PESHAWAR: When Malik Faisal Moonzajer set out on a visit to Islamabad mid-June this year from Afghanistan, one thing whirled in his mind: Pakistan is an enemy. So deep-seated was this abhorrence that for decades he had taken everything anyone said positive about this country with a pinch of salt. Unbearable for him was anyone admiring Pakistan.
Just a couple of days before he flew to Islamabad, a Pakistani professor in a pre-departure orientation said “Pakistan is not a bad country.” On this, he confronted him: “You must be an [ISI] agent.” Moonzajer believed the professor had lied.
However, just after nine days stay in Pakistan, he realised his hate was misplaced. He reproduced the professor’s words, “Pakistan is a good country.” His (mis)perceptions were smashed to pieces after he travelled in the country and interacted with the people. “I was born to hate Pakistanis,” he said of his ingrained hatred for this country. “One thing was clearly known to me that Pakistan was an enemy. I had nothing more [in my mind] than that.”
Another man who was won over was Rafiullah, a Pashto-speaking journalist from northern Kunduz province. “I thought upon our arrival that the Pakistanis will find excuses to fight us, or at least will meet us with sullen faces. But I found them that open-hearted, friendly, hospitable and respectful” he said. “It shames me when I think that I had thought so negatively about Pakistanis,” he regretted.
What contributed to changing their opinion about Pakistan? “Interaction with Pakistanis,” says Moonzajer, who comes from northern Afghanistan’s Sar-e Pul province where non-Pashtuns constitute the majority and anti-Pakistan sentiments run high. The first interaction he had was with Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul. “The answers he offered to our questions were reasonable. [That was the point from where] I started thinking that Pakistan might not be an enemy,” he added.
Moonzajer was one of a group of journalists that visited Pakistan as part of an exchange programme initiated by a German organisation, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.
“[Then] I met some Pakistani counterparts and [discovered] they were not against Afghans,” he added. On the streets, he was amazed by people’s cooperation. He went to markets alone to learn more about Pakistan without being accompanied by anyone. “I met a taxi driver, who helped me show places without asking for anything,” he added.
Moonzajer noted that a taxi driver in Afghanistan would have grimaced in disgust if you had to tell him that you were a Pakistani. “Some people held my camera and patiently followed me for an hour to take my pictures at Faisal Mosque,” he tells of his experiences.
The programme, titled “Understanding the neighbour,” appeared to have lived up to its expectations and helped almost all the visiting Afghan journalists understand the neighbouring Pakistan. Bravo!
The Afghan journalists travelled in Murree hills to go to University of Peshawar summer campus at Bara Gali. They loved seeing the forested mountains and scenic sights. They also stayed in Islamabad for some days and worked with Pakistani counterparts on stories. Pakistani journalists are visiting Kabul in October.
So fascinated is 23-year-old Moonzajer that now he plans to pursue a master’s degree in an Islamabad university. “What I have learnt [here] is quite opposite to what I had in my mind,” said Moonzajer, wearing glasses and a light stubble, just before leaving hotel for the airport on his return journey to Kabul.
The interaction with people and media made a positive impression on Farkhunda, a radio reporter from Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of Balkh province. “My perception of Pakistan has changed by 180 degree,” she said.
Muhammad Atif, who works in Kabul, said good discussions with Pakistanis caused them to stop thinking negatively about them.
Many Pakistanis also had some fixed ideas about the Afghans. Ayesha Hasan, a Pakistani journalist, wrote in her blog that the Afghan journalists broke several of the stereotypes one-by-one. She thought the Afghans were rigid, serious and the ones who rarely laughed. But she found some of them the funniest. She was also amazed to see no rebel in a generation that grew up in war, something opposite to the perception.
However, cross-border raids and Pakistani militants’ unmolested sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Haqqani network’s alleged safe havens in the tribal areas hobble efforts for normalisation of bilateral relations. But newfound friends like Moonzajer are determined to work for mutual understanding. Thousands others, he said, still held negative opinion about Pakistan and he had to change it.
“When I will go back I will tell people please, please listen to me...and at first they might not listen to me...that there are truths that we should know,” he said. “I have to tell people my stories. I have to write several articles. Maybe they will call me ISI agent, but I have to change it,” Moonzajer vowed.