A little more than a year ago and less than a week after the horrific attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School (APS), I was in Charsadda. At the New Muslim College, Charsadda, some 10 kilometres from the Bacha Khan University which was the scene of an equally horrific attack three days ago.
That crisp December morning in 2014, crammed into a long thin classroom, was made memorable by the thirty or so young college students I spent an hour and a half talking to. We talked about Pakistan. About what was happening in Pakistan. We talked about them. Their hopes. Their fears. Yes, we talked about the APS attack too. But, most of all, we talked about what it means to be young in Pakistan.
Actually, they talked. I listened. But more on that later.
I was in Charsadda that morning to conduct a focus group discussion on that last question – what does it mean to be young in Pakistan today? The focus group was part of our research for the Pakistan National Human Development Report (PkNHDR) on youth. In preparation for the report that will be launched later this year, we have been listening to a lot of young Pakistanis. A lot.
My research team – itself composed of bright young Pakistanis – estimates that we have directly engaged over 100,000 young Pakistanis between the ages of 15 and 29, including through a comprehensive national youth attitudes survey. But the most structured of these engagements were the over 70 focus groups, with some 1,200 young men and women, conducted across the length and breadth of Pakistan, of which this Charsadda meeting was one.
I should note that many of our other focus groups were memorable. That previous afternoon we had met, in Peshawar, with a group of Hindu youth and, then, another group of young Peshawar-based entrepreneurs. The evening after Charsadda, we were in Saidu Sharif with young twenty-something activists from across Swat. The next morning with a group of young coal-miners from Shangla. Meetings I would later have with young men and women in Baluchistan, or my colleagues would conduct in Sindh, Punjab, Gilgit-Baltistan and with youth from Fata have all been full of insight.
But there was something special, something especially memorable, about Charsadda that morning. This was a boys’ college. Fifteen-, sixteen-, seventeen-year olds. Bright-eyed. Eager. Energetic. Enthusiastic. And they were so eager to talk. They had so much on their mind; so much to say. But what struck me most of all was how much they wanted to be heard.
As we left Charsadda for Swat, I remember saying to my colleagues that I had never felt more encouraged, more optimistic, about the youth of Pakistan that at this meeting. But, also, that I had felt deeply uncomfortable. Except that I did not immediately know why.
I knew exactly why I felt encouraged. It was their unbounded energy. Their spirited hopes. Their unbridled ambition. Their confidence in themselves, in their own future, and in Pakistan. Their deep passion for all things Pakistan. Their inherent recognition of their own potential as well as of their responsibility. Their commitment to change; and to being the change.
But it was also about how they were responding to APS. Remember, this was just days after the APS attack, and these were young boys not too much older than those who had been massacred in Peshawar. The previous night I had visited the makeshift shrine of tributes and flowers that had sprung up outside APS Peshawar.
While there, I reflected on the realisation that it was the young in Pakistan who were doing the dying. A major news magazine in Pakistan had just named a school kid from Hangu, Aitizaz Hasan, as their person of the year – for having lost his life while saving his school in Ibrahimzai village from suicide bombers. But there was also the realisation that it was also the young in Pakistan who have been doing much of the killing. Those who had attacked APS – just like those who attacked the Bacha Khan University this week – were themselves not much older than those they killed. This thought was haunting me.
Charsadda gave me another perspective. Unlike every other APS conversation I had been hearing – on television, on social media, from politicians, in drawing rooms – theirs’ was devoid of sloganeering. There was no sign of despair. No hollow display of anger or anguish. No camouflaging of fear with bravado. Instead, there was resolve. Very endearing. Very becoming. Very mature. A very matter-of-fact recognition that this was the reality of the Pakistan they had inherited. A reality they had already internalised.
It hit me on some reflection that the source of my discomfort was not different than the source of my enthusiasm. These were fifteen-, sixteen-, seventeen-year olds. There was something very odd, very wrong, with them talking about terror, about death, about extremism, even about politics in general with the maturity and depth of knowledge that they were displaying.
This is not what fifteen-, sixteen-, seventeen- year olds are supposed to be preoccupied with. There are so many other things that fifteen-, sixteen-, seventeen-year olds around the world preoccupy themselves with. Mundane things. Silly things. Sweet things. Beautiful things. None of those things came up in our conversation with these young men, boys really, in Charsadda that morning.
It hit me then just what the perils of being young in Pakistan today are. Extremists are out to indoctrinate the young. Terrorists are out to kill them. Educational institutions can neither guarantee quality education not physical security. An emergent politics of anger use the passions of the young as fuel for petty politicking. The result is that the space for the young to be young has shrunk – is endangered. We often associate youth with the ability to be carefree. But in securitised times to be carefree is to be a target. Too many of our young can simply not afford to be carefree. Across the world, and in Pakistan too, it is poverty and lack of opportunity that can rob the ability to be young from the young. In Pakistan today, it is also security. Safety.
Most places around the world, I would have finished a meeting with such a smart group of youngsters with a prayer wishing them the great success they deserved. In Charsadda, I added a prayer for their safety.
As the horrendous news from the Bacha Khan University unraveled on Wednesday, I was taken back to my own Charsadda conversation. I was taken back to the prayer I had left them with. I wondered how they were doing. I knew that a year ago some of them were getting ready for their Intermediate exams (FSc/FA) and onwards to university. I do not know if any ended up at the Bacha Khan University. I offered a silent prayer, again, for their safety. For the safety of all the young in Pakistan. Everywhere.
The writer is the inaugural dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, former Vice Chancellor of LUMS, and lead author of the Pakistan National Human Development Report on Youth.