Gul Rehman is glad to be back. "I can breathe… I feel free," says the 22-year-old. Like thousands of boys and young men from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, Gul was coaxed and coerced into joining the Taliban in what they called their fight "for the glory of Islam". He was only 18 years old. After a harrowing four-year journey, Gul Rehman has finally managed to return: having renounced militancy, he is back with his family and his community, reconnected and respected. It’s been a long road.
Gul’s home, the remote Bajaur Agency region in Northwest Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, has been ravaged by war. Since 2001, militant violence in FATA and adjoining areas of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province has left a trail of death and destruction. The war has cost more than 47 000 lives and € 58 billion in material losses. It has caused social upheaval and deeply damaged the local communities. Pashtuns (the Pashto-speaking ethnic group accounting for most of the area’s population) have long-standing traditions of tolerance and cooperation. However, over a decade of violence and hatred – with militants "decreeing" that women must not leave the home, hundreds of schools blown up, roadside bombs, suicide bombings and frequent drone attacks – has left communities and individuals traumatised.
The resulting atmosphere of fear has created fertile ground for Taliban recruitment. Thousands of families have lost fathers, sons and brothers to extremist indoctrination. The young men in particular are targeted. "Youths are inhumanly recruited and used for terrorism in our region," says Gul’s teacher. Naivety, deprivation, and lack of opportunities create openings for the extremists. "The younger children find it hard to refuse the terrorists, fearing for their own safety or reprisals against their families," says the teacher.
Gul’s personal experience relates how, once recruited, the young men are taught to glorify violence. "During our training, the extremists told us that our mission was as simple as touching two wires together and that the resulting blast would obliterate the infidels or those siding with them – but that God would spare us from the flame and shrapnel, protecting us from any harm," he recalls. “I was indoctrinated and numbed."
Finding a way back wasn’t easy for Gul Rehman, but he was also lucky – not least thanks to his mother. She was approached by PAIMAN, a local NGO promoting peace, non-violent dispute resolution and de-radicalisation. Supported by EU-funding, PAIMAN works with the local communities. One of its peace groups had identified Gul’s mother and supported her training as a tolana. The tolana (Pashto for "together") are central to PAIMAN’s strategy for creating non-violent communities. To achieve this, a Mother Tolana and Youth Tolana are set up in each community to reach out to their respective peers. The movement offers a way for the local community to address and resolve its own problems and disputes, and is becoming stronger and more popular by the day. Tolana members act as volunteers to resolve local feuds through mediation and dialogue.
"After the training I realised that my son needed to be brought out of the influence of extremism," says Gul Rehman’s mother. She persuaded her son to take PAIMAN’s phased course and work through a programme of de-radicalisation. It worked: "PAIMAN shattered my smug world of falsified indoctrination and gave me this positive thinking and this new life," says Gul.
Job-related skills training for the affected young men also forms part of PAIMAN’s programme, helping them find their way back to normal life. EU financial support enables PAIMAN’s trained counsellors to work closely with them until they are reintegrated into their families and communities. The tolana also act as an “early warning” mechanism, identifying young people at risk and alerting the community and relevant government departments to any activity that might lead to extremism. They hold sessions to raise the community’s awareness of the impact of violent extremism and act as advocates, representing their community at meetings with local administration and government departments.
Now Gul himself is a Youth Tolana, helping PAIMAN reach out to other radicalised or vulnerable young people. Community elder Hazrat Kaka is full of praise: "Gul Rehman today is respected for his voluntary services for his community," he says. Becoming a representative has been a significant milestone in Gul’s long journey back. Reflecting on how far he has come, Gul says: "I am now a trusted mediator in my community, whereas no one would even talk to me earlier". Both he and his mother are proud of this achievement.