After a terrorist attack

While Pakistan has undertaken counterterrorism efforts for more than a decade, there is no single authority to support the civilians impacted by terrorism

According to South Asia Terrorism Portal, more than 20,000 civilian lives have been lost in Pakistan due to acts of terrorism since the year 2000. After a few days of shock and anger, what becomes mere numbers for most people continues to impact those directly affected for many years. In Pakistan, among the civilian population, these acts have disproportionately impacted the religious and caste minorities and added to their marginalisation.

In partnership with The Grief Directory (TGD), an exploratory study was carried out by the first author of this article for her master’s thesis at Teachers College, Columbia University, highlighting how lives are impacted after a terrorist attack. Conducted with Christian families directly affected by the 2015 bombing of the churches and the 2016 Easter bombing at the Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park in Lahore, the study found fear and avoidance of public places, especially parks, predominant among the affected.

Some families said they wished to leave Pakistan out of this fear and disillusionment. Needless to say, families that had lost a loved one or where some member had been permanently disabled were more affected than others. The inability to work as a result of blast-related injuries, physical ailments, cost of ongoing medical treatment, tending to a child disabled after the blast, and inability to function as a result of the emotional distress all contributed to the hardships of these families.

Parents who had lost a child had an immense need to talk about the deceased and the incident. They spoke about the hopes pinned on the deceased for their future. This often led to increased pressure on the surviving male children to become heads of their households. Missing the loved one, worries about the parents’ well-being, and school-related difficulties were common concerns among children. Common coping themes included support from the family unit, including the extended family, and trying to make sense of the loss through religious beliefs and mourning rituals.

With the heightened sense of fear and lack of safety around them, there was also an increased need to protect their community. The Grief Directory’s work with the victims of terrorism during the last five years has highlighted the need for organized and long-term support, especially in the domains of health, education, employment and psychosocial rehabilitation.

While Pakistan has been undertaking counterterrorism efforts for more than a decade, there is no single authority to support the civilians impacted by terrorism. The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) drafted the National Internal Security Policy (NISP) in 2014, which mentioned the rehabilitation needs of the victims. The NISP was replaced within a year with the National Action Plan (NAP) that does not mention civilian victim support in its agenda.

The governments of Balochistan and the Punjab passed the Civilian Victims of Terrorism (Relief and Rehabilitation) Act in 2014 and 2016 respectively. However, these laws await full implementation and are fraught with gaps. A one-time monetary compensation is paid with no formal institutionalised mechanisms of support for long-term rehabilitation of the affected despite a provision for this in the Acts. Also, victims of major terrorist attacks prior to the enactment of these laws are ineligible for such support.

Typically, the immediate medical needs of the injured are taken care of soon after the incident, followed by an announcement of financial compensation by the government. However, issues around inclusion criteria for such compensation remain a challenge. Financial compensation by the government can be helpful in meeting some of the immediate needs of the families, especially those already struggling economically.

Yet this alone is found ineffective. Disruptions caused by the incidents along with marginalized situations of many families may require working with families in the long term to meet their vocational, educational and rehabilitation needs. For many families, financial compensation cannot take away the pain of a lost life. Questions around the security lapses preceding the incident and actual or perceived inaction by the government to curb or hold the culprits accountable add to the misery and anger among victim families. The repeated targeting of certain communities in terrorist incidents creates mistrust among these communities about the intent of state agencies.

Both government and private support extended to survivors in the form of treatment and monetary compensation is mostly available during the first few weeks after the incident and rarely in the long term. Messages of solidarity and support through cash and kind from within and outside of Pakistan have a healing effect on the survivors and are extremely valuable in the absence of sufficient state support.

However, such short-term efforts are often uncoordinated and result in generating discontent among and between the affected communities, which may perceive that some have been favoured at the expense of others. Some communal organisations primarily support families from their own sects and religions which, though helpful for the victim communities, further widens the fissures between various sects, religions and ethnicities.

Soon after a terrorist attack, identification of bodies, burial, legal and bank related matters, follow-up with the police, essential medical and rehabilitative services are some important needs of the affected families. The availability of trained psychosocial support persons who can link them to these required resources in both the government and private sector is limited. Psychiatric and psychological training rarely cover social aspects of potentially traumatic life experiences thus narrowing the scope of services to medical, disease-based models. While all individuals may not require psychological counseling or medication, the availability of psychosocial support for addressing daily life challenges can be extremely valuable.

As a way forward, Civilian Victim Support and Rehabilitation Acts need to be implemented in all the provinces. The existing laws in the Punjab and Balochistan need complete and comprehensive implementation. This would entail making Rules of Business with budget allocation, monitoring mechanisms for extending timely support and assignment of responsibility among the concerned provincial departments. Lessons can be also be learnt from the working military and police models. Survivors’ voices must be at the centre of policy dialogue and setting up of rehabilitative services.

The example of Northern Ireland is pertinent where platforms such as The Commission for Victims & Survivors and Wave Trauma Centre enable those affected by conflict-related incidents to communicate their needs, obtain services and advocate for long-term realistic support. Similar commissions can be set up in other province through amendments in the relevant laws.

The commissions can be the link between the provincial government departments and the affected for centralised access to services. The commissions can ensure that witness protection is provided by the relevant police authorities in cases of targeted shootings and killings, and there is increased information sharing and transparency related to investigations.

Such commissions can also be tasked to maintain a database of incidents of terrorism based on age, gender, sect/religion, socioeconomic class of the affected, and information about deaths, injuries and disabilities and compensations made. Such a database can inform policies, advocacy efforts and the civil society initiatives for victim support.

Highlighting victim narratives through story-telling and acknowledging collective sufferings through a day of remembrance are other good practices highlighted globally for promoting overall empathy and tolerance in the society. August 21 is already marked as the International Day of Remembrance and Tribute to the Victims of Terrorism by the United Nations. It is hoped that having similar national days of remembrance that are acknowledged politically may assist in community healing.

Terrorism is a complex phenomenon often involving interplay of many dynamics including regional variations. While all those impacted by terrorism need care and support, some groups’ needs have to be prioritized, especially those suffering from permanent injuries, women-headed households, orphaned children, and minorities who run the risk of further persecution. Reviewing existing victim support legislations for gaps related to psychosocial assistance, women empowerment and their application to citizens from all religions, sects and ethnicities is the need of the hour. While permanent injuries or loss of a loved one cannot be reversed, accountability for the terrorist acts, and systematic, ethical and sensitive handling of the survivors’ needs can help alleviate and redress them, and build trust in the government’s intent. Along the same lines, the society must also fulfill its responsibility towards those who have been wronged, through compassion, empathy and acceptance.

Zehra Kamal Alam is a clinical psychologist. Dr Fatimah Ali Haider is the co-founder of   The Grief Directory

After a terrorist attack