A land reclaimed?


Of scorched earth and broken promises

With eyes personifying innocence, two girls, with the rosiest cheeks I have seen, are staring at me. They are barely above 14. Their intent gaze seems to be making attempts at crossing the bridges that divide the landscapes of our lives. A city-dweller probably should not make much of these stares by curious teenagers here in the breathtaking valley of Swat. But today is different. I imagine crossing them in a busy bazaar and wonder if I would have suspected anything. No chance. My guide looks at me, expecting me to say something. I begin to try. So these two were.., I say before my sentence stretches out in a silence reaching the summit of the snow capped peaks before me. He finishes my sentence. Trained to be suicide bombers, yes. Even the unrelenting flow of the Swat River below cannot wash away my discomfort these faces are a stern reminder of our failure at preventing the loss of an entire generation of young minds to violence and bigotry.

As I travel through Swat/Malakand, my hosts are the intrepid-eyed soldiers of the Pakistan Army. Each day, they stare death in the eye and go on with an unsettling humility. Many are noticeably younger than me. When I ask about death and the potential grief for the family, their eyes turn pensive for a barely perceptible moment. Then they laugh with a charm characteristic of soldiers. One, in his early twenties, asks me about the Lahore weather. Another, glows with warmth upon learning that we live within a few houses of each other in Lahore. Each day, they uphold a pledge and honour an oath to defend this land against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

You do not need to be a military expert to admire what these uniformed sons of the soil have accomplished in Swat. When the Army was called upon to launch a counter-insurgency operation, the militants were entrenched in these hills and doing their best to win the support of the locals. A soldier tells me that in the early days of the operation they were fired upon from inside the homes in many villages. If there were 20 of us climbing a hill, we knew that at least 3 or 4 would get hit because of the advantage a shooter has from that height, I am told matter-of-factly. And yet these men climbed on. This leaves me in speechless gratitude but also disturbs me. For I believe that when we asked our soldiers to lay down their lives to wrest back Swat we suffered a certain failure as a citizenry. But will we ever acknowledge it?

Snippets of information shake me to the core. The Tehreek-e-Taliban told the kids trained as suicide bombers that men in the uniforms of Pakistan Army were Hindus or friends of America and therefore deserved death. I sit atop a hill and wonder if our textbooks will ever be purged of the hatred against other religions in this fundamentally unequal State. I wonder if the elite of Pakistan will ever realise what their growing anti-Americanism is fueling. Blaming the US for all our failures is spreading like a virus. People who spend millions to send their kids to US colleges seem blind to the consequences of spewing mindless hatred against the US this imperils the future of millions of our kids who will probably never have anyone to tell them anything even remotely positive about the US. The growth of courage to be critical of our own ways seems to have been hit by a drought. The lives of a certain class in this country have been a bubble. Some bubbles burst more destructively than others and ours may just be the worst.

There is so much to say about this trip. The crashing of the Swat River against giant stones raises cries of despair. Yet the water sprouting forth insists that I think of the hope that can trickle down from the hills. And there is hope. Close by, a school rehabilitates kids trained to be suicide bombers they are as young as 13. We can still save these minds, a professional working there insists. I long to believe this.

Soon after, we are in Malam Jabba. Here the militants blew up a ski resort and all hotels in the area. I walk through a destroyed building and pick up a brick; ashen coloured and representing the collapse of so much more than a structure of brick and mortar. Beneath the rubble lies the scorched earth of our reclaimed land. But I need a reminder of all that we lost. So I pick up a shattered bricks fragment and place it in my pocket. What we lost in Swat was not just territory, it was a promise. What we reclaim has got to be more than territory this includes rekindling hope and making the realisation of dreams possible. The Pakistan flag may be flying here for now but questions, including those relating to the Armys role, loom as imposingly as these mountains. More on that later.

The writer is a Barrister of Lincolns Inn and practices in Lahore. He has a special interest in Anti-trust / Competition law. He can be reached at [email protected]