Islamabad: The stunning valley of Swat has long been known as the “Switzerland of Pakistan”. 160 Kilometers from the capital city of Islamabad, it is situated in the lap of exquisite mountains (the offshoots of Hindukush) enclosing stunning and enchanting valleys, lush green meadows and blue-water lakes. Swat has been inhabited for over 2000 years.
The old names given to the Valley were Udyana and Suvastuv, betokening the scenic beauty of the area and the river. The history of Swat dates prior even to the advent of Alexander the Great (327 BC) in this region. Around the 2nd Century BC, it was the main centre of Buddhism, and was also known as the Gandhara Civilization. It still has significant imprints of this ancient civilization and Buddhist shrines that attract tourists from all over the world.
In recent times, this region has witnessed a great deal of turmoil, such as subjugation and brutalities by militants and the massive displacement of people after the launch of military operations. Still reeling from these aforementioned crises, the monstrous floods in 2010 wrecked further havoc; leaving devastating impacts on economy, livelihoods and infrastructure. The cumulative effect of these traumatic circumstances bogged down the people of Swat.
UNDP’s ‘Sustainable Development through Peace Building, Governance and Economic Recovery in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Programme’, funded by the Government of Japan, has been intervening to mitigate the damages afflicted on communities in Swat and ameliorate their living conditions. The Spirit of Swat Sports Festival was envisioned, therefore, with the idea of bringing the people of the Valley back to life and getting them out of there. UNDP, with the assistance of the provincial government, made this 45 day festival happen. The objective was to revive the tourism industry, and get local communities together to promote peace and social cohesion.
During the festival, over 15 sports events including Car Racing, Hockey, Volleyball, Football, Badminton, Bodybuilding, Squash, Taekwondo, Marathon, Polo and Mountain Biking were organized. In addition, circus shows and musical concerts were also orchestrated that were attended by hundreds of thousands. People from other cities also came to enjoy the spirit of this festival. International paragliders and skydivers enthusiastically participated in the competitions. Three British skydivers jumped with a 30 meter long Pakistani flag from a height of 10,000 feet. A local news reporter named Shirin Zada also jumped with them, making an international record.
“My friends told me not to take this plunge as it was dicey. But I, as a gesture of appreciation towards this initiative, took the opportunity of jumping. Being a journalist and denizen of Pakistan, I thank UNDP for organizing this event and for providing me with this opportunity. It is a message of peace and is instrumental in raising awareness among the masses. It will be a big help in maintaining peace and attracting tourists back” said Shirin Zada.
The Country Director of UNDP, Toshihiro Tanaka attended the closing ceremony of the festival. He also went to see badminton matches, polo games competition, paragliding and personally took part in the activities. As a gesture of appreciation and encouragement, he distributed awards among the players. He admired the zeal and enthusiasm of the people of Swat. Attending the musical concert and listening to the music and in the late hours, he expressed solidarity with the artists, musicians and the people of Swat. “People were homeless. We hope to build their strength again, particularly their mental strength with a focus on their future aspect” Tanaka said. “One of the key means to development and reconstruction of this society was through social activities which everyone can participate, such as sports” he added.
Tanaka distributed sports kits for football, cricket and hockey that are played popularly in the Malakand region. The kits were provided through sports associations, catering to the needs of the players registered to the associations. The players were very enthusiastic to receive the much needed sports equipment. Distribution of these sports kits along with the matches has encouraged the players to engage in healthy sports activities on a regular basis.
Swat has had strong ties with folk music and the artists/singers of Valley were known for their skills. The militants intimidated them and broke their instruments. Slaying these artists became common. The environment was frightening for singers and artists. However, after peace returned to this area, artists who had fled their houses have started coming back to their homeland. The grand musical evening conducted in Kabal Tehsil (Subdivision) of Swat District was the first time in its history.
The musical evening was attended by a massive local public, functionaries of the civil government and the army. Songs by famous singers Shaz Khan and Haroon were mesmerizing and the joy was augmented by the dances of people in front of stage.
“Having seen this big and live-hearted crowd, I feel great. I feel like performing with my heart and soul. Performing for you is a matter of pleasure for me” said Haroon, who has just finished his performance.
Professor Muhammad Amjad is an artist and teaches at Baha-ud-Din Zikaria University Multan. He came all the way to Swat to perform in the festival. “This is my second tour to Swat. I have come here to make people happy, make them smile. They are coming with families to enjoy this peace festival. These are the same people who were scared of coming out of their houses two years ago” he said.
“This festival conducted with the support of UNDP is a healthy activity. It will help in relieving people from their psycho-social problems. I think similar activities should be replicated in other areas as well” said Zia-ur-Rehman a resident of Saidu Sharif.
“The good thing about this festival is that it has an array of activities like sports, motorcycling, music, dancing and many more. It’s a milestone in a journey towards peace and instrumental in getting the people of Swat out of trauma. This new activity is positive and different. People have come from far flung areas to see what is happening here” said Sami Khan from Mingora city.
Director General of Provincial Reconstruction Rehabilitation and Settlement Authority (PaRRSA), Shakeel Kadir said “The festival conducted with the support provided by the Government of Japan and UNDP continued for 45 days. The idea was to not only attract tourists but also arrange sports festivals in order to give some opportunities for social participation to the Youth here”.
A spellbinding demonstration of fireworks took place on the first and last days of the festival. Many people, including women and children, attended and took pleasure in this display of fireworks. “It is nice to have such functions and it is heartening to see such a large number of people coming to see these fireworks” said 27-year-old Saima who came to see the fireworks with her parents and siblings.
“Swat has faced a wave of conflict but now celebrates the return of good times. We are enjoying it, and we are having fun. Peace and prosperity is pervading in every corner of this area” said Mian Aamir Khan, a lawyer with the Swat Bar Association. “The flamboyant colours of this firework are once again instilling spark and passion in our youth” he added.
For more information, contact:
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pakistan
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