Selective Mourning After Peshawar

Mar 2015

SGL AKBAR_03012015

On December 16, 2014, over 130 children were killed in cold blood in Peshawar’s Army Public School in one of the worst attacks of Pakistan’s recent history. There were warnings and signs in the wake of the Pakistani military offensive, Zarb-e-Azb, in North Waziristan, but such a large-scale massacre of children was unimaginable for us. Being a father myself, I could only think what would I do if my child was to suffer such an act of cruelty.

Nationally, the immediate reaction, after tears, was to call for vengeance. The nation demanded blood. The army immediately carried out strikes in Khyber Agency killing dozens of people they claim were “militants.” The government and military lifted the eight-year moratorium on executions. One of the first to be executed was Dr. Usman, a former deserted solider turned Taliban/militant who was one of the people involved in attacking the military’s headquarters in October 2009. Yet, it remains unclear whether the vast majority of people on death row even deserve to be there. Meanwhile, the prime minister and major political leadership rushed to Peshawar to condole with the grieving parents, and politicians called for an all parties conference to formulate a national response.

The consensus that emerged consolidated plans for more violence by the state. It included the proposed executions of over 8000 people on death row, intensifying aerial bombardments in the Tribal Areas of North Waziristan and Khyber Agency, setting up military courts and invoking Article 245 of the constitution. We should not forget that we recently enacted legislations like Protection of Pakistan Act 2014 giving wider powers of arrest, detention and special trials before special judges.

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These decisions should force us to query why it is only now that Pakistan feels compelled to respond to terrorism and why we seem to think these actions are the appropriate response.

The horror of terrorism and violence is not new to Pakistan. Thousands of civilians have died in various forms of violence starting form suicide bombings, rocket attacks, IED explosions and drone strikes carried out by the United States of America. Even the killing of children in such brutal manner is not new. On October 30, 2006, over 80 children were killed in a madrassa when it was hit in a drone strike in Chanegai, Bajaur Agency. Somehow, we could not be moved to respond to that even though I fail to see the difference between these two sets of killings. Scores of people have also died in various military operations in the last decade including earlier operations in North and South Waziristan, and Swat. So, why respond now?

News that doesn’t make the news

The answer probably, partly, lies in story of Farid Ullah, a retired Frontier Constabulary subehdar. In May 2014, amidst the talk of a possible military operation, Farid Ullah was worried about the well-being of his family. He journeyed from his village Mosaki in North Waziristan to the neighboring district of Bannu to look for a shelter for his family where he could house over three dozen of his family members. They might not be comfortable in Bannu but at least, they would survive and live long enough to go back to their home in Waziristan. While Faird Ullah was house hunting in Bannu, Pakistan Air Force jets bombed his village targeting some suspected militants in retaliation for an attack on armed forces on a check post earlier. The bombing also destroyed four of Farid Ullah’s houses and with it, killed over 22 of his family members including eight women and seven children. When Farid Ullah returned home with news that he had found a place in Bannu where his family would be safe, there was no one left to receive it. Farid Ullah lost his sanity that day. Yet, the mainstream media, which even reports loud farts in our major cities as breaking news, did not bother to even run a ticker about the incident.


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This incident occurred just before the announcement of Zarb-e-Azb. Since the operation began, there has similarly been no news of any civilian casualties. According to the ISPR, so far, over 2100 militants and about 190 soldiers have been killed in the operation. Surprisingly no civilian, as per ISPR, has been killed. Since the beginning of the operation in June 2014, there has been no independent reporting from North Waziristan, and the only source of information so far is the publicity arm of the military. Yet the idea that there are no civilian deaths in an operation where jets and artillery are being used, defies sense. Some argue that civilians have been evacuated from the area and those left are legitimate targets. However, in the absence of an independent evaluation of the evacuation and an impartial assessment of deaths, it is extremely difficult for an independent mind to believe that there are no civilian deaths.

It appears that we have decided to count only our losses — and when I say “ours,” I mean those of us living in the cities like Islamabad, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi who belong to a certain economic class. When a civilian life is lost in the Tribal Areasfor instance, when civilians or even children get killed in Waziristanthat is not a national concern. No eyebrows are raised, no accountability is sought, and any mention of such deaths is brushed aside. This division between “us” and “them” constructed through class privilege, geography, and ideology has brought us to a point where it is not human life as such that matters but which human that matters.

Enduring solutions

That kind of thinking has made it easy for some to choose to respond to terrorism with more violence. So far, we predominantly seem to have used violence as the only tool for fighting terrorism. Yes, we have established a few rehabilitation and reformation centers in Swat like Sabawoon, but, beyond a public relations strategy, how many sincerely believe in their efficiency? There is also no denying the fact that the state has been, in one way or the other, providing patronage to selected militants; some would suggest even after the Peshawar attacks, the state continues to do so. General Raheel Sharif recently stated that there will be no distinction between good or bad Taliban, but we seem to have done little to fight the mindset. Consider that the sitting governor of the most populous province was killed in broad daylight because he was accused of blasphemy, and instead of rejecting the murder, we could not find a mullah to lead his funeral in the governor’s house. His killer, meanwhile, receives pro bono legal services from a former chief justice and a former judge of the high court. Four years have passed, and his appeal hasn’t been taken up by the high court. Similarly, the lawyers in Peshawar offered funeral prayers for Osama bin Laden in the vicinity of the Peshawar High Court.


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So, terrorism is not a problem of FATA or Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa alone. It is all over the country. The Punjabi militants are the worst in their ruthlessness and their recruitment is far greater than those of groups in Waziristan. To deal with violence through violence means we will only get violence in return. As Martin Luther King Jr. aptly pointed out in 1963: “Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction … The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

These issues require long-term commitment including revising our educational curriculum to teach respect for other faiths and sects, and principles of tolerance and co-existence. It requires that we stop glorifying invaders like Mahmud Ghaznvi who killed hundreds of thousands and destroyed places of worship in Somnath, which was sacrilegious to local Hindu population. It requires that we shun violence without distinction. We must oppose attacks on Ahmadis, Shias, Hazara, Baloch, people from the Tribal Areas and other groups in same way as we do in the case of violence against the majority.

As for the state, it must decisively repudiate violence against its citizens. Nor should it assist, promote or finance any act of violence as part of its foreign policy. The state should cease to propagate or support any particular religion, sect or ethnicity, and it must effectively regulate all places of worship.

Finally, our judicial and criminal justice system is in dire need of reforms. From courts to the police and intelligence agencies, it requires an overhaul. The current status of FATA and laws like the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) that allow collective punishment, are a major reason for a many of the problems that plague the Tribal Areas. The status of FATA must be reformed in consultation with the public. A new provincial or administrative unit is an essential, even inevitable step. Pakistan should start officially producing its own human rights report of the country. We already have a ministry for this purpose. Let us put it to some use.

Short of engaging in enduring solutions, we are simply mired in gimmicks that will only fool ourselves.

Shahzad Akbar is a human rights lawyer based in Islamabad. He is the founder of Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a legal rights advocacy group focusing on drone strikes, the death penalty and torture.

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