At midnight the Indus at Attock is a slumbering snake slithering past the ancient citadel which had seen many a conqueror cross the river on their march towards the fertile plains of Punjab. It is darker than night here, the lights resting according to the stringent schedule of load-shedding exercised in the less privileged parts of my beloved, blighted country.
We reach Peshawar at two in the morning. At this hour the streets are quiet; the chaos of the GT Road during the day is just a memory, and the sight of the Bala Hisar Fort a pleasure for the eyes which have only seen it through a haze of smog and dust and a million people vying for space on the road before it. The fort is like a behemoth just waiting to rise; waiting for dawn, for the moment when the sun’s rays shall strike it awake.
The city stirs from its somnolent state gradually as believers ready themselves for the fast. I settle into my room in the Shahi Mehmankhana, a government facility built in the 1930s and lovingly restored by a former chief secretary. I prefer this accommodation to any other in the city, barring the several homes of my own family, for there is still a sense of the past in the wide corridors and high ceilings on this building. Outside, a massive tree shelters the cars of the several secretaries who stay here on a long-term basis. And at the back there is a lovely garden where birds flock and sing and revel in monsoon’s verdure.
Could it be that military interventions after too many years of denial and neglect are only the shimmering light of a new day?
I unpack and ready myself for sleep after a long journey, drawing the thick velour curtains to a close. Just before doing so I peer outside — there is a faint light on the horizon, a shimmering in the sky which cannot be the reflection of street lights, nor can it be the rays of the rising sun for it is too early, not even 3 o’clock yet. I make my way to the balcony to see if this was truly dawn, but by the time I get there, it is night again, and I put my vision down to fatigue, having just got off the flight from London and then onwards to Peshawar by road.
I drift off to sleep eventually, and wake in time for my meeting with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Child Protection and Welfare Commission (KPCPWC). I have been asked by Arshad Khan, the director general of the Fata Disaster Management Authority, to assist with planning appropriate interventions to cope with the many children arriving unaccompanied at the camps for internally displaced persons moving away from the military operation in North Waziristan. The figure which Arshad Khan gives me is staggering — 139 such children arrived on just one day, and more were coming. Many of them were war orphans, but many others separated from their families. Several of them were disabled, some too young to even speak. All of them were hungry, tired, terrorised and traumatised.
I had quickly put together a list of NGOs that had received clearance to work in the Frontier Region of Bannu where most IDPs are arriving, and had informed the KPCPWC that I was on my way, requesting them to convene a meeting of implementing partners as well as the FDMA and the PDMA, represented by the Gender and Child Cell. As we were being briefed on the latest situation at the two registration centres set up by the authorities, my mind kept visualising what it must have been like for these children to take this journey into unfamiliar territory, amongst unfamiliar people, terrorised time and time again by all things which all people, young and old, fear. I tried to imagine the trauma of having to leave my home, my animals, my fields, separated from those I knew and loved, from those who cared for me. I recalled the story of Minhajuddin of Hassukhel who walked 40 kilometres with his dog Moti since the trucks packed with IDPs did not accept his dog, leaving the boy and his pet behind. I tried to imagine the fear and the deep loss, the profound anguish of not knowing where the road would take me, whether I would see my family again.
But there was work at hand and we quickly sketched a scenario for the participants that would enable the relevant authorities, especially the KPCPWC, to put together a structure and establish mechanisms to deliver assistance to these children; the first and foremost concern being the safety of these vulnerable young people. It did not take long to create a short-term plan for these children. By the time we finished the meeting, fresh data had been communicated from both help points in Bannu: 200 more unaccompanied children had arrived while we were sorting out priorities to be addressed and mechanisms to be put in place.
Where are these children coming from, without elders, without parents, without families? Could it be that they are the children from the many madressahs run by the extremist groups, nurturing the young on a curriculum of violence and intolerance? Could it be that the very status of North Waziristan, along with the other agencies comprising Fata, had created fertile ground for the emergence of the monster sired by national and international intelligence agencies, gestated in the womb of a disenfranchised citizenry? Could it be that military interventions after too many years of denial and neglect are only the shimmering light of a false dawn? Could it be that for these children and for the rest of an ailing country, the night is still to return, enveloping us in its infinite darkness? I have no answers now — just tasks ahead of me, and many children whose eyes reflect the summer sky and the inconsolable sorrow of loss.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 13th, 2014