Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
In between stories of torture and the Taliban, the young man sitting opposite me had covered how to stage a dirty protest, Spanish chat-up lines, and how toothpaste can help you escape from prison.
Pakistani Jan Sher Khan was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan when he was 16 years old and accused of being a suicide bomber. He said he was innocent, a runaway from home seeking work after his strict father beat him for having friends who drank and smoked. Either way, he was held for six years in Bagram, a top-security U.S. prison in Afghanistan. And he had plenty to say about it.
Bagram, along with the prison at Guantanamo Bay, has played a central part in the debate over the legality of U.S. detention policies. The government says wartime detentions are legal and have a long precedent – look at the POW camps of World War Two – and they have to put prisoners somewhere. Activists object for many reasons, including allegations of torture made by prisoners and the view that prisoners have insufficient means to challenge their detention.
But beyond a few well-known facts, little is known of prisoners’ daily life – what they eat, how they amuse themselves, or what they think of their jailers. Often troubling, sometimes funny, and occasionally poignant, Jan Sher Khan’s memories provide an incomplete but insightful record of what it was like inside.
As the silver waters of the Kishanganga rush through this north Kashmir valley, Indian labourers are hard at work on a hydropower project that will dam the river just before it flows across one of the world’s most militarised borders into Pakistan.
The loud hum of excavators echoes through the pine-covered valley, clearing masses of soil and boulders.
So many deaths in Pakistan; so many to outrage or upset us. How do we choose whose death to notice? The civilian killed by a drone strike? The Shia Hazara gunned down in Balochistan? The Ahmadi father knifed to death in his home? The beheaded Pakistani soldier? The mother who died in a suicide bombing? The murdered journalist? The child swept away by floods? The acid attack victim?
And let’s be clear – we do choose. The domestic and international media decide whose deaths to highlight. We put their stories out on Twitter. Politicians speak about their case. Since there are too many deaths for us to condemn them all, we notice only some. I have been thinking about this, the politicisation of death, after two stories appeared in the last few days about two very different people killed in Pakistan.
If you go to the run-down Desh bazaar in central Kabul – which sells everything from widescreen Samsung televisions to used shoes - it doesn’t matter what currency you use to pay for your shopping. They will accept the afghani, the US dollar or the Pakistani rupee.
But if you were to go further east to Jalalabad near the border with Pakistan, you will probably end up paying for everything in the Pakistani currency, or kaldhar, as it is known in Afghanistan from the Taliban period. In fact, the shopkeeper – who buys all his goods from Pakistan – might even insist you pay in rupees rather than afghanis. An Afghan colleague who was coming through Jalalabad on his way back from Pakistan said the restaurant where his family stopped for lunch refused the afghani. And just as a large swathe of Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan uses the rupee, in the west the Iranian rial competes with the afghani.
In a carefully worded statement, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was sorry for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO airstrike on the Afghan border last November. She slipped in an apology too on Pakistan’s behalf saying that, “We are both sorry for losses suffered by both our countries in this fight against terrorists.” And she announced that NATO supply routes, closed since last November, would be reopened.