I board an early morning flight from Islamabad to Quetta. In the last one year, this is at least my 30th trip to Balochistan, the beautiful but bitter Province of Pakistan. I have been going there for work regarding setting up quality education initiatives for girls, the marginalized, poor and destitute children of this Province which geographically covers more than 50% of Pakistan’s width. The flight to Quetta lasts one hour and fifteen minutes and almost always has a rough landing. Sleepers like myself who are blessed with the ability to fall deep asleep as soon as the plane takes off, always wake up with a jerk. I wake up to (other than the jerk) the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA)’s airhostess announcement, welcoming us to Quetta international airport. PIA is Pakistan’s national airline which was once regarded the best in South Asia and which actually helped setting up the Emirates in the 1970s. Gradually, as most other institutions of the country deteriorated, PIA also suffered its share of the blow. The feeling of a lost glory always re-appears while travelling PIA.
I step out of the airport to the chilling Quetta breeze and start chatting with the driver who always rushes so excitedly towards me, even if he sees me thrice a week. I always feel welcomed here. This city of Pakistan is one of its kind and its character. The Baloch as well as Pushtun (Quetta is largely Pushtun dominated) tradition of welcoming guests is almost in the air, too strong to be oblivious off. Most men are strong well built and have draped shawls around themselves to keep warm, some have mufflers and woolen scarves falling from their shoulders. Winter is being embraced here. There are hardly any women visible on the road but there are some young girls dressed in blue and white uniforms headed to schools in vans, buses, by foot and few, very few in cars. Vendors have set up small stalls around the roadside and are preparing for business as usual. The brown, dusty mountains offer a unique view of their own. They form a mysteriously quiet background which is mostly beautiful but at times scary. Under the bridge, I see around some two to three hundred armored military vehicles parked. I ask the driver about them and he replies ‘they are being used for the military operations here’. It reminds me that two days back I had watched a video on face book in which the families of the ‘missing people’ from Balochistan were protesting. Calling upon the Government to take some action and give them access to some information about their loved ones, their whereabouts, their well-beings, their health conditions and whether they are even alive or not. I head straight to the office and have meetings all day with various groups of people like Government officials as well as locals from civil society organizations. I then attend a teachers’ convention event and meet up with teachers, children and their parents. I have to say I was so overwhelmed at the talent and wealth of abilities these people, particularly young women possess. In a largely tribal and conservative society, there are some women from Balochistan who symbolize success against all odds and against all discriminatory social taboos and cultural norms. I met with one of such amazing women who was previously a Minister and now is a member of the Balochistan Parliament and I have to say that no other female Minister even from Islamabad is as intelligent, articulate and eloquent as she was. I felt happy to be there.
I return to my hotel, the only five star hotel in Quetta which looks more like a military barrack from the outside. The interior however is tastefully done and decorated with an approach to promote the local cultural heritage of Balochistan. Serena, at least all over Pakistan deserves the credit for this. I meet more people from different international humanitarian organizations who are working for the floods relief in Balochistan. As Pakistanis, we salute these people. Where our own Government has not been able to adequately respond to this disaster bigger than the tsunami, where people in the camps have been left vulnerable to live or die at their own and where there is a complete absence of Government whether Provincial or Local levels, people from the international community have stepped forward with their generous gestures. Humanity knows no political boundaries and no religious discrimination. At least in Quetta, my faith in intrinsic goodness always gets re-asserted, though in surprising ways. I sit in the lobby and chat with some Turkish doctors and happen to spot one of my childhood favourite TV actors from Balochistan, Ayub Khosa. With looks of a Greek hero, he is an extremely handsome man in his early 50s, with dark golden hair, perfectly but naturally purmed. Dressed in traditional white shalwar qameez and brown Balochi chappals, he tells me how his village near Jhal Magsi (a very poor and under developed District of Balochistan) came under water and he fled to Karachi bared footed to save his life. Shamelessly, I keep uttering ‘I am a huge fan of yours’. Suddenly there is a panic amongst the Serena staff and at least a dozen men dressed in similar black suits rush in with a white skinned gray haired man. Quite a contrast to Khosa’s beautiful attire, I said to myself. Why these men in black, I asked a manager of the hotel administration standing nearby. He tells me ‘Oh this is the American counselor, he is visiting Quetta’ and then whispers ‘they are opening an American consulate here’ and then emphasizes, ‘in Quetta! don’t you know?’…. I roll my eyes and feel too furious to even notice the counselor’s attire.
The next day, I am off to Karachi. More work, more issues, more attires. Coming to Karachi always brings back memories to me. It is the city of my childhood; it is the city where I spent some of the most beautiful years of my life in the lap of my father. And Karachi, the mini Pakistan is a different story from Quetta, but there are similarities too. Bustling with noisy traffic, smoke and people literally falling all over, it took me almost an hour to reach the hotel. Even though this is a very tense time for the law and order situation, as political assassinations have been going on for weeks now. The rivalry between the Sindh dominating political parties the PPP and MQM have increased and more than 150 people have been killed so far. Such is the violent nature of party politics in the country. Avenge, revenge, torture, blood, killings and shootings have been the adopted course of action by Government as well as opposition parties. The dead body of a recently assassinated MQM politician is expected to arrive in a day and already there are security alerts about avoiding unnecessary movement as senseless violence is expected again. This city of Pakistan has been the centre of all major political movements and has an ugly history of the use of brutal force in a bid to oppress political plurality. Karachi has a worse record of human rights abuses just like Balochistan but the nature and causes of political conflicts have largely been different in these two Provinces. The worsening law and order situation, gunshots, occasional firing is all but very familiar to people here. Karachities are also like the people of Balochistan, unperturbed, living lives on their own terms. Most of them come to the sea side after sun set and just relax by the lovely site. It is not only the city of lights but also is very famous for its night life. The high rises, the roads, tall plazas, shopping malls, restaurants, industry, factories, markets and the sea offer everything for every social and economic class. To a great extent, there are opportunities available to the middle and low income classes for some kind of entertainment. This is quite contrary to the situation in Balochistan where there is nothingness in terms of wealth but also in terms of opportunities for participation in a process of social interaction. Social exclusion is more prominent in Quetta and that is owed to the elite capture of local resources and a capitalist monopoly by the Sardar system which is to the disadvantage of the poor majority.
The next morning, I travel to interior Sindh. I pass through Dadu, Thatta, Hyderabad, Sajawal and arrive in Badin. Road to interior Sindh is also a ride of its own. All along the small bazaars, there are posters of Benazir Bhutto, her very fortunate husband Asif Zardari with emotionally charged slogans written on the walls. I can see interior Sindh is such a strong power base of the PPP but what about these very people. I wonder how all these PPP stalwarts now the third time in Government forget the misery of this Province as soon as the elections are over. Youngsters, college and university aged boys are sitting on the street sides smoking and playing cards. On the sideways, there is still the floods water and local people tell us that that the only way it will vanish will be through natural evaporation. I see the camps of the flood effected people who have literally lost everything they had under the tag of assets. Their belongings range from goats to one or maximum two cooking utensils and in some cases a bed sheet. That is all, I tell myself and say a silent prayer that they do get to survive the approaching harsh winter. Their kids live long enough to look after their aging parents and the parents get to see their children grow up. I comfort myself again that they will live as long as they are destined to but reality speaks for itself and it is going to be very, very difficult.
I have a host of meetings in Badin and visit schools distributing uniforms and books amongst school children. I visit more schools, meet communities and teachers. But what strikes me the most are the eyes of young girls in this remote and far flung village of interior Sindh. Beautiful but blaming eyes or rather blazing eyes. Guilt creeps up on me and I try to make up by sitting really close to them and trying to seek a friendly entry into their group. I try to motivate them by usual non-sense of not giving up, of struggling to continue education and fulfill their aspirations. They don’t utter a word and just keep starring at me. I blush with embracement, quickly apologize for taking their time and leave.
I stayed that night in Hyderabad, another rapidly urbanizing city in Sindh and dined out with colleagues. During all the economic growth and the global repression discussions, the images of those girls kept flashing backing, disrupting my discussion and my meal. Next day, I am travelling back to Islamabad. They would be forgotten soon but I don’t want to forget them, not now perhaps, not so early. I promise myself to let them remain alive, in my memory at least for some time. I come back to my room and keep setting their pictures as desktop images…reminding myself every time I switch my machine on, of that unforgiving, hurtful stare. I land in Islamabad thinking that eyes always need to be looked deep into. And importantly, what is seen is to be remembered, at least for a while long enough to absorb it and I am already feeling scared of peeping into the eyes in Balochistan. No more similarities, please!
(Bushra Zulfiqar is a Pakistani writer, peace activist & advocate)