Seared souls, hearts rent asunder, we have wailed and moaned like a mother wrenched from her child. We have felt gutted, sapped, burnt and injured beyond repair and rehabilitation.
The rape and murder of Zainab, the brutality of her final moments, the crucible of her parents have all combined to become a terrible nightmare that chases us everywhere we go. Can there be a tragedy bigger than what has befallen this child in whose image we see the blessed faces of our own? Is there a crisis bigger than what’s ringing in our bones? Is there?
Yes, there is, and it is that we don’t really care beyond 24 hours. Our outpourings of grief are transient. We sleepwalk into sadness and then sleepwalk out of it with our eyes wide shut – without knowing the real pain and the real tragedy of any event. It has become a habit, but even that only kicks in when see fresh innocent blood around us. It is fiendish, this tendency of ours, to only be high on empathy in the midst of broken bones and lumps of flesh, and then relapse into normality saying ‘life goes on’.
So it has been with Zainab’s murder. One day TV show hosts wore black, cried buckets of tears on camera, put their children on air and looked like complete pictures of grief. Perhaps natural feelings. Perhaps stunning stunts. The next day it was all about getting wrinkles off your skin, improving your height and the latest make-up trends. One day politicians, artists, judges, generals, media activists wrote everything there was to be written as expressions of sorrow. The next day it was all about changing the Sharif government, installing the new chief minister in Balochistan, fending off the Americans and dominating media space through judicial activism. One day Kasur was all about Zainab. The next day it was only about Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan’s plans to make it a starting point of another agitation. One day Shehbaz Sharif visited the family at an hour so unearthly that even the birds felt outdone. The next day the whole Punjab government was all about ‘limiting the political damage’ of protests in Kasur.
No nation can dwell on tragedies forever, but the speed at which we move ahead is unique in the universe. When it comes to horrific events calling for sustained attention, we are like a bullet train whose surroundings are mere fleeting scenes that unfold but never register, nor survive the movement. Our resolve is cooked in the heat of the moment but turns to dust when anxiety cools down. We are great at mourning but even better at forgetting in our ‘mourning after’ phase.
Kasur proves this point more emphatically than any other contemporary example. After all, this has been our child-molestation and rape district for three years on the trot. It has generated one of the most shocking news in recent times, involving systematic child abuse. A gang had used nearly 300 children in child pornography and attendant abuse just two years ago. The news was all over town and so was our sense of this being a grave tragedy. But this was then. Now no one wants to know what became of that case and the fate of those who were caught and had admitted to the crime.
Before Zainab, there were a dozen other cases from the same area with similar dreadful details that have come out of her case. These were all reported and documented. Nothing happened. No conscience was pricked. No hero stepped up and offered help to track down criminals. No state institution moved. No Baba G woke up to the call of duty. No one remembered their names. Of these 11, six were girls. (Name one?)
Child sexual abuse and murder data has been out there – year after year. Child kidnapping reports have been aired and printed repeatedly – every year. The numbers, even though grossly understated, are horrific. But dry data does not bother us and we don’t believe it anyway – until of course we see it in the shape of a dead body flung on a heap of trash. Does anyone want to know whether the girl paraded naked in DI Khan has been served justice? Is there any appetite for finding out about the end result of the murder of the Kohistan girls? Are we interested in knowing how terrorists continue to recruit kidnapped children and then use them as brainwashed human bombs? Do we have the stomach to discover the endless ordeal of the parents of the children of the APS school massacre, and what festering wounds they carry despite the state-enforced band-aid of ‘we will not forget, we will not forgive’?
We did the same when 15 children were burnt alive in a school van, along with a brave teacher who was trying save them. Remember? Vaguely perhaps. This was in Gujrat, May 2013. The whole nation was terrified by the images of the inferno and there was this frenzied cry to abandon all gas-driven school transport. It is now 2018. Our children travel the same way as before.
Then there were bigger happenings, much larger than the cries of dying children trapped in a burning van. There was the 2005 earthquake. Remember what happened back then? Perhaps you do, but in case you don’t here’s a recall. The biggest tragedy of the earthquake was the collapse of poorly built school buildings that crumbled at the first jolt, trapping thousands. Among the most heart-wrenching moments of my career one was in Bagh (AJK) where I stood helplessly along with the whole community atop a broken school building from underneath whose immovable debris we could all hear children cry for help. No help came. They all died.
In all, 19000 children died in the earthquake (I still maintain the figure was higher but that is not a debate point anymore); most of these were casualties in schools. We mourned and groaned and there were cries of justice including punishment to the contractors. Nothing happened. Except for the schools where international donors preconditioned aid to rebuilding them according to international safety standards, we had the rest of the buildings reconstructed the same way as before. In parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa many schools from that terrible year are yet to be reconstructed and remain a monument to political callousness and social apathy.
We also sprang into emotional action in Thar when news started to filter out how children were possibly dying of hunger and malnutrition. The whole country was convulsing with anger and during our coverage of the issue we received dozens of calls from across Pakistan and abroad for sending out immediate help, water filtering plants and what not. That was it. As months passed, the issue just faded out of national memory. Guess what the reported figure for Thar’s death’s in 2017 was? It was 582. Very little has changed in the hospitals there except for government claims of having done wonders. But why focus on Thar alone (though we should). Do you know how many children die annually in the country on account of malnutrition alone? 300,000 – yes 300,000 children.
These are just a few examples. I can fill a whole newspaper with tragic incidents that were reported in great detail, debated with consuming interest, produced vows and commitments galore, but ended up in nothing because we are an emotional bullet train that stops at nothing of substance. It may be that Zainab’s case lives longer than others have, and that it might have consequences far more profound than other cases. But if that were to happen it would not be because of the heinous nature of the crime; it would be because it is election year and there is a rat race to prove leadership qualities.
If Zainab’s grave can win some votes, why not. If she can help fight sugar industry wars or win PR laurels for the civil, military and judicial leadership against each other, why not. The news now is not about her. It is about power politics. As for her, like millions others like her, she remains a precious life wasted in a land that rises only when it sees innocent blood spilt and then quickly goes quiet when the earth has soaked up the spill.