The day had been particularly long. The commute to work had taken two hours in the interminable Shenzhen traffic; in the office, one problem after the other kept me occupied- payments were delayed, machines were broken, products were failing quality tests. Then the European office woke up with its own issues and requests. It took another two hours to get back home, working all the while. I could not wait to draw a long hot bath and shut out the world. Finally, I got home. As I was unzipping my jacket, my personal phone rang. Swearing colourfully at it, I picked up the call.
“Is your family okay?” were the first words I heard. And just like that my heart froze. It was the 16th of December, 2014 and Pakistan had just experienced the deadliest terrorist attack in its history.
With speed born out of practice I cut my friend’s call off and immediately dialled my father’s number while turning the TV on and flipping to a news channel. The incident was headline news everywhere. A school in Peshawar had been targeted by the terrorist organisation TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan) and students had been shot dead as they gave their exams. When the dust cleared, the number of casualties was 145; 132 of those being children aged eight to eighteen.
By the time my father picked up his phone, I had already moved on from sheer terror to stark relief. According to the news, the attack was in Peshawar. My family, a little less than 200km away, was safe. For the moment, as selfish as it was, I refused to let the violence of the attack hit me. My family was safe. I could breathe.
It is a little ritual that most Pakistanis living abroad have developed and I perfected for myself during my time at Jacobs. When you hear of a terrorist attack, the first thing you ask is the location. After having to rush out of numerous classes while at university, or having someone casually ask about the recent “bombing in Pakistan” in the middle of a meeting, when you haven’t had a chance to read the news- you learn to be a douche. The location always comes first. Like a “choose your own adventure” book, the next steps are based on the location of the event, instead of asking who and how many were affected.
If it’s your city, you step out of whatever you are doing. No exceptions. You call home immediately and confirm every family member’s location and safety. If it’s not your city but a city where your fellow expat friends have family, then depending on the severity of the attack you either immediately call them or drop them a line to check whether everything is okay with them. Then, once you have the time, you break down in front of the TV.
When you live abroad, with different time-zones and routines and the regrettable frequency of such horrifying incidents, there is simply no time to mourn everything. Just like you cannot celebrate all your religious/cultural events in a country where you’re a minority immigrant, you cannot afford the luxury of tears and horror at every bombing and shooting.
This is where social media enters the situation with the full power of its beautiful, noble, original intentions behind it. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram become platforms to share your depression at the current situation, your commiseration with the victims and your condemnation of whichever terrorist organisation was behind the latest attack.
So while Pakistan was in official mourning for three days and I had spent the night intermittently sobbing at the pictures of the destroyed school, I had to put on my best face and went to work the next day. I know no Pakistanis in Shenzhen. No-one who could understand the horror I felt every time I thought of the justifications the Taliban had offered for shooting defenceless children. No-one I could turn to, to express my hatred and rage towards the fundamentalists that had dared to claim the TTP was in the right. I had no one to talk to.
At this time Facebook saved my sanity. For the first time, I saw anger, protest and disbelief from all the Pakistanis on my list. Most of the South Asians (Indians in particular) seemed to share the collective disbelief and disgust that my country was going through. Profile pictures were changed to black, candlelight vigils were organised, headlines were shared and action was called for.
During this time, I noticed a pattern emerge. While this news had shaken so many Asians to the core, I was yet to see a wide scale reaction from the Europeans and Americans that I knew. I could see that there were vigils being arranged in major cities in Europe, but there was very little social media activity–at least on my friends’ list. No articles being shared, no statues being updated… it was eerily quiet.
Fully aware that my Facebook profile is not an accurate indicator of social media activity worldwide, I decided to make a comparison. Taking an incident that was arbitrary but matched at least some details with the Peshawar attacks, I chose the Nigerian school kidnapping that took place in April 2014. Some of you may remember that event as the hashtag “Bring Our Girls Back”. Both incidents involve school children, both incidents took place in developing areas which are subject to fundamentalist Islamic radicals and they involve the violation of a basic human right- the right to safely receive an education. Below are a few charts I pulled up:
I did a comparison with the hashtag being used the most by Pakistanis - Peshawar Attack.
Please note that the charts may vary slightly with changing trends.
Before I move on, note a few clarifying points:
- To make sure only the incidents of the 16th of December were included in the search for “Peshawar Attacks”, I checked the trends for only the month of December 2014.
- For the search term “Bring Back Our Girls”, the time period for checking the search trend was the month of May 2014.
- I am in no way implying that one incident is more serious or newsworthy than the other. They are both tragedies and failures of humanity.
Some things leap to the eye. Since Google takes the area with the highest number of searches as an arbitrary 100 and compares the other locations to it, we do not know the actual number of searches conducted. We can only comment on how the searches are spread out geographically.
The top 2 countries are the ones affected, and the one close in the region. UK, Canada and the USA are the top searchers in both instances. Digging a little deeper, we notice a trend in the cities emerge. For the Nigerian kidnapping, the searches are well distributed over the most populous city in Nigeria, the largest city of South Africa and major cities in both Europe and North America. For the Peshawar Attack, all the top searchers are Pakistani cities.
The first assumption I went with was internet penetration. Was it possible that Pakistan has a higher availability of internet compared to Nigeria, which led to more Pakistanis conducting Google searches? Not according to the stats. Nigeria has a higher internet penetration (37.59%) compared to Pakistan (10.84%).
The second assumption that I am working with is: Pakistan is just not popular. If there was a Miss Country contest, Pakistan would not be winning the title of Miss Congeniality. It would probably be the contestant who has no friends and is known to be a little bitchy and crass.
Let’s be honest, Pakistan has brought this on itself with its flip flopping policies. We have condemned the terrorists, we have promised support to the international community in rooting them out, and then we have turned a blind eye to all the religious fundamentalists that have been spreading the message of terrorism inside our own borders. Until this attack, Pakistan has been so ambiguous regarding its activities that the public didn’t know who to support at times. This piece covers the conundrum very accurately. After the events of the 16th of December 2014, the public rallied together to demand action and the government complied. Maulana Fazlullah, the main head behind this act, has been reportedly killed. Where was this action, where was this urgency for the past 13 years during which we lost 70,000 Pakistanis? Yes, Pakistan deserves this contempt from the developed world for it’s lack of decisive policies.
What about Pakistanis though? Do they deserve the contempt and the lack of interest from the international community? Should their lives hold less value and importance?
Some would argue yes. When the leaders of a democracy err, the people can be said to be culpable. With the recent Charlie Hebdo incident, Rupert Murdoch tweeted: “Maybe most Moslems peaceful [sic], but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.” I do not intend to start another debate on his political views here. Even blaming the Pakistanis for their government’s failure to root out terrorism, the victims of the Peshawar shootings were schoolchildren. Schoolchildren do not vote, they do not create international policies. They worry about toys, exams and pimples. And one hundred and thirty of these children, were murdered in a blood bath. There is one surviving pupil from the entire grade 9 of the school, who missed school that day. A 16- year old boy, after being shot in both legs pretended to be dead so that the terrorists would pass him over. These children went to school and never came back. Can a more horrifying scenario be imagined? Mothers getting ready for the day, expecting their children back home in a few hours were greeted with coffins instead.
And yet, my newsfeed remained empty.
I received a one line email from an Indian colleague of mine. It read: “Hi there, I read of [sic]some terrible news the other day. My heartfelt condolences. This is not an attack on Pakistan, it is an attack on humanity. I hope everything is okay with you guys”.
This email meant the world to me. When I was feeling alone and lost, and felt like I had no-one to talk to, this single email buoyed me up. When you’re drowning, all you need is a piece of driftwood to float with. Be that piece of driftwood for someone. Considering how strong and vast our alumni network is, none of should have to feel alone in any part of the world. No matter how you disagree with some country’s policies and actions, always remember there are living, breathing, feeling people involved. Empathy with the suffering of people should not be dependent on which part of the world they are suffering in.
Omaina gets very flustered when asked to describe herself and will usually end up making a joke that’s funnier in her head. This is why she prefers to stay at home with a book. Enthusiastic traveler and cook.
Image Credit: Google images