Pakistani students grapple with the turmoil back home

For many, tripping in the aisle of their school bus was the greatest fear during their ride home from school, but that was the least of Syed Waqqas Iftikhar’s ’08 worries. In the busy streets of Karachi, Pakistan, it wasn’t unusual for Iftikhar to see burned out cars and gun shootings. Violence seemed to be part of the daily routine.

“In the mid-1990s, the city of Karachi went through a period of extended violence,” Iftikhar said. “Everyday when I came back from school I’d hear about 15 to 20 people dying [in the city]. On the rides home from school, it wasn’t unusual for the bus driver to change routes because one area was in the midst of a battle between two different political factions.”

As a child, Iftikhar remembers seeing guns being fired and throngs of people running away from tear gas. Unfortunately, not much has changed. Today, Karachi is once again embroiled in political strife and violence in the aftermath of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on Dec. 27. For days, riots ran rampant in Karachi, but by then Iftikhar and his family were already used to the violence.

“I’ve grown up [in Karachi], and this kind of violence happens,” Iftikhar said. “You know what areas to stay away from, but you are still in fear when your parents are coming home from work or siblings coming back from school. There is always that element of fear.”

Although violence and instability have periodically plagued Pakistan, the great majority of the people are just trying to live their daily lives. For Muhammad Asad Liaqat ’11 and his family, the slew of incidents has almost desensitized them from the violence.

“When such things happen so frequently around you, they begin to bother you less and you can choose to ignore them most of the time,” Liaqat said. “I think that’s maybe the reason I don’t worry too much. [My family] tells me that life over there is going on as always with minimum disruptions. But then there is the occasional bomb [blast] and even though it does not worry them in much the same way as it worries people far away, I can tell by their comments that this is just not the same country that we grew up in.”

Given the current circumstances of his hometown, Iftikhar remains remarkably calm. His family resides in Karachi, but luckily the violence has since diminished. “At first there was lots of violence,” Iftikhar said. “There were some 800 cars burned and it was pretty tense for two or three days, but it’s easing now. Things are better now in terms of everyday life.”

Although the media portrayal of Pakistan paints a bleak picture, the current instability is actually unusual. Citizens of Pakistan had faced sporadic incidents of violence, but nothing neared the scale of the violence and uprisings following Bhutto’s death.

“It was really scary because it was the first time that there were random firings,” Ayesha Shahid ’11 said. “The policemen themselves were hiding because they knew that if people got a hold of them it would be bad. But before then, nothing had ever been this bad. I mean Bhutto was our leader and suddenly the people were left leaderless. I think the response was proportional to the situation. I mean people blame the government because the judiciary does not work and the police are no good. What are they supposed to do?”

Liaqat agreed. “It saddens me a great deal, especially the fact that it’s not just a political turmoil but a huge social transformation that the country has been going through for a while now,” he said. “Things have been going worse for a while now, and this is about as bad as it has ever gotten.”

The recurring violence is a definite sign that Pakistan is facing problems, but a solution is far from simple. In order to improve the country, Pakistan needs to confront its difficulties head on, according to these students.

“Our greatest problem is that we lack leaders,” Shahid said. “We need one person to start [the improvement of the country] and set our country in the right course. But first we need to educate the people so that one person can step up and help the people help themselves. It’s not going to be a short-term solution.”

Pakistan is a relatively newly founded country and only became independent in 1947, but in its years of autonomy military rule and martial law have been almost a permanent fixture of citizens’ lives. “The army has been involved in running the country since 1958 and it is a very respected institution,” Iftikhar said. “Some people may harbor resentment, but generally people respect the army. It has an entrenched position of power, and I can’t see it changing in the near future. The army is almost like a pillar of our government. ”

Recently, news regarding the political turmoil and hostilities in Pakistan have come to dominate television, radio and Internet coverage. However, Iftikhar believes that such media coverage has introduced a misguided assessment of his country. The news focuses so much on the cases of car bombings and mob violence that sometimes it is hard to imagine that everyday people also live in Pakistan.

“It is a very wrong perception that everyone in Pakistan goes around bombing people in turbans,” Iftikhar said. “Pakistan is a very diverse country and the people who cause the problems are only two percent of the population. It is just wrong to portray the entire country as violent. No one wants their children to go out and bomb people; most people are happy and just want to live their lives.”

In the aftermath of the violent riots and car bombings, Pakistan is taking steps toward ensuring security once again. The country may be leaderless, but the citizens of Pakistan will soon have to elect new leaders in the upcoming elections. The question is whether these elections will be fair and if the transfer of power will be peaceful.

“The situation right now is very, very fluid and it is hard to predict what will happen in the future,” Iftikhar said. “There are supposed to be elections on Feb. 18, but one can only hope that they are free and fair. Pakistan does not have a great record with elections. But I think there is hope given the recent international spotlight.”

Although hope can be essential in helping Pakistani citizens move on, it is not always realistic. “I wish I could realistically hope a lot of good things for Pakistan, but to be honest, all I see right now is another corrupt, ‘democratically elected’ leader from one of the two feudal parties, and I see that going on for some time,” Liaqat said. “But if that is allowed to go on for some time, then I believe through refinements in the political process the feudal hold on our politics might loosen up and we might see an improvement on the political front.”

For now, the future of Pakistan is unclear. Its history of fluidity has caused many citizens to become cynical, but hope is not all lost. Iftikhar believes that there is a possibility for a bright future in Pakistan. Perhaps someday bus rides home from school will no longer include detours around dangerous shootings or sightings of wreckage.

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