For Taliban victims, Pakistani peace talks feel like betrayal
Recently, the Pakistani government and Taliban forces in the country have expressed interest in peace talks. But for thousands of civilians who have been injured or lost a loved one at the hands of the Taliban, the idea is abhorrent.
Peshawar, Pakistan — Hazratullah Khan, who lost his right leg below the knee in a car bombing, answers immediately when asked whether the Pakistani government should hold peace talks with Taliban leaders responsible for attacks like the one that maimed him.
"Hang them alive," said the 14-year-old, who survived the explosion on his way home from school. "Slice the flesh off their bodies and cut them into pieces. That's what they have been doing to us."
Khan, who is from the Khyber tribal region, pondered his future recently at a physical rehabilitation center in Peshawar.
"What was my crime that they made me disabled for the rest of my life?" he asked as he touched his severed limb.
In recent weeks, the Pakistani government and Taliban forces fighting in northwestern tribal areas have expressed an interest in peace talks to end the years-long conflict. An estimated 30,000 civilians and 4,000 soldiers have died in terrorist attacks in Pakistan since Sept. 11, 2001 — many at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban.
To many victims of Taliban violence, the idea of negotiating with people responsible for so much human pain is abhorrent. Their voices, however, are rarely heard in Pakistan, a country where people have long been conflicted about whether the Taliban are enemies bent on destroying the state or fellow Muslims who should be welcomed back into the fold after years of fighting.
The Associated Press spoke with victims of terrorist attacks in Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi, Quetta and the tribal areas and their families to find out how they felt about negotiating peace with the Taliban.
Khan's classmate, Fatimeen Afridi, who was also injured in the same bombing in Khyber, said he would be happy to see negotiations with the militants — but only after those who maimed him were punished. Afridi's left leg was amputated below the knee, shattering his dream of becoming a fast bowler on Pakistan's cricket team.
"If I find them, I will throw them in a burning clay oven," he said.
The push for peace talks gained momentum in December when the leader of the Pakistani Taliban offered to negotiate. The government responded positively, and even hinted that the militants would not need to lay down their weapons before talks could begin. That would be a reversal of the government's long-held position that any talks be preceded by a ceasefire.
So far, there have been few concrete developments, and it's unclear whether Pakistan's powerful military supports negotiations.
Skeptics doubt the militants truly want peace and point to past agreements with the Taliban that fell apart after giving militants time to regroup. Others say negotiations are the only option since numerous military operations against the Taliban have failed.
The biggest question — especially for many of the Taliban's victims — is whether the Taliban will have to pay any price for the people they are believed to have killed and wounded. The government hasn't said whether it would offer the Taliban amnesty for past offenses.
Many of the victims feel forgotten, saying no one has asked their opinion about holding peace talks. They have to fight for what little health care they can obtain, and there's almost no assistance for dealing with psychological trauma caused by the attacks.
Dr. Mahboob-ur-Rehman runs a private medical complex in Peshawar, a large facility that houses a prosthetic workshop and a therapy school, where both Khan and Afridi are being treated. Rehman said the Pakistani army has a state-of-the-art facility to treat its soldiers while there is little help for civilians. He estimated that roughly 10,000 civilians have been permanently disabled after losing limbs in Pakistani Taliban attacks.
In the southern city of Karachi, 12-year-old Mehzar Fatima was shot in the back when a gunman killed her father, a Shiite Muslim. The sectarian groups often accused of carrying out such attacks are closely aligned with the Pakistani Taliban. The gunshot left her unable to move her legs and feet and she fears she might never use them again.
Her mother, Kishwar Fatima, said she's being pressured to leave the hospital where the girl is being treated because there's no government assistance to help pay her bills.
Those wounded in the violence feel further victimized because many Pakistanis don't even agree on who is to blame for their suffering.
Despite the huge loss of life and property, the views of many Pakistanis are influenced by right-wing, anti-American propaganda that spawns conspiracy theories about the terrorist attacks. Fellow Muslims could never commit acts of violence against their own people, they say, so someone else must be to blame. Some theories suggest U.S. and Indian intelligence agencies support the Taliban and other militant groups to destabilize Pakistan.
Some people who support the militants think the Taliban are better than many of Pakistan's corrupt politicians who have failed to deliver good governance. Many Pakistanis also say the militant problems in the tribal areas are a result of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and when the U.S. leaves, the Pakistani Taliban will also stop fighting.
Even some of the victims aren't sure who is to blame.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for a Feb. 2 suicide attack that killed 23 people in the northwestern city of Lakki Marwat. But Mohammad Shafi, whose 24-year-old son was among nine soldiers killed in the explosion, isn't convinced the attackers were members of the Taliban. He says Muslims would never hurt a fellow Muslim.
Instead, Shafi thinks his son — a boxer who never lost a fight before he was shot seven times during the attack on an army post — was killed by Hindu agents that archrival India sent, with U.S. assistance, to destabilize Pakistan. He said Pakistan should sever ties with the U.S. to abolish terrorism.
"If my son was killed by infidels, he has been martyred and will go to heaven," he said.
Confusion over who is responsible for the deadly violence also has some victims wondering if the Pakistani government makes peace with the Taliban, will it also make peace with other militant groups.
Will the government, for instance, hold talks with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a group linked to al-Qaida that is accused of killing more than 175 Shiite Muslims during the past two months in the southwestern city of Quetta?
Ghazanfar Ali lost his 24-year-old son in one of these attacks on Jan. 10 in Quetta. Another of his sons survived the same attack after three major surgeries.
Ali broke down in tears as he recalled sifting through rubble and identifying his son's body by the ring he had on his finger because his head and face were wounded beyond recognition.
"There can't be peace with the Taliban," he said. "They slaughter a son in front of his father and then chant 'God is great!'"
Associated Press writers Riaz Khan and Rasool Dawar in Peshawar; Zaheer Babar in Lahore; Abdul Sattar in Quetta; and Adil Jawad in Karachi, Pakistan contributed to this report.