Friday, May 29, 2009

In Search of Defense

Yesterday’s attacks in Peshawar (now seven blasts in Pakistan since I got here last Monday) and the Taliban-issued warnings brought a moment of tension in my family.  So far, the conflict hasn’t reached Karachi, but they fear it is getting closer.

The Taliban’s warning is to civilians: leave the northern cities (Islamabad, Lahore) as we escalate attacks on government and security facilities based there.  Undoubtedly, those who can leave will trickle out—those with foreign passports, visas, education, and means.  The exodus has been going on for years, but war threatens to be the final drain on Pakistan’s human and financial capital.   

My uncle cautiously asked me last night to return with him to New Jersey.  Over the past few years, my relatives who always lived in Pakistan have been setting up a second residence there.  

I was torn.  I have loved every moment of my past two weeks in Pakistan and the only question in my mind has been if I should come back to the States at all when the summer is over.  The idea of things getting so bad here that I have to leave is depressing.  I want to stay. 

And I am not the only one.  So I will do what the rest do: move to Defense.  Defense Housing Authority, like most secure areas of town, is a residential district developed by the military.  It is where most of Karachi’s elite and western classes live and play.  In Defense, people throw lavish parties and spend thousands on dinner, while on the other side of town women wear burkas in the streets, beggars plague cars for 10 rupees (less than a dime), and mobs burn cars.

But it is not all hedonism—it reflects a Western standard of living, and it is as much a part of Pakistan as the mullahs and the madrassas.  It is also how life goes on in a city otherwise full of violence, poverty, and lawlessness.  And as much as the IDP camps and slums, it is a side of Karachi that I want to explore. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Day in the Life of Pakistan: Beyond Lahore Blasts

The Lahore bombing has captured the front page of the New York Times.  But violence and terrorism is a daily and diverse experience in Pakistan.  

Here is a look at some of the headlines from this past Saturday's Frontier Post, a paper that was started in Peshawar and Quetta.  These are in addition to the regular stories on military operations in northern Pakistan, U.S. drone attacks, and the IDP crisis.  

Two Officials Kidnapped

French Tourist Kidnapped in Balochistan

Taliban Warn Lady Members of Parliament

Strike Kills 6, Sindh Refuses to Accept IDPs
(Story: City and businesses shut down throughout province, including Karachi, to protest influx of refugees.  Fifteen vehicles torched in addition to death and injury.)

Husbands Chop Off Hands, Burn to Death Wives

Jandola Blast Leaves Four Soldiers & Children Dead

Dir Explosion Kills Soldiers and 4 Rebels

Blast Damages Police Checkpost

School Blown Up in Mohmand

Four Hurt in Grenade Attack

10-Year Old Girl Killed in Aerial Firing During Marriage Ceremony (followed by mob violence)

3 Shot Dead in Firing

These events go under the radar internationally and even Pakistanis are too jaded to pay attention to the specifics of daily terror. But it shapes the national consciousness and core of every Pakistani. Americans will have to somehow tap into this if they are ever to win hearts and minds in Pakistan.

My aunt predicts that the next bombing will be in Karachi or Islamabad, since the last two have been in Lahore (today) and Peshawar (Saturday). 

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pakistan vs. Afghanistan: Developed, Safe, and Liberal

Rory Stewart, now at the Kennedy School, once said that even if we worked in Afghanistan for 30 years, it would only be up to the level of Pakistan.  This was a bit shocking, because I have always considered Pakistan a failed state.  

But after three days in Afghanistan, it feels SO good to be back in Pakistan.  Finally, I don't have to cover my head and wrap myself up in a chador (literally means "blanket").  I can wear jeans and decent shoes without worrying that I look too western.  There are women on the streets, and no blue burkas.  

I can also move freely.  Pakistan can be dangerous, and there are incidents every day, but life is bustling and it goes on.  In Afghanistan, however, people are very conscious of the security situation.  There is security everywhere-- foreign militaries, Afghan, and private-- and we were hardly allowed to walk on the streets.  

Afghans made surprising comments, like "Education in Pakistan is very good."  Pakistan is actually notorious for its failed education system, but the comment reflects that good education is at least available in Pakistan.  And after meeting officials in Afghanistan and seeing the level at which they were struggling, I realize how much more evolved, sophisticated, even effective, the Pakistani government is.   

The experience made me appreciate Pakistan much more, especially Karachi.  Instead of
 complaining about how backwards the country is, we should recognize the positive trends and focus on protecting them.  If we do not value the progress that has been made, we risk losing it to the trends of fundamentalism and violence that are taking hold in other parts of the country.  And once lost, as it was in the 1980s, it will take decades to recover from.

I am told that Kabul before the Soviet invasion was a stunning city.  If Pakistan's economy does not improve and Afghanistan's situation continues to migrate across the border, there is a danger that everything that Pakistan has achieved will be destroyed, as it was in Afghanistan.  

Slums AKA IDP Camps of Kabul

This morning we asked to see a slum in Kabul. We were taken to a camp for IDPs from Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. I am repeatedly seeing that the line between "slum" and "refugee camp" is pretty blurry. 

The camp was crowded and dilapidated. It looked like a mass of cloth tents from the top, and within were streams of what was probably more sewage than water. We were told the camp had been there for about two years.

A woman took us into our home. She said that people had come to Kabul because of bombing in Helmand, indicating that they fell from the sky-- airstrikes. She drew her hand across her arms and legs, indicating the people who lost limbs. It must have looked like this, it looks like exactly the same camp.

The woman tried to show us around. She pointed to one house, a girl was visible through the doorway, sitting with her head down on her knees, holding herself tightly and rockin
g. "Sick, sick," the woman said. When the girl looked up, we noticed tears in her eyes. She put her headdown again, in apparent agony. The woman said they did not have money to send her to hospital. Next door, the girl's newborn baby was sleeping. The girl was too sick to feed the baby. 

We insisted the girl be taken to the hospital immediately and gave them some money, but I was shocked. Once again, my assumptions had failed me. UNHCR logos were visible-- were they not providing or attending to the healthcare needs of IDPs from southern Afghanistan? Between the UN, U.S., Europeans, etc. etc. etc., was no one looking out for one of the most desperate, and potentially dangerous, populations in Kabul?

There were only three small tent schools in the camp, run by a local Afghan NGO. They were full of little boys and girls, only a small fraction of the kids in the camp. Most families would not send their girls to school. But that is even more of a reason to build schools and work with the IDP population. Isn't that why we got rid of the Taliban, and isn't secular education one of the most effective forms of resistance to its resurgence?

We left the camp, deciding it was best not to linger. But I left with several themes reinforced in my mind. Through Lebanon, where I had spent time researching U.S. (nonexistent) policy towards Palestinian camps, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, I was seeing that refugee camps are actually slums, they are the source of incredible violence, radicalization, and human misery, and are consistently and stunningly some of the most neglected spaces in our foreign policy and global security outlook.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Forgotten Children of War

In Jalalabad, we visited Save the Children. I wanted to know what programs were in place to deal with children traumatized from the effects of war.

In thinking about international security, I have never thought much about children. But that changed in January, when I spent time in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps. It was during Israel's operations in Gaza, and I watched as children in the camps struggled to cope with the graphic images and stories that were being constantly reported. Aggressive behavior was already a common problem. It did not take much guessing to figure out how at least some of the kids I met would end up, as they grew up into an atmosphere full of militant groups, weapons, and anger.

U.S. airstrikes take place around Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, the most famous of which was "the wedding incident."

TIME Magazine reports: "According to U.N. figures, 2,118 civilians were killed in conflict-related violence last year, a jump of nearly 40% compared to the year before. Of that figure, pro-government [coalition and Afghan] forces were responsible for 828 deaths."

Save the Children told me that the kids in a nearby village still wake up in the middle of the night crying, "American bombs are coming!" They also showed me pictures of child soldiers recruited by local commanders (anti-Taliban) in the area. But when I asked if there were any efforts to help these kids deal with the trauma, they were confused.

We are already seeing the effects of post-traumatic stress at home, in the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. But nothing seems to be in place to deal with the generations coming out of war in our overseas combat zones. If it only takes one person, or a few, to produce a suicide bomber, then the violence we are seeing today might only be a foreshadowing of the instability and global terrorism that is to come.

Similarly, among IDPs from Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas and SWAT, I worry about the effects of war trauma. But Afghanistan and Pakistan are struggling just to provide medical care to the victims of war. They are not equipped to provide specialized psychological care to children. The international community must lead the way, starting in urban IDP camps and training locals to provide long-term care.

Building a Model School in Afghanistan

We drove through the mountains to Jalalabad today. It was beautiful. It took four hours instead of two because the road was clogged with trucks-- evidence of heavy international aid as the UN and NATO work to rebuild Jalalabad after decades of war. We had been told there was a risk of roadside bombs, and we were so close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that our host offered to take us over and back (legally, of course).

We visited government, private, and NGO-organized (non-governmental) schools in Jalalabad. My friend Umaimah, another Harvard graduate student, and her friend Mona are considering opening a school there through their organization Dreamfly.

The responsiveness and enthusiasm that Dreamfly is receiving is surprising. Umaimah and Mona only thought they would start Dreamfly's second school in Afghanistan, but the Afghans have taken it on as much more. Everyone from our host NGO to the Minister of Education has dubbed it the "model school" project.

The schools were depressing. Jalalabad is evidence of how Afghans are struggling to build their nation from scratch. The government
school consisted of boys studying under trees, on prayer rugs. The school had over 1000 students. It turns out that 60% of Afghanistan's schools do not have permanent buildings.

We interviewed the kids at the private school, asking them what they hoped to be someday. They all responded excitedly: doctors, engineers, teachers, even President.
(Watch out Karzai.) If these kids can beat the odds and fulfill their dreams, then maybe a stable, prosperous, self-sufficient Afghanistan is within reach. The generation of leaders that Afghanistan needs might be on the rise.
But they will need much more help-- not more dollars, but more effectiveness. Seven percent of the world's children who are out of school are in Afghanistan.

There are some very sincere, approachable, and committed
people in Afghan Education Ministry. But given the massive foreign assistance and attention that Afghanistan receives, their continuing struggle with basic education, and their excitement about a Harvard graduate student who has chanced upon the country, I can't help but wonder if the international community is engaging the country in the most direct, obvious, and important ways.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Peshawar: Taliban, IDPs, and Car Bombs

Yesterday, a fellow Harvard graduate student, Umaimah, and I left Karachi for Peshawar. We would have to spend the night there before we could catch a connecting flight to Kabul. Peshawar is heavily Talibanized and we were nervous about the trip, so we turned down offers to be shown around the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps in the region. But as we whiled away the hours at the home of a family friend (the safest thing to do, especially for girls, in Peshawar), we came to regret the decision. I called up Khalid, a contact that my uncle had sent to Peshawar and instructed to stay there until we made it out safely, and told him we would like to see the IDP camps.

IDP camps were probably not on the list of safe things to do, but Khalid was eager to please. He arranged private security and got us access to a UN camp on the outskirts of the city for refugees from Bajaur, one of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which was reduced to rubble by the Pakistani Army in its 2008-2009 operations against the Taliban.

The camp looked like destroyed mud ruins. Like many IDP camps, it was originally developed for Afghan refugees, then destroyed when they chose or were forced to leave. Deeper in, simple white UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) tents were set up. The people told us that they had been in the camp for 8 months, displaced before the current Swat crisis which has captured international attention. They had been living in primitive conditions-- no electricity, little or no running water, suffocating heat, inadequate provisions, and the kids could not go to school because they had to help with survival. For example, they only way to create fire to cook food was to burn trash. So we met several kids carrying bags of empty juice boxes and other trash that they had spent all day collecting. At least one of those boys had dropped out of school to collect trash. 
All of the kids were filthy and improperly clothed. We were told they cried all night because of the mosquitos and cold. UNICEF logos were everywhere.

The women and children seemed happy to have visitors, but the men were frustrated and skeptical. They had been forced to leave as the Pakistani Army began bombing and bulldozing their homes to root out the Taliban. One man told us that soldiers looted their homes before bulldozing them, and they left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Like everyone else, he was angry and confused. Nobody knew the Taliban or where they were, only that their lives had been destroyed by the Pakistani military. Now, they had been forgotten in camps, victims of an older crisis, while Swat IDPs nearby were receiving an outpouring of attention and aid.

As it started to get dark, our escorts rushed us out of the camp. We were told there had been a huge car bombing in the city. It was the third that week. As soon as we got home, I turned on the TV and searched for the news, but as soon as I found it, the electricity went out, which happens several times a day in Pakistan.

That night, I could not stop thinking about the people I had met in the camps and the Taliban and criminals that haunted the city outside. Our host, on the way home from the airport that morning, had told us about how scary conditions had become in the city. Bombings, kidnappings, and Taliban harassment and violence, especially towards girls, had become common. It felt like Afghanistan before the Taliban took over. Everyone who could leave Peshawar had left. They had already sent their kids abroad and, despite being well established in the city, were only waiting for their foreign visas to leave. They would abandon their property and businesses, and leave with little. There were no buyers these days, only sellers. But they had no choice.

I could not help but ask our driver, himself once displaced, the simple question: why are these bombings happening in Peshawar? Does anyone claim responsibility or explain? Yes, he said, sometimes the Taliban does, but really, people here are just fed up with their lives. The economy is so bad, people have nothing. They can barely survive. There is so much misery. Of course people like that find an outlet for their anger in violence, and become susceptible to groups like the Taliban that seem to give them some purpose or meaning in life.

Peshawar was chilling, but I only caught a glimpse. I plan to return to spend more time in the IDP camps. The camps are dangerous-- not as much for me, as for the future of Pakistan and regional and international security.  After all, the Taliban came out of madrassas in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.  And I want to have a better sense of how aid commitments and announcements coming out of Washington are on the ground.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


I'm sitting in the lobby of the Serena Hotel in Kabul. Earlier this month, I bought a one-way ticket from Cambridge to Karachi, and I've already seen and experienced more of Pakistan in the past week than I ever have from any of my previous trips here. I've visited a madrassa in Balochistan, an IDP camp in Peshawar, run into the ISI, and talked to a members of an Islamic political party working providing relief in the northern areas.

Around these experiences, I've been struggling to adjust from the liberal American lifestyle I've come to take for granted, with the expectations of a conservative and elite Pakistani society: balancing capris with chadors, becoming dependent on maids and drivers, and realizing my vulnerability as an adventurous, single woman in Karachi.

I have many stories and reflections to share, but since it's late, I will start with the one that is most fresh in my mind and save the rest for later.