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April 6, 2017

A traumatised state of life


April 6, 2017

We have in many ways become accustomed to living in constant fear and danger. The latest bomb blast at a busy bazaar in Parachinar is a reminder that terrorism has not been defeated. Before this we had a massive security alert in Punjab prior to the Pakistan Super League final played in Lahore.

The lives of many citizens were affected in one way or the other, including those of school-going children. A blast in a busy DHA market which we understand may have been caused by gas cylinders added to the panic that made its way through most of February.

This is not a good way to start the year. Spring should be a time for happiness and celebration. This is becoming increasingly difficult given the circumstances in which we live. Barbed wire barricades atop school walls and at other public buildings, security check posts and other similar signs are constant reminders of the fact that we do not live in normal times.

We have done too little to assess the impact this is having on people across the country, most notably on children. In drawings and pieces of writings produced by students from at least three schools in Lahore and no doubt many others in the country, the prevalent themes are fear of death, fear of going to school and fear of venturing into public places. These children – between the ages of eight and 12 years – are afraid of stepping into public spaces because they fear a blast could target them or their families. It is obvious that millions of children in the country live with this lingering sense of dread. We have not made sufficient efforts to understand what this means for them and whether we should be doing more to offer them counselling or therapy to help them cope with terrors that many are too young to express.

Projects completed in Swat and other tribal areas have shown how deeply children and young people have been affected by the terrorist threat that hangs over them. In many cases they explain they do not speak out because they have been asked to be brave. But why should our children be brave? After all they are not soldiers going out into battles. They deserve a sense of safety in life rather than the possibility of sudden and terrifying death. It is instead the state that needs to pluck up the courage to restore a state of normalcy for these children and for other people everywhere in the country.

This is not the only reason why people are afraid. In Balochistan, children talk about their fathers, brothers and grandfathers who have gone missing or been found murdered. The tendency to whisk people away has in fact spread to other places. Over social media, there has been advice from well-meaning friends to even avoid discussing such disappearance or other matters that have come to be considered controversial. Essentially there appears to be less and less tolerance for anyone who differs from the ideological perspective put forward officially and by various institutions which attempt to control thinking in the country.

Media professionals report an increase in attempts to control thinking through propaganda. Even incidents such as the Parachinar bombing which killed 25 people were initially downplayed. In some ways this is sensible action. The creation of sensationalism by the media has too often added to a sense of fear and turmoil among people but it should be the media itself that determines how to treat news, avoid alarmism but at the same time not hide what is happening from people. As always, particularly for television news channels that balance can be difficult to find.

We need to understand that allowing people to express their views creates a more open society where fear is less likely to linger in dark corners. Unfortunately we appear to be moving in precisely the opposite direction. One consequence of this is the growing tendency of people – at all levels – to regard violence as a legitimate means to solve problems. Pakistan is one of the countries in the world that has the highest number of firearms in circulation. The increased use of these arms even to settle small disputes involving teenagers represents a dangerous trend.

Somehow we need to pull our country back from the precipice on which it is standing. Already too many people in different ways have fallen over this edge and left behind a weaker society. The drastic increase in the rate of depression among young people aged between 14 and 20 years, noted by institutes such as the Aga Khan University Hospital, is shocking.

According to the Pakistan Association for Mental Health, the rate of mental depression among young people in Pakistan is among the highest in the world. While statistics are hard to come by, because deliberate self harm is considered a crime, estimates suggest up to 100,000 cases take place each year. Only a minority among these are reported. The reasons for this trend vary from economic problems to other tensions created by the surrounding social order.

In a culture where weapons are so easily available, particular precaution is required. We already have a high rate of murder. There is the danger that as more social restrictions grow within society, depression or anger will be expressed by inflicting harm on others. This is a concern psychologists have expressed at seminars.

Our problem should be how to tackle the issue. Of course at one level it is a matter of offering better counselling and support to people. But at another level it is about putting our stakes right. The country has become a place where too much darkness and anger lurks. A society where people fear even a status update on Facebook could bring unwanted attention is not a healthy one. More spaces to put ideas that hide in various places need to open. We should be talking openly about the changes our society has undergone over the past three to four decades and how these have shaped lives. Lives lived today are quite different for a very large number of people than those lived in previous decades.

Essentially we have lost our innocence and hope. We have little vision for our own future. When asked, most people initially regurgitate patriotic slogans they have picked up from school textbooks, the media or other places. But probe a little deeper, and truth begins to emerge. More and more people, regardless of their ethnic background or social standing, feel there is very little to look forward to. Younger people ask who is to blame for this.

The lack of leadership at a political level is visible to all of us. Too many social leaders have not been given the status they deserved. As a result we have a strange mist hanging that prevents us from looking into a bright future. Even children are victims of this. Nations facing such circumstances have a lot think about and plan if they are to save themselves.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]