Fighting against polio in Manghopir at her own risk


a baby being administered the life saving anti-polio drop

a baby being administered the life saving anti-polio drop


In Manghopir, the health centre is heavily guarded. A Rangers mobile stands at the gate. Uniformed soldiers stand in position; their overused AK-47s pointing at the main road ahead.

For the past few months, the centre has been used for two more purposes: a Rangers’ headquarters; and the residence of Farzana Baloch – a vocal woman who has been a part of local vaccination campaigns for the past 17 years. She heads a union council in Manghopir, a Taliban hotbed now.

In what was originally a simple job to provide healthcare at every doorstep, she and her family of six has been forced to leave her home and seek refuge in a few rooms at the centre, under the hawk-eyed guard of the paramilitary soldiers.

The problem? Delivering anti-polio vaccines in post-Osama Bin Laden world.

After reports emerge that the American intelligence agency used a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign to hunt down the Al-Qaeda chief, polio vaccination drive in Pakistan has suffered a major setback in Pakhtun-dominated localities.

Manghopir’s Sultanabad is no different.


“After the Mehsud Taliban took over entire neighbourhoods, it has been next to impossible for us to vaccinate the children against polio,” says Baloch, sitting in her sparsely furnished office at the health centre. “When we go to their houses, they invite us in for a cup of tea, and state that they just can’t get their children vaccinated against the polio virus.”

“Many of these families come to the centre later to get their children vaccinated against hepatitis and malaria, which are not part of the government’s door-to-door service, but take special care that the polio vaccine is not administered to them.”

The reason is propaganda from the pulpit and the pamphlets distributed, terming the polio vaccine a ploy by the West to render the Muslim world infertile.

“Why is the vaccination drive conducted only in Muslim countries?” are some of the questions Baloch has to answer frequently.

But recently there have been cases where mothers have quietly given anti-polio drops to their children when their husbands are not at home.

“The change has come through repeated advertisements run on the state television,” Baloch believes. “These Pakhtun families do not get cable television but rely on the good, old PTV for news and entertainment.”

She remembers how after Shakeel Afridi, the doctor who staged the CIA’s vaccination drive, was arrested by the law enforcers posters of Shahid Afridi, the famous cricketer working as a goodwill ambassador for international aid agencies, had to be torn off from the centre. “Both of them were ‘Afridis‘, and we were scared of a possible backlash,” says Baloch.

Intimidating presence

She has seen the worst days in the profession—days when she did not know if she would get home alive.

“Last year, young men from the Mehsud Taliban faction would sit in a neat row just outside my office. They never said anything but their presence was intimidating,” she said. “I asked all my workers not to talk to them, or confront them.”

There were times when she received threatening phone calls. “Stop what you are doing” the callers would say.

But she is happy with the change in her residence. “It’s safe here. And now my workers go in the field with the Rangers and police officials. They are not scared for their lives.”

“But when we enter a neighbourhood with the law enforcers, locals eye us with suspicion. They feel that we act as their spies.”

They have reason to do so. Often as soon as polio campaigns end, the paramilitary force launches a search operation. They pick up young boys and take them away for interrogation.

“For instance after we ended a campaign on July 5, the paramilitary conducted an operation the very next day,” says Baloch.

 More work

With the military operation in full swing in North Waziristan, she admits families of internally displaced persons, who have never been vaccinated, have begun arriving. This might mean added work for Baloch and her team.

“Sometimes I feel the vaccination drive is a never-ending hole which keeps on getting deeper. The polio vaccine is just an excuse. The actual fight is between the state and the people, who have taken up arms against it. Whenever the state decides the right way to tackle with this faction, polio would automatically become history.”

Her words make sense.

*her picture has not been published for security reasons

originally published here 


Guest column: A Pakistani journalist shares insights on Taliban


I can sit by the St. Johns River for hours and watch the dolphin fins as they merge into the waves that stretch for miles.

That’s the quiet and peaceful Jacksonville for me — a month-long visitor.

I come from Pakistan. Part of South Asia, sandwiched between India and Afghanistan.

Pakistan is a country with ice cold rivers, the second largest mountain peak of the world (K-2) and locals who would never let a guest pay for lunch.


After Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan sided with America in its war on terror.

There was no other option.

Pakistan’s port city became the base from which supplies to the NATO troops in Afghanistan would make way.

Meanwhile, while the search for Taliban commanders began in Afghanistan, some of them crossed into the northern tribal areas of Pakistan through a porous border called the Durrand Line.

Once in Pakistan, they set up their tribal courts and began implementing a crude form of Islam — where women were not allowed to step out of the house and public flogging was not uncommon.


Malala Yousufzai, a brave 12-year- old girl in those turbulent times, began writing a diary for the BBC describing how school girls had replaced school uniforms with regular clothes as they walked to school.

The idea was to fool the Taliban.

Even with danger of a gun looming on their heads, the brave girls did not stop going to school.

In the Swat Valley where Malala lived, the Taliban had banned girls from attending school.

For her writings, Malala became a local hero.

For the Taliban, she became a symbol of everything they stood against — female empowerment, Western education and books.

In the year 2012 as Malala mounted a school bus, she was shot in the head.

She survived the bullet.

And when she gave her first speech in the United Nations, she said, “I want education for the sons and the daughters of all the extremists, especially the Taliban.

“I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him. This is the compassion that I have learned from Muhammad, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and lord Buddha.”

This year, Malala was included in the list of nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize.


To purge the country of the Taliban, the Pakistan armed forces have conducted two military operations.

We are currently at war with the Taliban, and our troops are deployed in the northern part of the country.

American drones add to the fight by frequently targeting Taliban hideouts.

Whenever a Taliban commander is shot dead, there is backlash in the main cities: Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar.


There are suicide bombings and bomb blasts killing thousands.

Our police officers get blown up.

I have been at blast sites.

And I have survived them.

I know what they smell like — the raw blood, debris and fumes.

I have learned to block out the human emotion and the tears when I see body parts.

I have learned to tell the difference between a firecracker and a bomb blast.

Recently, when I walked through Jacksonville, I watched builders at work.

I heard a loud bang.

I thought it was a bomb blast.

Pakistan has lost 50,000 of its countrymen since the war on terror began.

There is chaos in our cities.

There is uncertainty.

There is crippling fear.

We survive a 9-11 every year, so that another 9-11 does not strike America.

Originally published here during a fellowship sponsored by the International Centre for Journalism