Death threats, health campaigns and militant poetry. Not usual fare for a radio talk show host, but all in a day’s work for Fazal Rehman Mehsud.
Mehsud, 30, tall and powerfully built, like many members of the Mehsud tribe, works as show host and station manager at Radio Miranshah in Waziristan, the remote mountainous region of Pakistan that’s considered the epicentre of global terrorism. This is home territory for the Haqqani Network, once nurtured by the CIA and now one of the US’s most dangerous enemies.
Radio stations with real bombs
It is also in Waziristan that USAID has been funding radio stations to counter anti-Western propaganda and to increase awareness of health and education issues.
Not all the American initiatives have been successful. One station was blown up. This is a conservative region. Waziristan does not like change. Women are not allowed to head households, go to school, hold jobs, or decide whom they will marry.
But alongside the requisite weaponry, every household also has their radio. Formal audience measures aren’t made in North Waziristan, but judging from listener feedback, Mehsud thinks 30,000 to 40,000 people, or roughly 10 percent of the population, listen to his show. “I host this show to create awareness among the people of North Waziristan and tell them that they need to come forward and find solutions for their problems,” he told me from the relative safety of his station, which is housed in a military camp.
Radio that’s part government, part local
Radio Miranshah is a government-run radio station with eight staff, all men. It is still funded by USAID. The government controls some programming, like the news that is beamed out straight from the capital Islamabad. But the station also broadcasts shows on local issues, sports and music as well as health and religion.
Mehsud grew up on a farm in South Waziristan. As a child he walked 2.5 miles each day to school, in an area with few roads. When he was young he wanted to be a social worker, “to bring change to my area and awareness to my people.”
Eventually he decided instead to go to journalism school at Gomal University in Dera Ismail Khan, a southern town in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa Province. This is where he and I first met. I was a year older than he was, but could tell he had the passion and curiosity to be a good newsman. What surprises me is that he ended up in radio: he wasn’t very talkative in those days.
A shot in the dark and the day
“My people have been left far behind and it is my duty to give them voice,” he says. He believes he can help them into modern times. Even when some of them want to shoot him for it.
In one case a local religious scholar or imam started denouncing Mehsud on a regular basis, accusing him of working for the infidel – i.e., American –agenda. Mehsud himself is a devout Muslim. “Life and death is in the hands of God,” he says. Still, he was nervous at becoming a target for militants. So he called the imam, told him he had a melodious voice and invited him to take part in the station’s religious program. The imam agreed. When he appeared on air, people asked him why he had been on the “infidel’s” channel. From then on his accusations against Mehsud were neutralized.
On another occasion, Mehsud was promoting the use of the polio vaccine. Polio is rare in most of the world but it is still a problem in Pakistan, whose National Insitute of Health says 173 cases were reported in 2011. But Waziristan’s religious scholars blocked the campaign, saying it was un-Islamic. They claimed the vaccines made men sterile. Mehsud was threatened repeatedly.
“I am a tribal myself and know the system well,” he says. “I requested some local elders to intervene and rescue me as I was running this campaign for the good of common people. The polio campaign went ahead and I consider this an achievement that will make me feel proud always.”
The one time Radio Miranshah was silenced was in 2009. The reason? The station had been accepting calls from female listeners. According to local tradition, the voice of a woman is as sacred as her face and should not be heard by people who are not relatives. The Taliban threatened to kill Mehsud and blow up the station. But people in Miranshah missed the radio. The jirga (or assembly of elders) debated the problem, and worked out a compromise: Radio Miranshah could transmit as long as it did not take calls from female listeners.
Click to hear a clip of Fazal’s show on polio:
Thankfully, life is not serious all the time at the station. Bored militants sometimes call in and request songs, under assumed names. Mehsud will ask them why they listen to music that clashes with their ideology. “They say, ‘well after all we are also emotional Pashtun and want to pass time with something,’” he says.
Poetry is also popular with the insurgents. They call and recite their poems to Mehsud. Some he plays on air, but he has to be careful of its content. Many of the poems extol the beauty of boys. Such poems run counter to Islamic ideology, but militants, as ‘soldiers of God,’ can get away with it.
The price he pays
Mehsud pays a high personal price for his dedication to the station. He cannot leave camp, for fear of being shot. He has no access to the Internet or cable TV. His wife and two kids aged seven and three live 143 km away. He sees them perhaps twice a month, traveling by military convoy.
His wife thinks he should leave his job. But Mehsud feels that he must stay. He says that because people participate in his programs shows they are using debate and dialogue to resolve issues, not violence. “Outsiders will not come to change our lives; we have to make efforts for change. I have accepted this challenge and I will keep working for it. The change is coming,” Fazal says.