How does it feel to be the problem?

Published: August 29, 2010
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The innocent children of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa know no ethnicity, sect or religion

“They say I know an excellent colored man in my town or I fought at Mechanicsville or, do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, “how does it feel to be a problem?” I answer seldom a word.”

W.E.B. DuBios’ words about African Americans could easily be used for Pashtuns in Pakistan. I was born and brought up listening to the question by our countrymen. The word problem is easily interchangeable with Pashtun.

“How is life in Peshawar? They say it is dangerous out there,” a young Karachite asks on the phone the other night after telling me that 12 buses were burned that evening, there was no electricity, and that he was scared to death after seeing these horrors. “This is the routine here and I am sick of it. I was so stressed I thought I would get some peace after talking to you.” Like DuBios puts it, I didn’t answer a word. I didn’t say how can he ask about the wild Frontier with such fear, if he is feeling unsafe in the megalopolis. I couldn’t dare say, out of courtesy, that the whole house is on fire. The problem is not only being born a Pashtun. We are all living and intensifying the problem. We have become the problem.

But the child in the image above doesn’t know how we are being depicted. She doesn’t even know she was born a problem and that she is Pashtun. She even doesn’t know her home is no more or that her parents might have drowned, everything is lost and nothing is left. She is just looking for someone to come help her out. She doesn’t know exactly what she needs. Perhaps she is hungry or she has a high temperature, or maybe she is feeling damp and cold.

The catastrophe that struck KP is enormous. It swept away the whole region from Gilgit Baltistan to Nowshehra in one day. The steep terrain didn’t give anybody time to settle or even grasp the real intensity before it destroyed everything. The UN lost one of its biggest warehouses in Asia. 50,000 tons of food commodities were washed away in a day with only a couple of thousand left. Immediate relief became impossible. Relief agencies are still grappling with the situation.

But the important question is how our countrymen see the problem. ‘Experts’ are weighing the veracity of statements issued from KP. “Saying Northwestern Pakistan is the most impoverished region in Pakistan is statistically incorrect. Balochistan is poorer,” say some. “And this street talk about KP being neglected has not been proven,” say others.

Look at the child in the picture and tell her she does not deserve food or shelter, because ‘statistics’ don’t support her need. The problem is not whether there is enough to satisfy the needs of all that have been affected by this catastrophe and that not everybody’s needs could be met immediately. Some will get relief soon while others might have to wait. Waiting might cost some their lives. All this is understandable, though not easy to live through.

The problem lies in not being able to rise above the narrow parochial thinking. Of not being able to get out of the divisive mode of us and them. Of seeing the Pashtun as a problem. Of not seeing these impoverished people as worthy of our national sympathy, of being mainstream Pakistan. Where will all this lead the nation, if there is any left after all this narrowness. Isn’t it high time to come out of our shells, see reality in the face, and understand our inner problem of seeing the other as a problem, of making a problem out of our own very national organism.

The people of KP are in trouble. There are more dead in a few days than the toll countrywide during continuing disaster, the “slowly approaching tsunami.” The swiftness of destruction caused enormous damage to this already battered part of the country. Let this small time window not add to the miseries of these people. Let neglect not add fuel to the fire of annihilation. Let not innocents linger and die because they can’t statistically prove their haplessness. Lets be human for once in our national lifetime. This might be beginning of the long awaited nation building, something that we only witness on TV shows on Independence Day festivities, festivities that went on even amidst the cries and shrieks of the God forsaken problems.

altafkhan

Dr. Altaf Ullah Khan

Chairman of Journalism department at the University of Peshawar, Khan is global adjunct faculty at the center for International Studies at Ohio University. He completed his doctorate in communication and media sciences from Germany. He lives in Peshawar with his wife and three sons.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.