Defy the odds, Mehzar

December 07, 2012


FIRST Malala Yousufzai was targeted. Now it is Mehzar Zehra. One was on her way home from school, the other was on her way to school when shot and wounded.

Malala is an international figure in her own right, whereas 12-year-old Mehzar is on a ventilator in a Karachi hospital fighting for her life in near-obscurity, away from the media’s glare, after she was shot and gravely wounded by unidentified gunmen in an attack which killed her father.

Let me share an email with you. It is reproduced with slight changes as the sender appeared uncomfortable being identified. Under the circumstances who would blame anybody choosing anonymity to protect themselves?

“I write to you as Shia killings warrant attention. Today (Friday, Nov 30) a 7th Grade student, 12-year-old Syeda Mehzar Zehra was shot by the Taliban/SSP on (Karachi’s) busy Shaheed-i-Millat Road as she was on her way to school.

“She was a classmate of my child at Al Murtaza school. Her father, driving her to school, was shot dead, while the child is in a critical state. Some reports indicate that at least 10 people have been killed today for being ‘Shia ...’.

“I write because my own child is subdued, sad and in a state of shock since the morning. We are trying to do our best to help our child cope; other classmates would of course be in the same state of panic and grief.

“Much as the Malala incident was regrettable, Mehzar was also doing the same — going to seek an education. Where are the media and the so-called civil society and human rights activists? I write in the hope you might be moved to take notice, Sir.

Please write about this before the bloodshed in Karachi crosses the threshold of our homes.”

What can I say to this Dawn reader who had written to me in hope, except to openly admit that columnists and journalists also write and report more in despair these days than in any optimism? It is becoming an increasingly self-indulgent and futile exercise. It has zero impact, I think.

Malala Yousufzai was an iconic figure before she was shot and wounded in October this year as many recalled her diaries during the period that the murderous Mullah Fazlullah held sway over Swat till being pushed out by the army in the summer of 2009.

Malala is a heroine. Her courage, I’ll be honest, would leave many robust men feeling wholly inadequate, meek and cowardly. How many would court death as she did for what they believe in? For, if you are where she was, how else would you describe her commitment to education?

It was nothing short of a miracle that her assassin failed to kill her despite shooting her in the head from near point-blank range. We all know what followed. Malala is still in a UK hospital on the long road to recovery.

Mehzar Zehra, I am told an only child, was being driven by her father, a government servant, from their PIB Colony home in Karachi to her school a few miles away, when gunmen fired at them, killing her father and wounding her.

After the initial shooting, very little has appeared in the media about the Karachi teenager whose struggle for life, sources say, is in a critical phase. It is pretty nigh impossible to fathom what the mother must be going through.

Just as my reader did, many on the social media have also asked why Mehzar didn’t receive the sort of attention Malala did. One feels it is a sign of increasing despair that people feel compelled to even compare victims.

This obviously isn’t tantamount to blaming the victim but even then the comparison doesn’t seem in good taste and frankly appears uncalled for. All victims are just that: victims. What’s to compare between them?

But when a vulnerable group feels targeted, perpetually persecuted and unprotected by the state these errors of judgment in analysing the cause and effect do perhaps happen. There might be a reason that some victims receive more attention than others.

When Malala Yousfzai was attacked, the army, which is still in charge of Swat, took it upon itself to shoulder the major responsibility and led the effort for her medical evacuation and care. As it is, her BBC diaries meant she was instantly recognisable at home and abroad.

Once the army chief took the lead, everyone else followed with gusto. A steady stream of politicians visited the lion-hearted girl in hospital and it wasn’t long before she was flown on an air ambulance to the UK for treatment.

This was the time when, sources say, both the army and the government were keen to test the waters for a possible military operation to clean at least the part of North Waziristan Agency where Pakistani militants operate even if leaving the Afghan Haqqani network alone.

Ultimately, even the public revulsion at the attack on Malala couldn’t help create a ‘consensus’ that the army chief was predicating any military action against the militants on. Perhaps, by this time most opposition leaders had their eye on the coming election and were averse to ‘distractions’.

So the story started to drop from the media and Malala’s uphill struggle for a return to normality is more or less happening in the shadows. She has, of course, her doting parents and siblings to support her.

One will only hear of her now when the next VIP visits her in hospital or when she, hopefully, is able to walk out of the hospital.

The circumstances of the attack on Mehzar and her father were different. He was among the estimated over 450 Shia Muslims who have been killed mostly in targeted shootings and some bomb attacks this year alone.

She was wounded in a city where the streets have devoured several thousand people in unsolved crimes blamed on a wide assortment of villains from the Taliban and their sectarian allies to ethnic hit squads to street crime gangs.

This is a city where political survival and domination takes precedence over the life and limb of the citizens. This is where the leading political power spends more time decrying challenges to its pre-eminence and focuses less on the utter helplessness of the electorate.

And yes this is where the provincial chief executive, who hasn’t even possibly counted the fallen bodies in his own tenure, says the law and order isn’t bad and blames the media for kicking up the frenzy. Mehzar may you defy the odds, the apathy, if only for your mother who has only you.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.