In July 2009, the Pulitzer Center again partnered with Helium to produce round seven of the Global Issues/Citizen Voices Writing Contests. Contestents chose from writing prompts and crafted essays regarding the most pressing international issues of the day.
Top round seven winners based their essays on the following question:
With mounting violence, a surge in Taliban support and growing numbers of displaced persons making front-page news in Pakistan, are we getting an accurate picture of realities on the ground?
As a beginning, one must understand and sift through the euphemisms and terms that define the question. Taliban, etymologically, simply means to 'seek', and in context, seek learning. The people, who are causing the heart wrenching drama in what is essentially one of the most beautiful yet fragile places in world, are nothing such. They are people who are using a horribly skewed interpretation of Islam as a weapon of fear.
And that is what the reality on ground really is. What the world sees and hears is a portion of truth, a dash of lies and a rather convoluted recipe of malignance. Pakistan is facing a true terrorist threat.
I am a student in one of Pakistan's best engineering universities, which happens to be unfortunately located in Swabi - a district that is practically next door to Swat and Buner: the two regions that are under the heaviest terrorist insurgence. I refuse to call these people Taliban, of course. They are terrorists, and one must adhere to that fact. I have also travelled to the valley of Swat in the years of peace. I have talked to locals. And opinions of the people are not what the world hears..
There is mounting violence, no doubt. There are civilian casualties, not to mention a heavy displacement of people that causes nothing but misery to the millions. But there is no real support for the terrorists. The people are of this region are placid, and peace loving. They do not like war. They do not like being put in turmoil. And they do not want to live in a system where their women cannot go out of home to buy groceries. They do not want to live under the threat of a bullet: and a bullet is all the terrorists ever promise them. For every one person who truly supports the ideology of these terrorists, there are hundreds who hate them. Are we getting an accurate picture of realities? We hear that support for the 'Taliban' is skyrocketing. The truth is - no. People are being displaced. Millions have been forced to flee. But talking to the internally displaced people - those in camps, and also the homeless ones - brings up few traces of bitterness towards Pakistan. I live in these areas. I know.
Truly, the government of Pakistan should have thought about these innocent people before launching an operation against the miscreants. Pakistan's army was trained to fight a pitched war against an organized army in unpopulated areas: on the borders of India. Fighting guerrilla type insurgents is not its forte. It is clumsy in this manner, to say the least. The government keeps telling us of one success after another. How successful is it? We cannot say. How hard can it be for the terrorists to disguise themselves as just another innocent soul thrown out in the chaos of war? Is that success? Eyewitness reports in this region indicate that the insurgents are often not even Pakistani locals. Who are they? Who trained them? Why? These are things the people who really live in this region want to know.
Our government tells us stories. The reality is otherwise.
The relief agencies, such as UNHCR and Red Crescent are active. The government is trying, even though we have no way to tell how much of the little aid that the world gives actually trickles down. The people here tell of aid trucks moving in and out all day. Rich locals are also being generous, sheltering people in their gardens. But the success of these schemes is doubtful. It is millions of disrupted people we are talking about, after all. This, perhaps, is the only major truth we all know of.
Elsewhere in Pakistan, bombs are taking their toll. Sadly, Pakistani people are becoming immune to all fear of bombs. Just one day after a major bomb blast, life returns to normal. There are a few murmurs of anger and discontent at nobody in particular, but they abate. Life goes on. I live in these areas, and I hear regular talk about lunch, cricket, marriage ceremonies, and pestilential neighbors. The media simply portrays the horrors, not the other side.
The media is potent. It bends the minds of people, and generates the collective will. But here, the media is misleading. The reality is that this region is not falling apart. The reality is one of desperation, but hopeful desperation. It is a reality where people need help, and aid, but the world is content to watch and pressurize the government to 'do more'.
The world does not get the realities at all.
The prospects for a Pakistani military victory against the Taliban are uncertain, and the public risks being lulled into a false sense of security. The news coming from the Swat Valley appears to be good. Daily updates on the towns siezed and number of militants killed and captured indicate the campaing is going well.
However, the source for the bulk of the available reporting is the ISPR, which is an acronym for the Office of Inter-Services Public Relations.According to the Federation of American Scientists, the ISPR is a Pakistani military command responsible for the production and dissemination of military news, and also controls media access to the military. The ISPR has in the past bribed and intimidated Pakistani journalists in order to ensure only favorable stories are published. Very few, if any, Western journalists have been able to report first hand from the battlefield and are reliant upon ISPR cables and pool reporting.
Anecdotal evidence from Pakistani bloggers and online newspapers are contradicting official military reports; especially on the issue of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) or refugees. One report indicates that a vast majority of camps are unofficial camps and that supplies are reaching critically low levels. Another report from the same source supports this observation and goes further by saying that IDPs are being refused entry into the Punjabi province due to "xenophobia". This is possibly a reference to reluctance by the Punjabi provincial government to establish IDP camps for the ethnic Pashtuns most affected by the conflict. This accusation has been denied by government officials in Punjab.
The return of IDPs to their homes provides insight into not only the accuracy of government reporting on the IDP issue, but battlefield reporting as well. Lifting curfews and encouraging residents to return home has been one way for the army to trumpet their success against the Taliban, but this tactic may lead to blowback and end up further undermining the army's credibility. Returning IDPs who are being interviewed by the press tell tales about coming back to devastated homes. The only other sign of conflict are scattered burned out hulks of army trucks and tanks. Residents are infuriated towards the government and the military, and openly express sympathy for the Taliban. This is reminiscent of the second conflict in Chechnya where after receiving resistance Russian forces would withdraw from the village, and then level the place with artillery and airpower. To their credit, the Pakistani army is evacuating the villages, but this allows the Taliban to escape with the populace, and still results in resentment when civilians return to find their homes, mosques, and businesses utterly destroyed.
The stakes are high in Pakistan. The nightmare scenario is Pakistan descends into civil war and Al Qaeda seizes a nuclear weapon.
A senior Al Qaeda leader has stated the group's intent to do just this, and is calling for more attacks against Pakistan to instigate the necessary anarchy to achieve this aim. The public in both Pakistan and the United States should remain vigilant and closely scrutinize the unfolding developments in Pakistan's war on terror against the Taliban. The press has a sacred duty to keep the public in a democracy informed so the government and military can be held accountable. Rosy reports of success should be greeted with skepticism and only celebrated when facts on the ground are clear.
 Office of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), retrieved from Federation of American Scientists, http://www.fas.org/irp/world/p akistan/ispr/index.html
 IDPs in Malakand division need urgent relief assistance, retrieved from The International News http://thenews.jang.com.pk/dai ly_detail.asp?id=180802
 Inside an IDP camp, retrieved from The International News, http://thenews.jang.com.pk/dai ly_detail.asp?id=180769
 Displaced residents return to destroyed Sultanwas village, retrieved from Dawn.com, http://dawn.com/wps/wcm/connec t/dawn-content-library/dawn/ne ws/pakistan/province
 Jamestown Foundation: Terrorism Monitor, Volume VII, Issue 14, May 26, 2009, www.jamestown.org
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the articles published on the websites of Helium and of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting are those of the authors alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of the Pulitzer Center or its staff.