TERRORISM no longer causes sustained outrage in Pakistan. This is reflected in our resigned acceptance of the now off, now on negotiations with the perpetrators of atrocities. People have become used to bombs going off, their compatriots being maimed and killed. Even those killed acquire only statistical reality rather than flesh and blood empathy.
The well-heeled live unconcerned, and this indifference becomes even more shocking when it is extended to the plight of children caught up in a life of daily terror.
Our children are at the heart of this war in ways not normally analysed or empathised with. Malala Yousafzai and Aitizaz Hasan furnish two different examples. Malala’s biography shows how children are not only being denied access to education in militancy-infested regions but also pay the cost of pursuing that right to education. Luckily, she survived to tell her story.
Yet some of the more ideologically driven have not forgiven her for highlighting the ignored plight of young people. This was obvious from the reaction of many to her book. It is a sad commentary on our sense of proportion and propriety when a young survivor of terror is made a battleground for ideological sabre-rattling.
Aitizaz Hasan furnishes another example. By confronting a bomber, the 15-year-old sacrificed his life to protect the lives of other children attending his school. In doing so, he showed that children have no option but to take matters into their own hands as a last, desperate measure when the state has failed to protect them. Aitizaz presents an extreme example of the desperation of children in face of the reality of terrorism in Pakistan.
Both Malala and Aitizaz show what an excruciating ordeal children in Pakistan must be going through. Both signify how children are being affected in terms of access to education and the physical dangers involved in exercising the right to live a normal life. In addition, there are the psychological effects of terrorism, which is demonstrated in feelings of trauma, anxiety and horror.
One study conducted in the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing showed that 50pc of schoolchildren suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder which consisted of a complex web of symptoms including helplessness, fear, anxiety and horror. This study demonstrated how even one traumatic event can adversely affect schoolchildren.
Just imagine how deep and long-lasting the psychological effects on Pakistani children would be when terrorism has become a daily part of our lives. The accumulated damage to children must be high given the daily exposure to stress triggered by atrocities occurring on our streets and being covered in a sensational manner by the ratings-driven media.
One friend recently told me that his daughter lives in mortal fear of being killed by terrorists despite his constant assurance that the house is guarded by a permanent security guard. His daughter is afraid that the barbarians are always at the gate. I am sure such thoughts are typical of most children today, who must be enduring a mix of fear and anxiety all the time. There are already signs of this constant unease, reflected in children’s drawings and writing appearing in publications for young readers.
Terrorism is also harming children in other ways. As a result of the Talibanisation of the polio vaccination campaign, children are being deprived of life-saving and life-maintaining medical interventions. This may lead to the maiming of a whole new generation.
Children have also become cannon fodder for the militants. That children are in increasing numbers being recruited , indoctrinated and used as child suicide bombers no longer shocks us. The number of children being used as suicide bombers is growing. The use of children to inflict terror on other children is sadistic and nauseating, yet we have no strategy to rescue them.
Children also constitute a considerable proportion of those killed in drone attacks. Estimates put the number of children killed at a very conservative 176, yet much of the press commentary focuses on political point-scoring and the propping up of ambitious political careers. Little mention is made of the number of children killed and maimed as a direct result of the drone attacks.
Our response to the plight of children is tin-eared at best and indifferent at worst. This attitude needs to change. We can change the nature and direction of the debate about terrorism if we put the welfare of our children at the very heart of it. By rescuing children we can save ourselves and acquit ourselves honourably in the court of history. This would save us much flip-flopping on the issue of an operation against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, too.
BY: ARIF AZAD, The writer is an Islamabad-based development consultant and policy analyst.