FEDERAL minister retired Lt Gen Abdul Qadir Baloch said: “If IDPs go back unhappy they will be exploited by anti-state elements for their nefarious designs.”
In other words, the minister was seeking to warn Pakistanis in general that it was in their own interest to not ignore the displaced in a time of crisis. If one was needed, this was yet another, and official to boot, confirmation that the usual approach where the populace’s support for a section of people in need is solicited on humanitarian grounds is not working.
The minister was in the mood for introspection when he said: “I consider it a national failure and hold all sections of society including the government responsible for this lack of required response…” and that the “people of the country were by far more mobilised at the time of the October 2005 earthquake and later the floods of 2010-11, to help their brethren in need than now when an equally serious challenge was being faced.”
This quite desperate appeal came at the back of a series of similar admonitions by commentators in the media. Each one of these pleas for help has been accompanied by an expression of shock over the lack of empathy shown by the ‘Pakistani brethren’ to the plight of the internally displaced. Not surprisingly with little effect.
The figures that have accompanied the forced migration from North Waziristan have done little to clear the picture.
It is too complex a riddle to solve and there can be so many reasons for this lack of interest in the IDPs. However, some attitudes in the run-up to the operation and displacement do stand out as contributors to the current apathy towards the displaced. These attitudes have not come about suddenly — it’s something that has been there having found root under the supervision of the government and aided by all who eagerly found the requisite security in remaining aloof and disconnected from the ‘war zone’.
Sympathy comes with closeness and it would be difficult for a group of people in denial to all of a sudden show solidarity with the very souls who, they have been trained to tell themselves, existed in a land far away. The country is the same; the territory is different. The fear of trouble the IDPs could bring in their wake is, apparently, powerful enough to prevent a spontaneous display of oneness with them.
Whereas there has been some government emphasis on owning the drive against terrorism as ‘our war’, in vast areas of the country, the government’s actions have been geared towards projecting an image to the contrary. Vast sections of Pakistanis have been made to live with the (false) officially provided security that the battlefront exists at a distance from them.
Nowhere has this impression been conveyed with greater consistency and purpose than in Lahore, that by and large, perceives it not as its own problem but as an issue that is present and which needs to be addressed in the north-western hills away from the peace of the plains.
It is not uncommon for a set of people to wish they are not in the firing line. The world has been pointing the finger at Pakistan and people in vast areas in Pakistan have in turn been blaming militancy on a particular part of the country. They have repeatedly been assured that the ‘miscreants’ lived not in their midst, that they were invaders who could — should — be blocked and eliminated before they could reach ‘here’.
Take Lahore as an example. Frequently, there would be raids here to round off suspects, and the suspects would always belong to one ethnic group. As recently as the first week of Ramazan, one spotted a few Pathans being thrown into a police van in the city for interrogation — relaying the standard image of suspects a few days before the law-enforcers were compelled to discover a couple of non-Pakhtun ‘terrorists’ in a house not far from the prime minister’s Jati Umra estate.
Even in the face of this evidence, the media quoted some unnamed investigators naturally inclined to look for the mastermind behind the gang in the northwest.
The same image of the invader has then been complemented by stories speaking of militants’ compatibility and cultural links with the people, ‘not us’, around them. The same people who were for so long painted as militancy’s willing hosts are today the IDPs. They are the very people the others have been trained to be wary of.
The manner in which the news about the operation has reached these plains has added a few more miles to the already existing gap. It continues to be an affair surrounded by mist with statistics making only an occasional, often confusing, appearance. If nobody had any idea about life in the distant war zone, the figures that have accompanied the forced migration have done little to clear the picture.
Leave everything else aside, as a measure of the disconnect between the country and a suspect territory no one appears to be sure of just how many had been living in North Waziristan at the time of the launch of operation Zarb-i-Azb. All we know is that they have been forced to leave their homes and while some human interest stories bringing out the ‘tragedy’ have been told, the fears that the majority had been nursing all along meant that they were (more) receptive to simultaneous calls for security.
The stress was on the effort to ensure that the miscreants did not enter ‘our’ space in the guise of the IDPs. In Sindh, nationalists minced no words in pointing out how vulnerable the province was to infiltration by militants masquerading as refugees. Punjab has also hardly acted as an elder brother ready to embrace IDPs. The fear of the few in its midst discredits the entire crowd.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, July 25th , 2014