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Saving Sons: A woman in Pakistan dares to convince & bring young radical boys back home, with their mothers’ help

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The landscape appears strangely rugged, despite its lush green meadows and mountain ranges topped with snow. Perhaps this is because the soil of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), Pakistan’s once pristine Northwestern province, has absorbed too much blood. For its inhabitants, the silence here is merely a lull. Fear lurks behind the striking green eyes of the almost European-looking children here, even as they run to school or play cricket in the streets. They seem much too aware for their young years – aware of words like terrorism, drones, and death. They overhear their mothers talking over cups of sticky sweet tea cooked over wood fires, their conversations fueled by loss and despair.

Nearly every home here has lost one or more male family members to the scourge of violence – the lost are victims, or perpetrators, or sometimes simply suspects who have vanished: either into the abyss of a grave or into nothingness. For those of us who know this part of the world through news snippets, these men are mere statistics. The tragedy of conflict in Pakistan is seldom given a human face by the international media. And the women who mourn these lost men are even more veiled to the world.

Her name is Mossarat Qadeem. She is a daughter of this soil. As the loudspeaker of the mosque near her office summons the faithful to Friday prayers, she respectfully covers her head. In her office, a prayer mat and the Holy Quran sit handy. It is this deep connection with Islamic teachings of peace and the value of human life that has given her the strength to pursue a perilous quest. In her soft, measured voice, she begins her story.
Mossarat has taken on one of the most difficult challenges a peace-builder can ever confront: to convince young radicals in the making to come back home and to embrace life. Her bridge to each of these boys is usually a woman – his mother or his wife or his sister; women reach out to Mossarat because they trust she can help them.

She never envisaged this life. Born of an educated but non-political family from the KPK region, Mossarat majored in Conflict-transformation and Peace building at university. She studied and graduated in the United Kingdom, but realized during her student days that “we were studying conflict-transformation as practiced by other nations, but not tailored to our own cultures.” With her degree, Mossarat should have become an academic in the safe bubble of a university back home. Instead, she was practically thrust into the danger zone. “When conflict began in my own area,” she says, “I realized it was time.”

While working with Internally Displaced Persons in refugee camps, she heard of a woman no one wanted to meet because her son was a terrorist. “Everybody said I shouldn’t, but I felt I must meet her. A colleague agreed to lead me to her house. But he showed me the house from a distance and promptly disappeared.” She entered and found only women. “About ten of them,” she recalls.

Initially, it was Mossarat who was interrogated. But, in the end, the mother of the boy, overwhelmed by pent-up fear and emotion, shared her story: “My son has been taken. People say that he is responsible for killing people with the help of a remote-controlled bomb. But my son is not like that. I know him! He is just 17. Please help me. Save my son.” Once this woman had opened up, the others did too. “My husband’s been taken.” “My father.” “My brother.” The stories were many, each unique, yet all similar.

“If your son is how you say he is, and is not inherently violent, I promise to help you,” Mossarat told the first woman. “At that moment I did not know what I was getting into. I asked to meet her son when he came to visit,” she says.

Months later, on a cold November night at around 11:30 pm, the desperate mother called Mossarat. The son had come. Mossarat wrapped herself tightly in a shawl and set out, traveling through the night, reaching her destination just in time to sit on the floor of that village home and have breakfast with the family.

“This could not have been possible without one-on-one trust building. I had remained in close contact with the mother for months, supporting her all along. This work is about human connection. Only through genuine trust can one convince a mother to introduce me to her son who is wanted,” says Mossarat, a fierce determination underlying the softness of her voice.

Convincing the mother to let her son surrender to security personnel was the first hurdle. “’They will kill him,’ she wailed in fear. I said to her, ‘I give you my word! They will have to kill me before they kill him.’” Once the mother agreed, Mossarat started the process of convincing the boy by having repeated discussions with him about the concept of jihad in Islam. “The base of the problem is the wrong interpretation of religion. You have to counter that with religious reasoning. If you do not have solid knowledge of religion, you can’t do this,” says Mossarat, who has studied Islamic injunctions pertaining to jihad in depth. “Not many people have the courage to have dialogue around this issue. Why are we so afraid to talk about this?”
She then gave the boy time to wholeheartedly understand what she had said. Finally, he called her himself. “I am ready to surrender,” he said.

Mossarat’s next hurdle was to reach an understanding with Pakistani security personnel. She told them she would turn the boy over only under certain conditions. “Do not torture him. Instead, give him time in a rehabilitation facility,” she demanded. He spent months there, being counseled and simultaneously learning skills like masonry and fan repair. “Tell me, the boys I save from the clutches of terrorists, if we do not work on their rehabilitation and sensitization for peace and tolerance, what use is it? Give them opportunities and another chance! The brainwashing has to be countered. We work on prevention and de-radicalization, but their reintegration into society is the toughest part of our work.” She stresses that she can only achieve this with young men not yet hardened beyond redemption.

In Mossarat’s opinion, no militant can be won back to the fold unless he is first acknowledged as a human being. Understanding where the boys are coming from is a critical part of her job. “They are hungry for recognition and respect,” she says.

This empathetic and humane approach comes easily to Mossarat because she herself is a woman and her way to these men is through the women in their lives. “You have to make the women understand the impact of terrorism on their personal life and the life of their family and community. It’s tough to develop critical thinking in these women who have been brought up in a patriarchal environment,” she says.

Life is difficult for the women of KPK. A lack of security has made things worse. Schools are often closed due to unrest. Those that are open, the girls’ schools in particular, live in perpetual fear of attack. Countless stories like that of Malala Yousufzai, perhaps the most famous daughter of KPK, wait to be told. So many homes no longer have male members older than 13, and have thus lost their breadwinners in a culture where women are often unable to go out to earn a living. Their men have either been lured into a ‘holy war’, or have been killed. Some have died because they chose to fight, others simply because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – a market or a wedding or a school, rocked by a bomb blast.

Poverty, cultural conditioning and social inequity leave young men and boys little choice but to take up arms. And while men are braving it out, women are braving it in, trying to keep radicalization from consuming their most precious possessions: their men.

“Part of my aim is to develop these women’s critical thinking so that they start noticing the changes in their son or husband,” Mossarat says. “If they’re aware, they will notice the sudden presence of a cell phone when the family cannot afford to spend 500 rupees ($5) a day on food. She will notice that her husband now has 25 new friends frequenting their home. She’ll notice the changes in attitude and conversation and priorities. But if she is in her usual slumber-like state she won’t know. She is not conditioned to.”

In rare cases – like that of a 21-year old boy who, thanks to Mossarat’s efforts, has completed his Bachelor’s degree and is working in a private firm – it is the mother who must be convinced. “This boy attended one of our training sessions with a hidden agenda to relay inside information to his mentors in the extremists’ network. However, he was so moved by the message of peace and the rationale behind the message that he came around,” says Mossarat. But it took months to overcome the resistance of the mother, who initially blamed Mossarat for converting her son into an “infidel”.

Mossarat has saved almost 80 boys thus far. She has also trained many mothers who are now working as peace practitioners at the grassroots level. But the journey has not been easy. There are nights she lies awake, traumatized by memories. “Particularly difficult is the part when the boys finally are ready to speak, to share, after a few months in rehabilitation. They burst out! They cry, they yell, they scream! They are uncontrollable. In many cases, they have withdrawal symptoms because they have been drugged,” she says.

Mossarat also has to walk a fine line between gaining support for her work and maintaining the privacy it requires. But her priorities remain clear: “I don’t want to romanticize my work by giving interviews and becoming a celebrity. I just need to do this. This mess of 30 years cannot be cleaned up in a day,” she says. “Conflict is about humans. It’s never about weapons. It has nothing to do with ideology or religion.”

Mossarat believes what is happening in Pakistan is too abnormal to even be termed a conflict in its strictest sense. “Innocent people are being hijacked. Those are the ones I am saving. Enough is enough. How long are we going to be killed by bullets and suicide attacks? Apathy is not an option. And believe me, the solutions are there. We just need to look deep enough.”

** For safety reasons and due to recent events in the region images of Mossarat Qadeem, the mothers and boys do not appear in this story.