English language newspaper, The Statesman, he is also a member of the Peshawar Press Club. His job pays Rs 11,000 per month, or approximately $150 U.S. For this, he says he is grateful even though it barely provides food for him and his family. While in the city, he lives in a small hotel room and takes his morning meal at the Press Club canteen; in the evening he eats something at the office. When he writes to me, his messages are often brief, cut short by his apologies as power outages or "breakdowns" as he calls them, are frequent and limits his time on the computer.
Muhammad was born in February of 1967. He believes his wife Fatima is approximately five years younger. Neither of them have birth certificates, not unusual in the tribal areas. Their four children are the lights of his life. While the youngest is too small to attend classes, their older children did at one time, but now stay at home with Fatima, no longer attending school as it has become to dangerous for many of the village children to do so, especially precarious for young girls. Although he speaks with great love and adoration for his children, he often writes of Fatima, of his concern over her ill health, her fear and inability to sleep. He always closes by saying how beautiful she is, a good, caring woman with a kind heart. It is clear that he loves her.
This night, too, his note is shorter than usual. He talks of his growing fear due to increased threats against his life. Fatima wants him to find protection somewhere outside of Peshawar. He has nowhere and no one to turn to. His teeth are giving him great pain. This is the first time in nearly two years of correspondence where he complains of any personal health concerns, other than his wife's or children's. He tells me that for days now his teeth have given him excruciating pain and he cannot sleep. He takes analgesic tablets to help take the edge off, but it does little good. He signs off saying he will try to write more later.
Over these last two years I have gotten to know Muhammad and his family. I have been sent lovely photographs of his wife and children. And as he says, they are indeed beautiful. He asks for nothing not even understanding or compassion. He is a proud man. He asks only that someone know of his situation, his plight, the changes in his beloved tribal village, the fear that he and his family and friends live with each day. When he does "complain" it is only to say that he feels invisible, his voice, silent. He wants the world to know what is happening in his home, how living in a constant state of fear is little by little, chiseling away at the well being of everyone he knows. He apologizes to me for being a "burden." I try to reassure him that he is not. He is a friend.
We can be critical or second guess or presume to know what it might be like to live in Muhammad's shoes. We can say be brave, strong, fear is what you make of it don't let the "terrorists" run your life, otherwise they win but in truth, these words ring hollow. We do not know what it feels like to live in this perpetual state of fear, to have such violence and uncertainty right outside our doors, nor do we understand the gut wrenching angst of fearing for the lives of our loved ones. We cannot presume to know these things they are not ours to understand. It does not mean, however, that we cannot feel compassion and concern.
What Rob and I hope to relate here, is that one of the OEN family is in serious trouble. And whether or not you agree with Muhammad's politics or those of his country is irrelevant. He is in trouble; his life may be in danger. If anyone follows the news from any source regarding the situation in Pakistan, they should know full well that things are volatile at best and people are being killed everyday, and only so much gets reported. Tribal regions and big cities alike are becoming more and more unstable. In Muhammad's home village along the Pak-Afghan border, lawlessness goes unchecked and violent acts continue with impunity. No one is sure who to trust, who to believe.
Muhammad and Fatima remain hopeful, still. It is not easy. Although he is more fearful than ever before, he still dreams of a brighter future for his children, a day when they can live in peace; where they can attend school and play outside without the fear of being hurt, where they don't go to bed feeling hungry. No child should be stripped of an education no child should ever be robbed of their lightness of being.
If anyone would like to contribute in some small way to assist Muhammad and his family who are struggling to make ends meet, please contact Rob Kall through OEN or write to him at: 211 N. Sycamore Street, Newtown, PA 18940. Donations by credit card can be made by calling Rob at 215-504-1700.
We are in the process of wiring other donations that have been made by concerned individuals on behalf of Muhammad. Equally as important, if anyone can assist Muhammad in any form, whether with a safe haven or refuge within or outside of Peshawar, contacts within Pakistan who may be able to provide protection or assistance of any kind, contact Rob as well, or send a message to Muhammad via his OEN Message Center.
If we can, for a moment, let us put politics aside and focus on the well being of someone we have gotten to know through OEN, a fellow human being, a friend, and the safety and peace of his family.
Thank you and Peace.