Terrorism, tourism and the tumult that was 2023 — Prism’s year in review

This recap offers only a small glimpse into what we've covered this year. To read more, scroll down on the Prism page for articles on the topic of your choice.
Published December 31, 2023

The year 2023 has not been kind to the vast majority of people. Inflation wreaked havoc on the world economy, rising global temperatures brought about even more destruction and if that weren’t enough, new frontiers opened up for humans to kill each other. That is not to say that good things didn’t happen — amid all the darkness, there were glimmers of hope, shining through random acts of kindness by heroes who don’t wear capes.

At the local level, the year started with a staring contest between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the finance czar, Ishaq Dar — that set the tone for one of the highest inflationary spirals in the country’s history. Over the next few months, we saw a judiciary in turmoil, a polity so polarised, it invented new ways to snuff out the opposition and a state that made every excuse in the playbook to deny people the power of the ballot and often, their basic civil rights.

Here at Prism, we tried our best to make sense of it all — to provide you with in-depth analysis of events that directly or indirectly impacted you. We tried to do so objectively and included as many credible voices as possible. We asked economists to explain why consumer goods were going beyond the common man’s reach, asked lawyers why the Supreme Court was embroiled in controversy, security experts to explain the resurgence of terrorism in Pakistan and human rights activists to explain how Israel could get away with murdering thousands of children.

We covered the protests in France, the marches for women’s rights in Pakistan and the declining space for dissent in the country. We covered so much more, it would be impossible to recall everything in this space.

For the sake of a recap, however, here are the Prism editor’s picks for the year 2023, arranged in no particular order of relevance or prominence.

Floods, drugs and cultural patrimony: Tackling antiquities trafficking in Pakistan

Pakistan is home to some of the world’s oldest civilisations. Unfortunately, over the years, it has fallen prey to the insatiable greed of antiquities traffickers. This is further compounded by the fact that most of the trafficking is done while the authorities silently look the other way. British-Pakistani barrister Fahrid Chishty wrote about the controlled and coordinated transnational trafficking rings that illicitly introduce cultural commodities from South and Central Asia into western art markets.

His write-up explored the legal framework governing the movement of cultural assets in Pakistan, the societal phenomena that make these cultural assets vulnerable, the stakeholders who stand to profit from the racket and the routes and channels through which the trade is carried out.

Policy debate: How the Sindh govt is rendering thousands homeless in the name of development

Over two years, the Government of Sindh demolished 6,600 homes and displaced 66,500 people in a bid to make more room for stormwater drains. Only after they had demolished the structures did they realise that they had no resettlement or rehabilitation policy for the displaced population.

Dawn.com staffer and KAS fellow Hawwa Fazal spoke to affectees, activists, politicians and bureaucrats, besides poring through court orders and official documents to understand how the government machinery worked, why no one thought of a resettlement policy earlier and how the government’s missteps impacted thousands of citizens who lost their homes overnight.

Morocco’s blue city of Chefchaouen is more than just an Instagram aesthetic

Journalist Zahrah Mazhar took us on a magical journey through the alleyways of Morocco in this four-part series, starting with a stopover in insta-perfect Chefchaouen.

“Walking through Chefchaouen feels like strolling through a movie set. It’s too blue, too perfect, too scenic,” she wrote. “When you purposefully get lost because the blue hues from every other lane beckon for a photo, you’re reminded that it’s a real city with inhabitants who may or may not be tired of visitors peeking into alleys and doorways, and taking a picture of every nook and corner.”

Why is Karachi dug up — DHA’s drainage dilemma

If you live in Karachi or have visited it in recent years, you would be familiar with the agony of attempting to traverse its dilapidated roads, many of which remain dug up for the better part of the year.

Dawn.com staffers and KAS fellows, Hawwa Fazal and Muzhira Amin, partnered up for this report on the repair works in the upscale neighbourhood of DHA. The roadworks, it turned out, were part of the DHA administration’s plans to upgrade its stormwater drainage system. Read the report to see what they found.

Lessons from Indonesia: Key takeaways for Pakistan for reducing military interventionism

Political economist Uzair Younus shed light on Pakistan’s need for a robust debate on security sector reforms. In order to do this, he argued that Pakistan can draw from decades of global case studies and literature from countries such as Chile and Indonesia which have had much more authoritarian regimes and their elites have found a way to reform the system from within.

“With Pakistan facing the most serious crisis to its national cohesion since 1971, it is important for reform-minded citizens, especially the ruling civilian and military elites, to study the experience of countries like Indonesia,” he wrote. “By drawing the right lessons from states that are a bit further ahead in their reform journey, Pakistan’s ruling elites can set a reforms agenda that achieves success while avoiding the mistakes others have made.”

The resurrection of the TTP

With the return of the Afghan Taliban to Kabul on August 15, 2021, the TTP was seemingly emboldened, both ideologically and operationally. Since then, the group actively started a process of re-inventing itself, shifting from a ragtag militia to a full-blown insurgency, culminating in January 2023 with the adoption of a new administrative and operational structure, which saw the group being remodelled on the contours of the hierarchy of the Afghan Taliban.

Journalists and security analysts Iftikhar Firdous, Riccardo Valle and Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud teamed up for this report on the resurgence of the TTP, which had witnessed a lull in its activities in preceding years.

“With the return of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan, jihadist movements such as the TTP are feeling re-energised and emboldened. In the so-called Islamic Emirate, Pakistani outfits have found a model to emulate and practically adopt in the quest of their jihadist objectives against Pakistan,” they wrote.

Why the French are up in arms against the police

Political scientist Laurent Gayer explained why French citizens were up in arms against the police as rioting spread to 553 municipalities across the country in the wake of the police killing of Nahel Merzouk — the 15th person to be shot dead during a traffic stop in the past one year alone.

Gayer drew in from his research on the post-colonial legacy of the French police to explain why incidents like these kept happening and why the state’s response aimed at disbanding the protests through more violence would do more harm than good.

From pharaohs to prime ministers: Now you see them, now you don’t

Dawn.com staffer and KAS fellow Wara Irfan produced a stellar write-up on Damnatio memoriae, a latin phenomenon that literally translates to ’condemnation of memory — a loosely defined group of processes, which involve destruction, erasure, and silence. These processes are also understood as “memory sanctions”.

The write-up was inspired by the ‘damnatio memoriae’ of former premier Imran Khan — who faced a barrage of legal cases, swift reprisal for anyone speaking out in his favour and a near-complete blackout of the former premier from the mainstream media.

The practice, Wara found, dates back to the ancient Egyptians, evident in artefacts from pharaoh Akhenaten’s tomb. Instead of worshiping gods of the traditional pantheon, Akhenaten’s sole devotion to the god Aten was considered heretical.

Hybrid 2.0: How did P̶r̶o̶j̶e̶c̶t̶ PM Shehbaz fare?

When it comes to explaining the inexplicable, there’s no one better than the hilariously witty Abdul Moiz Jaferii, whose scathing words spare none. In this case, it was outgoing premier Shehbaz Sharif, whose performance Jaferii summed up in this piece.

“Shehbaz Sharif knew he was stepping up only to fill the role his predecessor had decided was beneath him,” he wrote. “He knew he was going to have to fit into the outfit originally stitched for the person before him. He needed to lose quite a bit of democratic weight in very little time, even as he piled on frequent flier miles to consult his elder brother.”

Jaranwala residents had little to begin with — the violent mob took away their hope too

Journalist Sarah Eleazar travelled to Jaranwala where a mob had ransacked and vandalised 91 homes of Christian citizens as well as around two dozen churches over blasphemy allegations. Reporting from the ground, Eleazar found a community in fear even as authorities attempted to provide them with a sense of security.

“As residents of Jaranwala pick up the pieces of what remains of their lives, there is little doubt that the horrors of August 16 will haunt them for generations,” she wrote. “And while monetary compensation may ease some financial burden, one can only hope that the state finally realises its promise to its most vulnerable citizens — the protection of life and property guaranteed to all, irrespective of faith, caste or status.”

Lost and found in Skardu — where mountains meet the soul

With the news cycle getting bleaker by the day, Dawn.com staffer and KAS fellow offered some welcome respite by taking us along on a trip to the second-highest plateau in the world, popularly known as the Deosai Plains, located in Skardu.

“The thing about Skardu is that everywhere you see — twirl and you will get my point — the horizon is blanketed with white and brown peaks, smiling. It is almost inconceivable that the mountains could be this close to you,” she wrote.

Justice under siege: The year of Umar Ata Bandial

Outgoing Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial was a divisive figure to say the least, particularly towards the end of his tenure. Barrister Asad Rahim Khan perfectly encapsulated his stint as the CJP in this write-up, shining a light on his shortcomings as well as his accomplishments.

“For the most part though, this was a decent man in an indecent time — each ‘good to see you’ was greeted with howls of anger; serving ministers would go purple with incitement; and calls to resign (read: calls by the shadowlands to clear the field) were a constant,” he wrote.

The language of genocide: How Israel dehumanises Palestinians

Over the last couple of months, Israel has committed atrocities worse than one would have considered possible in this day and age. What’s ironic is that it has also been given carte blanche to do so by world powers, who have in turn been more than willing to regurgitate its narrative.

Political scientist Yumna Fatima attempted to cut through the noise and pick apart Israel’s attempts at dehumanising Palestinians. “It is inconceivable — the idea that anyone would deliberately kill other humans en masse in such a way. And this is often the question we are left asking: how is it humanly possible to treat thousands of other humans — even infants — in such a manner?”

“It’s easy enough. You just have to know the right words. The ones that will allow both observers and perpetrators to think: This is fine. This is acceptable. This is what the victims deserve,” she wrote.

Afghan refugees are leaving — and Pakistanis are enjoying the spoils they leave behind

With the world fixated on the atrocities being committed in Gaza, the Government of Pakistan decided it had had enough of caring for refugees. On October 3, the government announced that an estimated 1.7 million undocumented refugees would have to leave the country or risk being forcibly evicted.

While the announcement was for all undocumented refugees, the brunt of the move was borne by Afghan refugees, many of whom had come into Pakistan to escape the Taliban government following the fall of Kabul. As the deadline to leave neared, hundreds of thousands of refugees scrambled to gather their belongings, sell off the goods and businesses they wouldn’t be able to take with them and find transport to take them to the border — leaving them susceptible to exploitation.

Journalists Mutee-ur-Rehman in Karachi and Jamaima Afridi in Peshawar partnered up for this report on the heart-wrenching situation that the refugees found themselves in as they hurried to get across the border in time.

From Balochistan to Islamabad: Why I have been marching since I was 12

Missing persons activist Sammi Deen Baloch is on a mission — and she will not rest until she finds out what happened to her father, who was alleged forcibly disappeared 14 years ago. Here, Sammi explained why hundreds of families had yet again marched on Islamabad to protest the practice of enforced disappearances and demand answers from authorities regarding the whereabouts of their loved ones.

“Like all other young girls, I should have dreamt about a career, to get married and raise my own children one day, to live a fulfilled life and grow old in peace — but the only dream I have is to see my father one day,” she wrote. “To realise this dream, I have been marching, organising protests, staging sit-ins, and moving from one office, court, and commission to another for the last 14 years.”