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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Getting the ball rolling

There are some things that have become associated with Balochistan of late; most of them unpleasant. Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, even with its wide open spaces and tough terrain was once regarded as a melting pot of different ethnicities, cultures, and religions. Other images that the name ‘Quetta’ conjured up were a laid back lifestyle, hospitable people, apple orchards, and bustling market places famed for their selection of nuts and dried fruit. In the summers Quetta also served as a base for families vacationing in the not-too-far hill-top resort, Ziarat.

Sadly, a few of the things that come to mind nowadays when one hears ‘Quetta’ are ethnic and religious divisions, organised violence, acts of terror, and mysterious abductions. Not too surprisingly the general consensus for visiting Quetta is: avoid if possible. But closing one’s eyes does not make a problem go away. Some people are relocating from Quetta but most people will stay – regardless to the extent the situation deteriorates to. These persons of different ethnicities and subscribing to different faiths have lived in the same city for generations and will hopefully find a way to live together in harmony for many, many years to come.

Empathy is the essential ingredient for – not merely existing in the same place peacefully – but more importantly to help members of different communities understand one another better and to form relationships with one another. It is hard to empathize in dangerous and unstable times, but this is when it is needed the most. This point was brought home by a group of young people from the city who celebrated diversity and harmony through sports.

Shanti Nagar is an area of Quetta which has been historically inhabited by the Hindu population of the city. A stream and a watering station divide Shanti Nagar from the nearest Muslim settlement. Both communities have had an arrangement for years by which they share the watering station to replenish their water supplies. Tension existed though because of the waste disposed off into the stream. Since the Muslim area is located downstream, most of the trash found its way there.

With time as the levels of pollution in the stream rose tensions turned into a debate, followed by accusations and finger pointing when no mutually acceptable solution could be agreed upon. The standoff reached the tipping point when the elders of the Muslim jirga – a traditional tribal council whose decision is considered unquestionable – hinted at blocking off access to the stream and the watering area.

The solution to the looming crisis came from a group of young people in the most unexpected form. It is not uncommon for young people from both communities – young and old to form friendships. A group of friends comprising both Muslims and Hindus had also attended an Active Citizens training together. They grasped this as the ideal situation to put their training to the test. They put their heads together to come up with a way to encourage constructive dialogue in a friendly atmosphere. They reached the conclusion that to encourage members of both communities to start talking again some sort of positive interaction was needed. One such positive form of interaction they decided was sports.

Quickly two teams from both communities were put together to participate in a friendly football match. All arrangements were taken care of by the funds pooled together by the group of young Active Citizens. Community members were invited to attend the match free of cost and the total turnout on the day of the match was approximately 150 people. At the conclusion of the match elders from both communities were honoured, and young people from both teams spoke about the important role that dialogue plays in resolving conflict.

As a direct consequence of the efforts of these young people influencers from both communities resolved to clean up the stream and to help finance the building of a proper drainage facility. Within two weeks the stream was much cleaner and proper drains were built. Proper waste disposal has not been a topic of argument between these two communities since. Several football matches have been played though.

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