#PESHAWARATTACK – Making sense of the madness

 #PESHAWARATTACK – Making sense of the madness

The chaotic morning

10404323_382857955220866_1147176278697049364_nIt was the morning of Tuesday, December 16th. I was taking it easy, because the night before I had graduated as an Atlas Corps Fellow.  My day changed when a friend from Peshawar informed me of the attack that killed more than 130 children. I searched the news for more information and came across harrowing stories of kids from APS Peshawar, as they experienced the brutality firsthand. The rest of my day was spent calling family and friends to see if they and everyone was fine. Even though none of my friends and their families experienced immediate losses, all my friends from Peshawar were in a state of shock. One friend was traumatized because many of her colleagues lost their loved ones. “It is absurd” She recounted in a state of shock, “I saw people frantically calling everyone they knew to get news… someone lost one person, another lost two… it was death and _79783134_025145611-1despair all over”.  She went on, “They didn’t even go in looking for hostages. They (Taliban) went in with the intention of not
making it out alive!”
She was right. Never before, has Pakistan experienced such a deadly attack and that too in the form of mass slaughter of school students. I never thought going to school would become a life threatening act. How do you make sense of it?

Making sense of it all  

It takes me back to a conversation I was having with my housemates in DC, who were trying to understand what was really going on because the incident suddenly brought Pakistan into the limelight, once again. My country wasn’t always this way, as I explained to them. Sure, we had religious right and extremists but in an institutionalized and organized form, it took birth during the Afghan Jihad (1979).  The refugees from Afghanistan, were trained at the border camps in Pakistan by ISI and CIA to overthrow the pro-Soviet PDPA government, in Afghanistan. Imagine, a child growing up in these camps, who grew up on hate literature that was prepared by the United States Government  to create that prevalent mindset of hatred. It took its roots then and over the years has metamorphosed into what it is today. More than three decades have passed and now we can witness manifestations of this extremist mindset in all forms.

(Here’s a video prepared by my comrades from LAAL that accurately summarizes the roots of extremism)

There are regional groups that focus solely on Kashmir, India or minorities. Then you have the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has its guns pointed internally and many more. It is so pervasive that there is no one coherent label that we can apply. The #PeshawarAttack was orchestrated by the TTP, as a retaliation to the army operation  that has been underway since June to root them out of the FATA region. The TTP’s inability to attack military installations led them to target an army run school in Peshawar. The attackers who went in and butchered these students were there to die. How does one come to this mindset? How do you carry out a dialogue with them? The answer is very complex and in my view a symptom of immense poverty, mass displacement and people seeking revenge.

Contribution of poverty: Ever since the Afghan Jihad, Madrassas (religious seminaries) have popped all over the country. In a nation where 50 percent of the population lives below the abject poverty line, these Madrassas are an easy recourse for parents who cannot provide for their kids. Seminaries offer the parents money. The child gets food, shelter, clean clothes and a place to sleep. Some of these madrassas become recruiting grounds for extremist organizations. These schools are spread out all across the country. Imagine a child who has nothing to lose and is told that there is a better future awaiting them in the hereafter. It is very easy to give up your life as a suicide attacker if you have nothing to lose because you are promised a better afterlife and your parents receive money if you carry out the attack.

Displacement & Vengeance: Pakistan Army, for all its valiant efforts to root out extremists, is still a conventional army and not a counter-terrorist expert. It uses blunt force and raises whole villages to the ground before it can go in and carry out an operation. Imagine you lost someone in the cross-fire, or you lost your livelihood or home in the process. You are likely to join the first call from a Taliban recruiter who promises you revenge against the army. This is just one example, I wrote about many others when I visited the Jalozai Camp near Peshawar, last year.

What needs to be done?

These are just some of the reasons that have contributed to more recruits who go and join these organizations and are ready to throw their lives down. It is hard to carry out a dialogue with someone who has been raised on hate.  An intensified operation may be the solution for now but the long term solution to a problem that has taken 30 odd years to fester is more holistic and must address issues of poverty, lack of education and deprivation that allows for these extremists to thrive on the misery of others. Much needs to be done on that front. For now, we can only stand by the families who have lost their loved ones and push the government to step up its efforts to root these barbarians out. #DownWithExtremism.

The writer is a Pakistani social activist and the Director of Laal Theater. He is currently based in Washington, DC, as an Atlas Corps Fellow. He tweets at @younaschowdhry


An ode to fallen friends

An ode to fallen friends

A thought that has often troubled me has to do with the loss of friends, often social workers, to an untimely demise because of their involvement with some facet of a conflict. It is strange, how the lives lost are often consigned to a statistic. For posterity, all they amount to is another casualty to a horrendous war or conflict. In Pakistan, a hotbed for extremism, ethnic conflict and terrorist attacks, we often measure the severity of an incident by the number of individuals who lose their lives. To put it simply; an attack doesn’t register if the number of deceased is not significant.  It is absurd though to the think that as a society, there is a collective thought process which completely removes the human being from the equation. Perhaps this applies to how a conflict in general is viewed as well. It was true for me, when in 2013, I lost a friend from the Hazara community, to a bomb blast claiming 82 lives. Since I knew Irfan Ali, the incident registered deeply with me because I had spent time getting to know this kind and gentle person. When the attack claimed his life, I instantly realized this. The same feelings of loss and the utter absurdity of war revisited me when I lost another friend recently.

Irfan Ali during a protest against sectarian violence in Islamabad, September 2012

Irfan Ali

Two weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from friend, relaying news that Mohammad, our friend from Libya, had died. I couldn’t believe it so I started searching the internet for any news to confirm this. Finally, I located a blog post that confirmed Mohammad was the victim of a stray bullet, which caught him while he was heading home from the hospital where he worked as a doctor. It seemed unreal because, we were commenting on a Facebook post together a few days ago. There was heavy fighting going on in Benghazi that day and Mohammad just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. News of his death affected me deeply so decided to write this eulogy to keep his memory alive.

Dr. Mohammad Al Swei was not just a health worker from Libya, he was my friend. We met for the first time in Berlin where I got to know about his humanitarian work and medical relief activities during the Syrian uprising against the government. The week after that we found ourselves on a train to Stuttgart to attend a Cross Culture Workshop. The same night as the one we arrived was Mohammad’s birthday and I remember singing his birthday song in Urdu. I vividly recall his surprise when we told him not to offer the loose change to the lady at the register in Netto Market when picking up groceries for his birthday. We’re like “Dude, she probably makes more than you”. Over the course of workshop, I got to know him more personally. Mohammad would find a way to make light of some of the most serious of moments; a common joke that ran amongst us friends was over how much Mohammad loved to fish.  He would tell us about his fishing adventures every time he got a chance, so much so that we had to beg him to stop.  We even planned on going fishing together in the U.S. because by this time, I had learnt that I was going to be an Atlas Corps Fellow over the next year.

Mohammad & I presented what a perfect group house would be for us.

CCP Workshop

Mohammad and I decided to leave Stuttgart for Berlin earlier than the others. We missed our connecting trains and were stranded till we got another line back home. During this time, I learnt about his time serving the refugees that were displaced during the war in Libya. For some reason, he liked boasting about how everyone in Libya owns guns. I had to tell him that it wasn’t something to be proud of and shared Pakistan’s issues with violence. We exchanged many stories about life in Pakistan and Libya. He always carried a hard drive on his person that had all his photo albums. From the albums, I got a glimpse into what life was like on the frontlines of the battle, his family’s get together, his trips with his cousins and his birthday party in Sharm Al-Sheikh.  I learnt about his plans on continuing his studies and becoming an orthopedic surgeon so he can serve his community. His electric personality kept that long and painful trip back to Berlin very entertaining. We met off and on after that trip  for a night out in the city. He even made chicken roast for my farewell party. That was the last time I saw Mohammad.

Mohammad at my apartment  on my last night in the Berlin

I still can’t believe that he’s gone. My heart goes out to his family. I hope that our remembrance will keep him and his legacy alive. For losses such as this that add to a larger statistic, the best we can do is to share the memories of the fallen with the rest of the world so that they remain alive through us and their message for the human race goes on.

This blog was originally published for Atlas Corps. The writer tweets at @younaschowdhry


Martyr Is The Message

Bhagat Singh’s legacy of liberty and social justice is being invoked by Pakistani civil society to fight for their rights. YOUNAS CHOWDHRY reports from Lahore.

MARCH 23 is an important date in Pakistan’s history since it is the day the Muslim League adopted the Pakistan Resolution in Lahore in 1940. The idea of Pakistan was conceived, and the fate of the subcontinent as a divided entity sealed on this day. This year was the 70th anniversary of Pakistan Day, as the day is now known. Being a national holiday, most Pakistanis were either immersed in festivities or enjoying a quiet day off.

But this March 23, there was a commemorative event in Lahore that ran contrary to the “official” discourse of the country’s history — or, perhaps, it would be more apt to say, it was disowned altogether. Nevertheless, it cuts through that admixture of religiosity and nationalism that runs rampant in Pakistan’s sociopolitical milieu.

Some 30 defiant demonstrators stood for hours in the middle of Shadman Chowk, an affluent neighbourhood in old Lahore, through the afternoon, braving the scorching sun. The demonstrators comprised students from various universities of Lahore, civil society activists, factory workers, communists and even little children.

Demonstrators chanting slogans at Shadman Chowk

It was at the same spot 79 years ago that Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were executed by the British government on March 23. The gallows of the nearby camp jail were housed here at the time. What remains now is a small roundabout with a fountain.

Holding placards and chanting such slogans as ‘Zinda hai, Bhagat zinda hai’ (Bhagat is still alive), ‘We salute Bhagat Singh’, ‘Har zulm ka ek jawab, inquilab inquilab’ (Revolution is the answer to all oppression), they demanded that the Chowk be renamed Shaheed Bhagat Singh Chowk and declared a national heritage site. The protesters even installed a red signboard that read “Shaheed Bhagat Singh Chowk”. The organisers of the event said they decided to install the signboard themselves after requests to the local Nazim(mayor) and the government to do so went unheeded for years. The protesters remained there till sunset and departed after a candlelight vigil.

“Reviving Bhagat Singh’s ideals is a necessity in Pakistan, where masses live in abject poverty and suffer from religious intolerance and imperialism,” says Sonya Qadir, a student activist and participant. “His legacy is a reminder that we are all human and deserve to be free from all oppression.”

This is no isolated event. The figure of Bhagat Singh, despite being ignored in all mainstream textbooks, has long been regarded as a symbol of resistance by a variety of groups across Pakistan. On March 23 last year, at a seminar on the subject of missing persons in Lahore, Punjab University student Amir Jalal walked up to the dais and delivered an impromptu lecture on Bhagat Singh’s execution and sacrifice. As he finished, the audience observed a moment’s silence in his memory.

“Bhagat too is a missing person and we need to find him in order to find ourselves,” says Jalal, a PhD student. “I felt compelled to speak out about him.” Jalal used to be the convener of the now defunct University Students’ Federation (USF), formed in 2008 to oppose the Islami-Jamiat-e-Tulba (IJT), the student wing of the Islamic hardline group, Jamaat-e-Islami. Punjab University has been an IJT stronghold ever since it was installed in the state during President Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship that lasted between 1977 to 1986, to suppress all progressive, left-leaning and peaceloving student organisations. The USF brought this to the attention of the government and media, forcing the government to take action. Jalal adds: “The USF endorsed the values of secularism, pluralism and democracy. We drew our inspiration from the ideals of Bhagat Singh, among others. We often discussed him during our study circles.”

Amir Jalal addressing students at PU

In Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, there is a vibrant student movement that represents the aspirations of thousands of Kashmiri youngsters. It is called the Jammu Kashmir National Students Federation (JKNSF) and is a vocal opponent of Pakistani State-sponsored jihadi factories in the region. Nothing the outfit does ever finds a mention in the mainstream Pakistani media. Many of its activists have allegedly been abducted by Pakistani agencies in the past.

JKNSF posters featuring pictures of Bhagat Singh and Che Guevara are a common sight at most rallies. Danish Khan, a Kashmiri student, says: “For most outsiders this is a unique phenomenon, but for the youth of Kashmir the life and struggle of Bhagat Singh is a source of inspiration and motivation. They see Pakistan as an occupying force just as Bhagat saw the British.”

In Balochistan, five military operations have been carried out against the nationalists. Thousands of Baloch activists have been picked up and, to this day, remain missing. This year, some members of the Baloch Students Organisation, a nationalist student front, gathered at Shadman Chowk to pay homage to Bhagat Singh, who is a source of inspiration to them too.

STUDENTS AND Leftist organisations aren’t the only ones endorsing his ideals. Throughout the lawyers’ movement (2007-2009), responsible for the ouster of President Pervez Musharraf and politicisation of a large cross-section of Pakistani society, Bhagat Singh’s slogans and the poems he would often recite — such as Ram Prasad Bismil’s Sarfaroshi ki Tammana — were often heard during the rallies.

Umer Chaudhry, a young lawyer from Lahore who was at the forefront of the protests, says: “In our part of the subcontinent, we conveniently forget the role played by non-Muslims in the struggle against British colonialism. The same fate befell Bhagat Singh. That he was supported by [Muhammad Ali] Jinnah is never mentioned in the textbooks. It is not surprising though. Bhagat Singh, a symbol of resistance, could never be the hero of a government that doesn’t represent its people.”

In the search for an identity, many have gone outside the decadent ideologies manufactured by the status quo. One such search — for an ethos of peace and an end to religious intolerance and liberty from oppression — manifests itself in the adoption of Bhagat Singh’s ideals and the revisiting of his legacy by many Pakistanis. It won’t come as a surprise if in the coming years more Pakistanis discover Bhagat Singh and begin to question the social order of things. If that happens, then we might even succeed in rescuing these valuable figures from obscurity and make their ideals a reality.

The article was originally printed by the Indian weekly magazine ‘Tehelka’.

URL: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main44.asp?filename=Ne100410martyr_is.asp

The News, a national daily, also printed the article under the title ‘A common hero’ in their ‘Aman ki asha’ segment.

URL: http://www.thenews.com.pk/daily_detail.asp?id=235140


The “Self”

I am asked to be myself
A “self” that attracts you
And evokes your love
A “self” that entices you

I know not of this “self”
The one you speak of
I know not of this “self”
the “self” that once was

What am I now?
Can you tell me?
Is it the same?
Perhaps no one can

We may try to recall
What this “self” was
We may attempt to
But fail miserably

Let me explain
What I am now
Let me explain
so you may see

I am an empty vessel
A selfless creature
With you I am not shallow
For you are my other “self”

Without you I wander
Aimlessly and empty
Without you I wander
with no purpose at all

This is the “self”
That you speak of
This is the “self”
That there is now

What I once was
I may once more be
What you make of it
I long to see


A little dose of you

A little dose of you
For me, goes a long way
A little dose of you
Gets me through my day

It lifts up my spirit
It kills my apathy
No more, will i be horrid
If i’d have your company

A little dose of you
No more am I incomplete
A little dose of you
With its desire I am replete

I ask not for much
Just a little bit
Maybe a gentle touch
And a kiss to go with it

A little dose of you
My sorrows go away
A little dose of you
A little more everyday


Today & Forever

Loving you is a quandary
At times, I am elated
other times, bordering on misery
Perhaps one doesn’t come without the other
Is what I say to myself
But then the thought to me does occur
Whether in another life I would be happier without her
The realization dawns on me thus;
Having her in my life is worth it all
I could not be happier otherwise it seems
But I know not if such a position is one that is wise
for this fool does not know better
A few hours away from his exam and he sends her a letter
Wondering if she would be his valentine
today and forever


From moment to moment


I live from moment to moment
From rapture to melancholy
I experience both joy and torment
I wonder if this is how it will be?

Each time I return to where I started
This is how I am since we parted
I feel that will soon change
However,my plight is rather strange
I feel I am somewhere
And yet I am nowhere

She addresses me but with restraint
From me there won’t be a complaint
Doing so would not be wise
But these feelings I cannot disguise
Ill sit here and wonder some more
about our once revered lore
Shall it once more be?
Or will it be the end of me?

I live from moment to moment
From rapture to melancholy
I experience both joy and torment
I wonder if this is how it will be?

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