A Return to Pakistan


I’ll say it again, the casualties of terrorism in Pakistan have been many. The sense of loss is perennial. I see cricket and I relate that too, to a loss. The loss of a nation’s love to foreign lands, the exile of a nation’s love.

I look at my city, and I am often unable to recognize it.
The Lahore I knew was a Lahore of basant, concerts, cricket matches, festivals; a city constantly throbbing with life. Lahore today is the beating heart whose loud, wild and festive rhythms are muffled and arrested by high security alerts, barbed wires, check-posts, fences, and high walls. Arrested by an architecture and landscape of fear and insecurity, mirroring the one we have come to construct, and navigate through everyday, in our collective mind.

17022367_1860334464251748_573775710316885305_n

So many of us have spent the past few days and weeks pondering over and expressing how unwise and misguided holding the PSL final in Lahore is, and yet this return of cricket, this event, even if temporary, even if carefully orchestrated, even if precarious in the possibilities it offers, swept away all the supposed rationality, skepticism, cynicism and sense with which we argued. It was impossible to escape the significance of the event and the overwhelming emotions it brought it: the jazba, the junoon, the frenzy, fervor, joy, excitement – of a beloved’s return, of the recovery of something lost to where and to whom it rightfully belongs, of that persistent pester that refuses to die and continually tugs at the heart for embrace: hope.

And what happened in Lahore embodied it all today.

16996016_10158282530515324_4664250810193786260_n

The crowds, the dhamaal and Dama Dam Mast in the stadium, the electrifying spirit, the joy, the celebration, so beautiful, powerful and symbolic. That we remember Sehwan. That we celebrate Sehwan. That we are all that Sehwan represents. That we will not bow.

That this, this audacious defiance, is Pakistan.
That all is not lost, that we refuse to surrender.
That one day, we will prevail.

Call it what you will, a distraction, a silly show, but God knows we needed this. This was not a triumph against terrorism, it may change nothing, it may have been the extremely short-lived return of international cricket to Pakistan, but for a few hours, it was the return of millions of Pakistanis to the Pakistan they knew, the Pakistan they remembered, the Pakistan they miss.

May we come to see a time where the normal is no longer nostalgia, where this yearning for the normal is no longer normal. May Lahore and all of Pakistan once again pulsate with the celebration, joy and peace witnessed today.

(Also, may Lahore Qalandars have mercy on Fawad Rana and us, and atleast make it to the semi-finals in future editions of PSL….)

Thank you, PSL. Thank you, all policemen, officers and officials who helped make this happen.

Congratulations Peshawar, Warka Dang!

PAKISTAN ZINDABAD!

-Hafsa Khawaja

It Hurts, Deeply


*Originally published on the Dawn Blog. Unedited version below:

It hurts, deeply.

Lahore. Quetta. Mohmand Agency. Peshawar. Sehwan.

I wonder, will we ever live without this sense of fear and foreboding? This anxiety and fright of you or your loved ones stepping out of the house only to be separated forever.

One of the ways I spend quality-time with my younger sibling is to go to the cinema with him. There have been times when we’ve been there and I’ve been struck by anxiety, and seized by apprehension. What if someone blows this place up today? What if terrorists burst in here? Where is the nearest exit that I will be able to push Abdullah towards? How can I hide him? No, he’s too tall now to be hidden. What will we do if something happens? We shouldn’t be here. What if something happens? What if?

I wonder.

But I am distressed when he goes to school too.

I worry.

I worry someday the Badshahi Mosque, Minar-e-Pakistan, or other monuments and places of historical and cultural significance might come into the focus of terrorists. I worry my historical and cultural heritage will be irrecoverably taken from me.

Because nothing is sacred, nothing is certain.

This sense of fear, the sense of loss doesn’t lurk in the dusty corners of our minds, they loom on our hearts, crushingly. 

There are texts and emails every now and then. Identifications of potential targets. Security alerts and warnings. Places to be avoided. Emergency drills to be conducted and participated in. Fears to be grappled with.

For how long?

Normalcy eludes.

I thought nothing was left there to break me further after Peshawar, and yet we learn that what is shattered can be broken further. The past few days have reminded me of the 2008-2009-10 days, when we had ninety suicide attacks and five hundred bombings in a single year.

I thought we were past this. I hoped we were. I prayed we were.

The rising death toll. The need for blood donations. The full impact of the attack. The same old condemnations. The same old rhetoric. The same old statements. The same lies, the same passing the buck, formation of commissions, orders for inquiry etc. Until another attack. And repeat.

50,000 and counting.

We have come to a point where the names of cities are symbolic of the violence, loss and tragedy they have borne. Peshawar is not its history, Peshawar isn’t Fort Bala Hisaar, Peshawar is not Khyber Pass, Peshawar is not its heritage, its beauty, its culture, Peshawar is the APS Attack.

Quetta is not Quetta, Quetta is Hazara killings.

Cities are no longer cities, they are signifiers, signposts of tragedies. Of losses borne, of lives mourned.

The violence, the loss has subsumed everything.

The casualties of terrorism go even beyond the lives. They are tragic ruptures in what was once our cherished collective and celebrated cultural and social life and identity. I see cricket and I relate that too, to a loss. The loss of a nation’s love to foreign lands, the exile of a nation’s love.

Everything is a reminder of what we face. There is no distraction, there is no relief.

I am at a stage where I shut myself from social media when a tragedy occurs. Because I am a coward, I can no longer face it. I am selfish, because I don’t want to.

I am tired.

Where does one summon the strength from when all is sapped?

I can shut social media for a while, but I cannot shut torment and turmoil of my heart.

I think of the lives taken, I think of the promise held by their presence in others’ lives; the promise held by their existence for Pakistan; a promise betrayed.

I think of the healers, teachers, sportsmen, artists taken from us, who were never given the chance to know it themselves. I think of the ordinary person toiling all day to put bread on the table of his family, wanting to just return home at the end of the day. I think of the love, warmth and hope plundered from multiple lives and generation with the robbery of a single life, in a single moment.

I wrote this before, I’ll say it again:

There are times when I want to escape Pakistan, perhaps not physically, but certainly emotionally. There are times I want to close my eyes, my ears, my mind and my heart to the suffering in this land, for my own sanity and survival; only to wake up with seething pain realizing that its suffering and mine are inseparable and one.

Each gash and each scar you, Pakistan, have is mine, because your soil is my skin. I feel it, I live it. How can I rid myself of my skin but crush my soul? How can one ever disentangle from one’s roots?

The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud wrote, “How he must have suffered, poor man! To be the child of a place that never gave you birth” but I wonder, how much does one suffer, to be the child of a place that did give you birth; a place tormented and tortured.

It hurts, deeply.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Far From A Conclusion


*Originally published in Pakistan Today:

Mirrored by a decline in the number of terrorist attacks and incidences and the restoration of a semblance of law and order, Pakistan’s fight against terrorism has recently begun to be touted as a story of success.

However, within the month of December alone, a number of developments occurred which question this assertion. There occurred a siege and attack by a mob of 1,000 people on an Ahmadi mosque in Chakwal, during which a 65-year old man belonging to the persecuted minority suffered and died of cardiac arrest. The Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Sardar Muhammad Yusuf also happened to present a “peace award” to apostle of peace and esteemed ambassador of inter-sectarian harmony Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi, who is now a member of the Punjab Assembly after winning the PP-78 Jhang by-election. Furthermore, flocks of people were reported to be drawing to a site at the outskirts of the capital which was revealed to be the grave of Mumtaz Qadri that is now being turned into a shrine. News of the interior ministry’s preparation of the draft of a law which seeks to give military courts, whose term expired on January 7, permanent status also did the rounds. Lastly, while Jibran Nasir struggles to get a case registered against Abdul Aziz for his declared allegiance to ISIS and for incitement of hate against Shias, pressure from the Sunni Tehreek led to the registration of an FIR and a spate of death threats against Shaan Taseer, son of slain governor Salmaan Taseer, for conveying Christmas greetings to Christians in Pakistan and expressing hope of redressal for those subjected to the blasphemy law.

That these developments occurred within the span of a single month is an unsettling realization which also asks for the direction and narrative of Pakistan’s campaign against terrorism and extremism to be probed and reviewed.

A concrete answer to the question and status of Pakistan’s fight against terrorism and extremism is found in Justice Qazi Faez Isa’s inquiry report into Quetta’s Civil Hospital attack of 9th August 2016. The 110 page report provides extensive insights into the “monumental failure to combat terrorism and perform basic protocols” especially pertaining to the National Action Plan. It mentions not only a lack of action against proscribed organizations, that have freely held rallies in Islamabad, but also a brazen “cavorting” by key government figures with the heads of these organizations, as was demonstrated by the meeting between the interior minister and Ahmed Ludhianvi of Ahle Sunnat Wal Juma’at. The report further makes mention of lapses, limitations and inadequacies in terms of the tools and methodologies used to investigate attacks; along with sheer negligence in  “silencing extremist speech, literature, and propaganda” and the stark “shortsightedness” of the federal and provincial governments in thwarting terrorism and extremism.

The report is an act of Qazi Isa’s professional integrity and bravery, but it is also a damning expose and indictment of the government, the interior ministry and the failure and façade that is the National Action Plan.

The number of terrorist attacks and incidents in Pakistan may have registered a considerable drop in numbers but they are far from over. In fact, their focus in certain areas and upon certain communities remains as forceful and fatal as ever. The past year alone remains relevant in illustrating this. In 2016, a Shia majlis was attacked in Nazimabad, killing four. But denial about targeted killings of the beleaguered Shia community persist within the wider narrative of the population. Quetta was also frequently besieged by tragedies which have ceaselessly continued to devour and devastate the city. In August, the blast at the Civil Hospital killed an entire generation of the city’s legal community, while the attack on the police training academy took the lives of 61 cadets and guards. In September, suicide-bombers targeted a mosque in Mohmand Agency, and an Imambargah in Shikarpur during Eid prayers. Earlier in 2016, the attacks on Bacha Khan University and Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park took place. The sites for terrorist assaults may have shifted to neglected and orphaned “peripheries” like Quetta and FATA, but the danger and threat persist. And they will linger as long as state institutions remain divided on the matter and continue to keep in place dubious policies and doctrines that bar an unequivocal commitment to counter extremism and terrorism in all tints and tones. This is no longer a contention but a judgement officially articulated and validated by Justice Isa’s report.

On the other hand, the lifted moratorium on the death penalty, perhaps the only implemented measure of the much-hailed National Action Plan, continues to work in full force without any hindrance of transparency and accountability. According to the Justice Project Pakistan, an estimated 400 prisoners have been executed since the lifting of the moratorium, pulling Pakistan to the position of the third most prolific executioner globally. The JPP also states that a slim 16 per cent of the executions carried out since December 2014 were tied to charges of terrorism, while the rest involved juveniles and disabled inmates. The mockery and sham of justice continues at the courts and the gallows.

Moreover, the attack which gave rise to a national sense of urgency in dealing with terrorism has yet to be investigated. The APS attack, which the so-called “paradigm shift” and the National Action Plan were predicated upon, has actually been the subject of a concerted and brazen campaign of silencing and harassment which has been directed at the parents who have been tirelessly and bravely demanding an inquiry and investigation into the ghastly attack. Two years on, an inquiry into the APS attack has not been ordered but actively suppressed.

In light of these realities, as Pakistan steps into 2017 it is necessary to proceed with cautious optimism and realize that the calm engendered by a decline in terrorist attacks is relative and temporary as long as the roots and the many manifestations of the menace are not tackled.

This relative calm should not engender a sense of complacency among the federal and provincial governments whose approach to the issue already comprises craven surrender, prevarications and papering over the problem.

The scourge of terrorism and extremism doesn’t only need to be subdued but stifled and strangled to an end. There exists a dire for a fundamental change in the framework, direction, orientation and agendas of the state and the actors steering them. Neither declarations, nor a rhetoric of resolve and programs like the National Action Plan would suffice. Templates and infrastructures like the NAP can only aid and facilitate actual implementation on ground which demands political will, courage, vision and resolve that repudiate political expediency, cavorting, patronizing, pacifying and pandering to militant, sectarian organizations and the many faces and forms of extremism. Until then, Pakistan’s success against terrorism, drawn from a decrease in the number of attacks, must be recognized as partial success in a war with multiple battles and fronts, a war still far from a conclusion today.

-Hafsa Khawaja