Dec 18, 2009

Those left behind

By Talat Farooq

"I decided to join the army because I dreamed of becoming a general and enjoying the glamour and the perks that go with the position," the young lieutenant told me. "But a few days ago, as I carried the dead bodies of two six year old boys in my arms, my whole perception of life changed. I don't care about becoming a general anymore; all I care about now is to die ten times over as a lieutenant for my people and my country."

He was answering my query as to what made him join the army. He was a member of the team that carried out the rescue operation at the Parade Lane mosque, and was himself wounded during the process. This conversation took place during my visit to army hospitals and Parade Lane as a member of a social workers' group. The visit entailed our meetings with injured officials and their families, including those who lost their children in this act of brutality. Their eyes welled up as they spoke of the young boy who was killed while shielding two smaller children with his body. Their eyes shone with pride as they talked about the officers who stood up to the terrorists with bare hands. They recalled with horror the chilling words of the terrorists as they went on their killing spree: "No child will be spared today. There are more children on the first floor, throw more grenades there… Congratulations! The murtads (apostates) are dead…. '

These survivors are now on a different plane of existence. Having the trauma they will never be the same again.

In the last two years more than 3,000 attacks have been carried out in urban Pakistan, in which nearly 4,500 people have lost their lives. Those whose lives were prematurely terminated are the lucky ones; those left behind are the ones who will have to nurse a broken heart, and in many cases, wrecked bodies, for as long as they live.

We cannot remain aloof at the emotional level anymore. This is exactly what the terrorists want; an emotional reaction, rather than a logical and systematic response. The virus of terrorism aims at the nerve centre of our confidence in democracy and democratic systems. It aims to destroy our faith in institutions and communities. The emotional state that the terrorists induce is meant to block analytical thinking. Such a state of affairs helps perpetuate the terrorists' agenda, which is cold and calculated in comparison. Our response has to be equally calculated and well-thought-out. Such a response must be twofold, involving both state and society.

The government must formulate a comprehensive anti-terrorism policy. This policy should be grounded in domestic ground realities and must be seen by people as effective. Prevention through legal measures may be difficult at the state and local levels, but it is not impossible. Those apprehended after the terrorist attacks must be brought to justice through speedy trials and awarded severe punishments. This would help in not only curtailing terrorism but would also revive people's faith in the government's professed intention to make Pakistan secure for its citizens. The terrorists and their supporters constitute a small percentage among the 180-million-strong populace.

People would come forward to help and report suspicious activities only if the government were seen as carrying out an effective counter-terrorism mechanism. Confidence-building measures to augment relations between the police and the citizens and between the national government and the local communities cannot be ignored any further; the problem is far too complex to be left to the state alone.

Those left behind need our attention. We, as ordinary citizens, can accomplish a great deal with just a little compassion and thoughtfulness. Let me cite an example. The Human Service Workers project was undertaken by the Pakistan Navy at PNS Shifa in the mid-90s. Both naval and civilian female volunteers were trained in counselling and crisis-intervention under the supervision of the Department of Psychiatry. The model was later adopted by the Military Hospital, Rawalpindi, where the department of mental health continues to hold workshops and reinforcement classes for the volunteers.

These ladies played a commendable role after the 2005 earthquake by reaching out to the injured at the military hospitals and are currently involved in providing emotional support, under professional supervision, to the families of the Parade Lane survivors. This particular model can be replicated by the psychiatry departments at various private and state-run hospitals to train volunteers in helping the survivors in all parts of the country. This is just one suggestion; with just a little innovation there can be many more doable plans.

Civil society needs to involve the youth to initiate a countrywide campaign for peace. The political parties could help the process. The media should be seen as treating the issue of terrorism as a national priority, not through banal political discussions but by actively educating the public in taking practical steps to combat the evil. Those who have come out stronger after the ordeal must be presented as role models. Those shattered by the tragedy must receive social support and recognition; by bringing together the resilient and the shattered the media and the rest of the civil society can help start the healing process. Above all, we must not play into the hands of the terrorists by losing faith in democracy, no matter how imperfect.

Our society is already a victim of sectarian and ethnic divides and unchecked terrorism can shake the very foundations of our country. With a little old-fashioned patriotism, however, we can use the same phenomenon to our advantage, and in the process help close many social gaps. At some level we are all members of the group of those left behind; any practical steps that we may decide to take for the sake of others will ultimately influence our own lives and the future of our own children.

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