By Mustafa Farooq
As I climbed onto the tarmac at the Benazir Bhutto airport in Islamabad, the rain drenched my copy of the Daily Telegraph in my hand, rendering it almost unreadable by the time I got into the terminal. But it didn’t really matter; the newspapers were really repeating the same thing in different ways. The flooding, massive economic degradation, scandal, corruption, and terrorism have all become enmeshed into the single term that embodies Pakistan in the newspapers today; we are to believe that the end is nigh, or at least shortly on the horizon.
As a Canadian student with significant family ties back in Pakistan, I didn’t want this to be true. There was something child-like about the way I decided to fly in from halfway across the world to try to help out in the flood-relief efforts. As I walked into the headquarters of the NGO I was volunteering with, Relief International, and saw the massive damage wreaked by the floods, I suddenly realized my naiveté. I felt a general malaise as I sat in the office trying to spread out the crumbling pages of my newspaper, realising that as a nation, Pakistan has lost hope. This thought was at the back of my mind as some relief-workers and I bundled into a car to head out to the Swat valley.
Having never visited Swat, I thought I had a fairly good idea of what to expect based on the reports that swept international headlines in 2009 about the Swat war. I went there expecting to find xenophobic bearded Talibs, now reduced to squatting in the dirt without home and shelter. Wearing my dark sunglasses and assuming the worst, I huddled into the back of the Toyota Corolla that bumped down the road into Swat.
We stopped at one of Relief International’s food-distribution points in Margola. I helped the recipients carry the 40 kilogram sacks of flour and load them into wheelbarrows, donkey carts, and run-down rickshaws. Afterwards, as I sat down in the grass, exhausted, I noticed a young child. He immediately stood out in his black and grimy shalwar-kameez, a grin permanently plastered onto his face.
His name was Gul. Gul had been working with us; as the men carried heavy supplies, Gul helped by sorting, carrying, and opening the boxes of cooking-oil to be handed out. Gul and I didn’t talk very much. I was far too much in awe of him. It is not every day that you see a nine-year old volunteering his time and effort, while fasting, to lift heavy canisters of vegetable-oil. In the hot sun, while I reaffirmed my commitment to join a gym, Gul sorted out the USAID boxes into a corner and talked to an aid recipient about where that recipient could get a food-token.
It is not that I am particularly unused to activism on the part of teenagers and children. In my high school, volunteering was a cool gimmick that could help you earn scholarships, accolades, and a general sense of feel-good satisfaction. But Gul was different. The boy worked tirelessly at the distribution camp for no other reason, it appeared, than to serve the flood disaster victims.
I wanted to interview Gul in more detail that day, but as it turned out, Gul himself was a flood-victim. His family had lost their home in the flood, and Gul now lived in a makeshift tent made of UNHCR canvas and scrap material. As I stood outside his tent, I realized that Gul will probably never become well-known like Craig Kielburger or Ryan Hreljac who achieved celebrity status from their work as “child activists.” But Gul was different in that unlike Kielburger, who had the luxury of sleeping on a full stomach and getting driven to television interviews, Gul was trying to save the world while lacking a pair of decent shoes.
Nor was Gul alone in his mission. As I drove through Swat, I saw countless little girls tending to their young siblings completely by themselves, and little boys helping to pick up fallen fruit to take to the camps. When our truck-wheel malfunctioned in the middle of Margola, a thirteen-year old kid ran out of a shop with his tools to help fix the wheel. When we tried to pay him, he just laughed merrily and waved us on.
On my last day in Swat, as we drove away from the town of Madyan, I suddenly saw Gul. He had his back to our car, but I was sure it was him from the way he was carrying a bottle of oil over his shoulder for the elderly man next to him. As we drove, Gul suddenly turned toward our truck and stared at me straight in the eye, a little grin crinkling his cheeks. When I looked back into his eyes, I suddenly saw the future. I saw the future of a nation with people like Gul in it.
And it definitely was not what the papers were saying.
The writer is a political-science student based in Canada. Email: mustafafarooq786 @gmail.com