Everyday violence: the new normal for Pakistan's kids
It may well be grotesque, but the face of the next generation of Pakistanis is going to make for an interesting study.As evidenced by the lack of concrete measures proposed by last week's conference on resolving the Tehrik-i-Taleban Pakistan problem, it's hard enough to even develop a working grip on a situation where ideological, sectarian, ethnic, political and several other dimensions all have a role to play. Figuring out what to do about it is a task so formidable as to appear insurmountable.
The people who gave their best at this conference are all equipped with the tools required to understand how things reached this pass: the history, background, context, complicities - all these factors are familiar territory to them. Many were, in fact, present through the rehearsals.
If these people find it difficult to figure it out, how do those who don't even have the tools to grapple with it? There are several such groups, so to take one example, how do children under the age of, say, 15 understand the terrain in which they are growing up? I've picked this age arbitrarily because for these millions, violence and arms have been an outstanding feature of life since they reached the smallest degree of consciousness about the world.
From personal experience, I can offer a few anecdotal examples.
A four-year-old was playing in his secure home in a reasonably well-to-do area where he has had next to no exposure to the horrors that lie outside. The wind was blowing, so a window banged shut loudly. Startled, he looked up and exclaimed, "Oh my goodness, a bomb blast."
He doesn't even know what that really is, but it is a fact of life to a sufficient extent in his environment that he's picked up the connection and uses it casually.
A 10-year-old, well-informed for his age, was dwelling upon the economic travails of the government. On some earlier occasion, the reasoning behind levying a toll tax on roads had been explained to him. So, he reasoned, the same should be applied to graves; the government would earn masses of money off it since so many people die every day.
This child cannot really fathom life and death, yet the dispassionate manner in which he can calculate graves as being money-earners is remarkable. People die in large numbers, he is thinking without emotion, so might as well raise funds.
Outside a playgroup for the well-off, two mothers are chatting. One asks the other, "My son said that you were emigrating to Canada. Are you considering it?" The other replies, "Of course not. Why, did my daughter say something? Where would she hear that?" They laugh about how curious it is that their kids are using this exact phrase, "emigrating to Canada" - not "going to" or "travelling to" or "visiting" Canada.
Which would indicate that the concept of emigrating is such a prominent feature in the conversations of adults of a certain class that it's entered the lexicon of three-year-olds who have no idea what that, or even Canada, means.
These are anecdotes from an urban, educated, well-off section of society. What the circumstances of Pakistan are saying to children and young adults that are less fortunately situated is anybody's guess, but there's little doubt that it's terrible.
What will the next generation be like? What will its mindset be, given the exposure in formative years to daily violence and brutality?
We've got roughly a decade and a bit of this behind us. If it all ended now, I suppose it wouldn't matter much. For that generation, it would be a period of conflict from when they were growing up, with a beginning and an end.
But it's not going to go away that fast in Pakistan. Ten years behind us, and the prognosis is many years yet to go - this is the new normal. The realities that apply to today's children and teenagers are going to prevail for many, many years.
For those from backgrounds of privilege, that means schools with gunmen, and play and sport at private venues because of the lawlessness "outside" and the consequent - dangerous - insularity from mainstream Pakistan. It means that their parents' fear for them being kidnapped for ransom, held up at gunpoint, caught up in an "incident" and hurt - and the resulting effort is to keep them safe and far from the country's normal landscape.
For those that are not from such fortunate backgrounds, today's realities mean being mobbed and jostled on the pavement, having a Prado squeeze you off the road whilst riding with the family on a motorbike and, yes, being robbed at gunpoint; it means increasingly restricted educational and employment opportunities, a criminally wide division between the haves and the have-nots, the daily risk of being on the spot where an improvised explosive device or worse is due to explode - and the resulting seething, festering anger.
And this is not to include the uncounted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children and young adults that have been directly affected by Pakistan's circumstances: those that have lost family and friends, been in the crowd when the euphemistic "incident" occurs, seen their schools bombed or their parents' livelihoods snatched away, even seen bodies swaying from the lampposts.
What happens when this generation, that has grown up entirely and exclusively in the new normal, becomes in the fullness of time the generation in charge?
I wish I could believe that because of the circumstances of their childhood, they would be more inclined towards empathy, tolerance and would constitute a lobby for peace. But history tells us that those who have been sinned against usually do not end up nicer than their oppressors; they usually end up with scores to settle.
The children of areas that have seen long-drawn-out conflicts grow up scarred, scared - and angry.