Friday, April 27, 2012

The Tragedy Of Flight 213

On Friday, the 20th of April, Bhoja Air flight 213 was streaking through the air. Somewhere near Chaklala, the plane, carrying 127 precious lives -- including 6 children and 5 infants -- exploded into a fireball and crashed into wheat fields. And so ended the hopes, dreams, apprehensions and anticipations of its passengers and their families. And so ended any hope -- once again -- that the Pakistani media would ever show any decorum in the face of horrible tragedy, reinforcing the idea that ratings and sensationalism always come before humanity and compassion.

While Pakistan staggered under the weight of this loss, we sat glued to our television sets for news. Instead, what we got was a running commentary, like at a cricket match. Wannabe, pseudo-journalists trampled around the grounds where over 100 people lost their lives violently. They picked up pieces of the wreckage for a voyeuristic show-and-tell, and once done, tossed them back unceremoniously into the smouldering piles. What passed as news during those first few hours was mostly nothing more than speculation, delivered with a cruel detachment by men and women with mics and cameras, who pass as journalists in our media.

The media, whether it likes it or not, has a responsibility. We look to it to let us know what’s going on in the world. Instead, the Pakistani media has become a ratings-hog. Nothing is off the table, no tragedy, no suffering. I want to know: did any one of them, while trampling all over the wreckage, think of how they would have felt if, God forbid, one of their loved ones was on that doomed flight? Would they still have been as callous and factually careless with their “reporting?”  

Our so-called leaders are not far behind the media in disappointing their constituents. The Blame Game was fast and furious. Rehman Malik was quick to point out in his usual oh-so-empathetic manner:  “If the airline management doesn't have enough money it doesn't mean you go and buy a 30-year-old or more aircraft as if it were a rickshaw and start an airline." So, let me get this straight: is he trying to tell us that if people aren’t mindful of their actions, and industrialists are trying to start new businesses and make money, then the government has no responsibility to make sure that everything is done up to code? To make sure that carelessness doesn’t turn into tragedy like, say for instance, a plane crash that kills all onboard? Last I checked, the Civil Aviation Authority operated under the Ministry of Defence.

Bravo, Mr. Malik! You constantly ensure that the people have no choice but to distrust the government! I’m sure you’re very proud of your statement, since it absolves you of all responsibility. But what about guilt? How are you handling that? Sleeping well these days?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Dilemma Of Lyari

Lyari. The name has become synonymous with notoriety and violence. This is one of the few neighborhoods of the world, that has achieved fame of this level, without a PR team, without any celebrity sightings or soft white sand beaches and tourist spots. Instead it’s claim to fame has been the kind that majority of Lyari  residents would rather have done without. But in Pakistan, who cares what the majority wants. It is the need of the privileged few that always surpasses the need of the many!

Gang wars are the special of the day. Violence erupts on the street without warning and whoever falls prey is just collateral damage.  The brunt of these attacks is always borne by the innocent bystander, the man on his way to work, the child on his way to school.The government in power, which incidentally was supported overwhelmingly by the citizens of Lyari, has made a great show of raiding the area several times to clean it up but have been less than successful. The seriousness of these raids can be determined by the name given to them by the people: cosmetic raids. These so-called raids are nothing more than the government and police officials standing outside the limits of Lyari and posturing and posing in front of media and camera crews.

At one time Lyari was known for its street schools. There were more than a hundred of these schools on street corners where kids and adults were taught, for a nominal charge, by college students in their free time. Not only did this provide education but also gave the college students an income to continue their education. Now only five of these schools remain. They are not able to have regular classes because of the random eruption of violence and volunteers are few. To add insult to injury,children, some as young as five years old, are being recruited by gangs. Their toys are being replaced by handguns. There have been incidences where these children have tried to leave the gangs only to meet with unfortunate circumstances.  

It is not just the violence that is plaguing Lyari. Highly addictive substances like Gutka and Mainpuri tobacco are being sold openly despite being banned by the government. But since, in Lyari, the sellers of this cancerous poison hold the favor of the power- that-be, the ban is enforced selectively.  The only effect this ban has had in Lyari is that the price of these chewable tobaccos has doubled. Elsewhere these are sold in secrecy but in Lyari they are sold in full view and without fear.

Will the men, women and children of Lyari ever get a break or are they condemned for generations to come. They are being held hostage with no one making the commitment to save them. Rehman Malik made a joke at the expense of the very people who brought his party into power, rhyming “Katchi” with “Machi”. A statement which was neither intelligent nor funny. This is how much respect the constituents have from their leaders. It boggles the mind trying to figure out how it is possible that a government that has an entire police force at its command is unable to bring peace to a single neighborhood. A neighborhood in the heart of Karachi.  These people are the lifeblood of the ruling PPP party. Benazir Bhutto referred to them as her “ladlay” (beloved). Bilawal Bhutto, the crown prince of PPP, is slated to be the next representative of Lyari. And yet the law and order situation here rivals that of Hell! If PPP is treating their beloveds in this manner then what hope does the rest of the country have!  

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Siachen: Hell At 20,000 Feet

On the morning of April 7th, Pakistan woke up to the news of a terrible tragedy. At around 6:00 AM Pakistan Standard time, the Pakistani base at Gyari, near the disputed Siachen Glacier was struck by an avalanche. It buried an area of roughly a kilometer wide trapping 138 soldiers and civilians under 70 feet of snow.

Across the world, six Peruvian miners were trapped in a mine collapse. Their President was on site. He was fully knowledgeable of the rescue efforts. He was also in contact with the trapped miners talking to them, encouraging them, giving them hope.  Meanwhile, our President diligently went about the demanding job of thoroughly enjoying his vacation and documenting it with photographs of all of his teeth displayed in wide smiles like a trophy president.  But then that begs the question: What contest in hell did we win to get this trophy?

Do we even know why our troops were there? According to historical data, the Siachen glacier was not divided in the Simla agreement because UN officials presumed, mistakenly, there would be no dispute between India and Pakistan over such a harsh and barren region.The conflict started when American maps started showing the entire 5,000 km of the glacier as part of Pakistan and Pakistan started believing it. They proceeded to profit from it by issuing permits for mountaineering expeditions. This caught the attention of the Indian Government and started a conflict in 1984 which has lasted to this day.

Siachen, the name, ironically meaning a bed of wild roses, is the highest battleground on earth. Both, India and Pakistan, maintain a permanent military presence in the region at a terrible cost. During this time approximately 8,000 lives have been lost. Only a fraction of them have been combat related. The rest of the deaths have been due to  frostbite, altitude sickness, heart failure, inadequate cold weather equipment, avalanches and landslides. According to The News, the cost to maintain this conflict has been estimated at upwards of Rs. 50 million per day for Pakistan.

Who will be the first to realize that this a senseless war, being fought over a piece of god-forsaken land. The human toll is enough for governments to take notice.  One Pakistani soldier dies every three to four days. But what of those they leave behind. Entire families depend on one person. As a soldier dies, a family is condemned. If the government could peacefully resolve Siachen and reallocate the money, these soldiers would not die needlessly in a frozen wasteland leaving behind families to fend for themselves in an unforgiving world.  There are no houses for these families, no college-funds for the fatherless children. Only a bleak and uncertain future. So the toll is two-fold. Not only does the country lose valuable assets when soldiers die, their children, the next generation of future doctors, educators, engineers are also sentenced to hopelessness and uncertainty. Some of these families never recover. They are barely getting by in a soldier's salary, without it they have nothing. What could the future possibly hold for these children except a downward spiral into oblivion? In some of these cases the only salvation and sense of purpose these children find might be among the ranks of radical organizations like the Taliban, who can exploit their anger and resentment.

Alongside everything, the military presence on the glacier is destroying the environment.  While most of the glaciers on the Karakoram side have expanded in the past years, Siachen has reduced in size by 30 percent. Experts claim that half of that is due to troop movements. The waste that is being generated by these troops and dumped into the glacier has been estimated at more than 2000 pounds per day. The garbage consists of human waste, plastic and metal which is further poisoning the ecosystem. The indigenous wildlife is being threatened. The melting water from this glacier feeds many  rivers, Indus among them. These waters are being poisoned by toxins generated by the garbage and leaching into the rivers. So, we are basically fighting over a giant melting ice cube where nobody wanted to live in the first place.

But as usual, inflated egos get in the way of logical  reasoning. How long will it take for governments to realize that there is no military solution to this problem. That much should be obvious after almost thirty years of stalemate. Bilateral talks are the way to a resolution but egos need to be checked at the door.  Make it a demilitarized zone. Bring our boys back home. Reallocate those thousands of dollars from the destructiveness of  war to projects of peace and progress. Use that money to feed and educate our people rather than put our bravest in harms way.

According to Indian Foreign Minister, Ranjan Mathai, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered his help to Pakistan, Zardari thanked Manmohan Singh for his offer and said that he would check if there was any requirement, he would revert. ( ) Maybe that was the point where our president could have taken the first step towards a non-military resolution instead of sounding totally oblivious to a great tragedy. I hope he had a great time during his vacation while our troops died as a result of senseless policies.  

Monday, April 9, 2012

Acceptable Losses?

A US Soldier has been charged with the mindless slaughter of 17 Afghan villagers. His lawyers claim that he is not responsible for his actions, as he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. The lawyer is confident that his client will not be charged, as he cannot be held responsible for his actions. Instead of the death penalty or even a lifetime of incarceration, there is a possibility that this soldier will spend his life in therapy.

PTSD is a debilitating condition which affects people who witness, or are a part of, situations where they are in danger of great injury or death. It is often assumed that this is a condition prevalent only in soldiers, but nothing can be further from the truth. Civilians living in violence are just as prone to be affected by this condition as soldiers. A survey of refugees in a Bosnian camp revealed that approximately 33% were suffering with depression, 25% were diagnosed with PTSD while 20% exhibited symptoms of both depression and PTSD. Also, these civilians are also prone to ill health later in life at a greater than others.  

The Afghan people have been living in a war-torn country for generations. They have been exposed to all of the civilian markers of this debilitating condition. They have been bombed, they have been shot at and they have been displaced from their homes. They have lost loved ones, suffered from financial and physical hardships and been restricted from food, water and other necessities. They have suffered, witnessed and have perpetrated violence and are now suffering the consequences.

To cope with the symptoms, most turn to hardcore drugs and prefer to drown out the memories. Few try their hand at making light of the situation. A group of Afghans interviewed about their experiences couldn't stop laughing while recalling their stories. One of them, between bouts of laughter,  talked about how he had been tortured by three different regimes as he had tried to overthrow all three of them. But humour is not enough to cure this dangerous and relentless condition. Not only did this man appear to be ten years older than his peers, he also died of bad health a few years after his interview.

Most of these civilians either don't realize that there is anything wrong with them, or don't admit it. To add insult to injury, the few Afghans who, either themselves realize that they have a problem or have relatives who are concerned, have nowhere to go for help. The closest hospital, where these psychological problems can be dealt with, is in Peshawar, Pakistan. Getting there is a perilous and stress inducing journey in itself. Regardless, they come to Peshawar with hopes of putting the demons of war to sleep. Some making the trip from as far away as Kabul.

The doctors in Peshawar are already dealing with a dramatic rise in mental health problems among Pakistanis living in the tribal areas along the border. Some claim that these numbers have increased threefold.  In the border areas, people are constantly exposed to conflicts between the Pakistani army and the militants. They also live in constant fear of death from American drone attacks. This constant exposure to mindless violence leads to all sorts of psychological disorders.  

These doctors are overwhelmed by the volume of tragedies that they are facing. One psychologist who runs a private hospital often ends up diagnosing and treating up to 70 patients per day. Some nights, he is treating patients until midnight and ends up spending the night in his hospital.  Almost all patients are sent away with a prescription for antidepressants and tranquilizers. There is not much else he can do with the sheer number of patients and the limited resources at hand. These patients need psychotherapy, family therapy, cognitive and behavioral therapy as well as coping skills for dealing with their life.  

PTSD is not the exclusive domain of the American soldier. It does not discriminate. It is an equal opportunity life-destroyer and, in some sort of a weird karmic payback loop, it targets the oppressors and the oppressed alike. But, most of all,  those affected, whether warriors or innocent bystanders, need the eyes of the world on them.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


A man and his brother killed and a woman injured. They were attacked by armed gunmen who wanted them dead because of a difference in political belief.  Is human life worth so little that it can be snuffed out over a difference of political opinion. Do we hate each other so much that we can justify murder?   

What happened to us? We fought for our freedom against insurmountable odds. We stood up against the British Empire and we won. At that time when countries were being carved out of the world on ethnicities, we stood together, shoulder to shoulder. Sindhis, Baluchis, Pathans, Muhajirs, and Punjabis and fought hard to demand a nation on the basis of our beliefs, as Muslims.  Why, now, are we fighting just as hard to break our country apart?

Is each group so dissatisfied with the state of affairs that they are willing to pull apart from what they fought so hard for, a mere 60 years ago? The separatists in Baluchistan want their own nation because the army has laid siege to their villages and cut off their supplies. According to a report by UNICEF, the Bugti and Marri children are among the most malnourished in the world. The Sindhi separatists want their own nation because their resources are being looted, they are denied growth and development. FATA has always been out of the range of the Constitution. Muhajirs want to preserve the integrity of the country, but they yearn for a province of their own as they feel that they need to fight for their rights. The Punjabis seem to be biding their time. Under these circumstances, who wouldn’t feel powerless and marginalized?

But tearing our country apart is not the answer. What we seem to forget is that we -- the common people -- have all the power. During these hard times, we have seen leaders emerge who hold the confidence of their people. If there are people that the Baluchis, Sindhis or Pathans consider competent enough to lead them out of disaster, then elect them to positions of power. Take a lesson from the Muhajir playbook. Elect your representative to power and then hold them accountable.  Don’t do away with the federal government, but make your provincial governments stronger. If they fail you, find new leaders.

We are a strong and proud people. We are passionate about what we want. We have leaders among us. How long are we going to keep making the same mistakes, electing the same heartless souls to power again and again,only to push us further into misery? We should all rise up and stand together once again, and fight the corruption and hatred that is eating us from the inside. We should vote according to who will work for us. We make the mistake of voting for political parties because of a warped sense of loyalty.That is where we go wrong.  Let them compete for our vote rather than us competing for their handouts. If the party you have been voting for through generations is not fulfilling its promises, don’t vote for them. Vote for a person who is sincere, even if he belongs to a different party. Then we will have a progressive society where the voters are empowered.

One strong country. A country where the voters have the power and the government is the public servant. This is the goal towards which we should strive. The people who make decisions that affect the life of the common man on the street should be from the streets. What do the privileged elite know of our pain? Have they ever gone hungry? Have they ever looked for a job? Have they ever worried about where the next meal will come from?

Let us come together as a nation and not as the tattered fragments of one. Let us burn our old animosities and prejudices and rise together as one, stronger than ever. Then, and only then, will we be noticed. It is time we stop being the victims and become game-changers and king-makers.