Visitors and Hosts in Pakistan

Kathy Kelly
Kathy Kelly (portrait by Robert Shetterly)

The brave and tireless Kathy Kelly who founded Voices in the Wilderness to campaign against the genocidal UN-US sanctions on Iraq is presently touring the Pakistani conflict zones.Yesterday we published her moving report from the Shah Mansoor refugee camp in Swabi. Today she sent us two of her earlier dispatches which we have published below. All her future dispatches from the region will also be appearing on PULSE.

9 June 2009, Waziristan — In Jayne Anne Phillips’ Lark and Termite, the skies over Korea, in 1950, are described in this way:

“The planes always come…like planets on rotation. A timed bloodletting, with different excuses.”

The most recent plane to attack the Pakistani village of Khaisor (according to a Waziristan resident who asked me to withhold his name) came twenty days ago, on May 20th, 2009.  A U.S. drone airplane fired a missile at the village at 4:30 AM, killing 14 women and children and 2 elders, wounding eleven.

The previous day, some travelers had come to Khaisor, and the villagers had served them a meal.  “This is our custom,” my friend relates.  “It is our traditional way.”  But these travelers were members of the Taliban, and their visit was noted by U.S. forces.  It is possible they were identified through pictures taken by unmanned U.S. drones.  Although the visitors had left right after their meal, the U.S. responded to this act of hospitality by bombing the homes of the hosts early the following morning.

I asked my friend how families cope, when a bomb suddenly blasts their home in the middle of the night.  Do they have any kind of first aid available to help the wounded?  “You see this,” he said, pointing to the long shawl that I happened to be wearing, a customary part of every village woman’s dress, “they try to use this [as a bandage] because it is all they have.”  I imagined the shawl rapidly soaking up the blood of a dying Pakistani man, woman, or child.

On the morning of the 20th, the other villagers had rushed to the section where the missile had hit, hoisting  injured survivors onto their shoulders and carrying them across rough, hilly terrain to the nearest road (about five kilometers away from the village) where, lacking vehicles of their own and with no hope of receiving an ambulance visit, they waited for a car to stop, their only means of reaching a hospital.

The first car they saw did stop, but its driver refused to take any of the wounded for fear that his action would be noted by an unmanned U.S. drone, and that he himself would face the reward for his hospitality which the village had received.

The villagers walked along the road until another car stopped and did agree to take some of the wounded to a nearby center run by the International Commission of the Red Cross.

For three days following the attack, people collected in the village, coming in from all over the region for the funerals.  My visitor told me that whether people know the villagers or not, they will come to pray.  “On the cell phone you get the word,” he said, “Look, this bloody thing again happened. People share the sorrow, but the anger increases.  Everyone says we should get rid of the Americans.”

At the funeral, the villagers showed casings from the missile to demonstrate that it was a U.S. missile that killed their neighbors.

About 40 – 50 families live in the area of the village. My friend said that the people are hospitable and sturdy, tough enough to live in harsh conditions.

Villagers have become accustomed to the drone attacks.  At first, some were paralyzed with fear –but since 2001, they’ve endured about 70 such attacks, and drone surveillance has become a routine fact of life.  Even the children can identify the drones flying overhead.  “When there is a drone up above the children don’t play in a group because they don’t want the drone to hit them,” said our visitor.  The pilots of the drones, looking through monitors at their consoles in Nevada and elsewhere in the U.S., are more likely to mistake groups of people for their designated targets than people standing alone.  Groups of children have been attacked.  “The children scatter and run away, and they stop playing for some hours.”

Asked if he saw any alternatives to the fighting, my friend immediately said that the attackers – the people from the United States – should come and sit with them.  “If they come and discuss and throw away the arms, I hope it will be far better than if they are hitting us and trying to bring the peace through arms.  Even if the peace comes, through arms, we will never forget after 100 years, and we will take revenge.”

“Our area was the most peaceful,” he continued, “but when the army came to Afghanistan it also affected us and our area became more violent.  They should come and sit with us, assess our need, they should help us get drinking water, they should give us education, they should give us loans, they should help us in agriculture.”

My friend has already organized a “jirga”, or discussion, between local people and Taliban to consider how peace might come to the area.  He asked the jirga members if they wanted peace and they responded, “Yes, why not?  Who is such a person that they would not want peace?  If the Americans stop the drones and go out from Afghanistan and if the Pakistan army stops the mess they are making in our agency, yes, we want peace.”

The U.S., and some segments of Pakistani society, want other things from these villagers.  It’s difficult to know what fuels the ongoing attacks, particularly when media are banned from the areas under attack.

But the duty these villagers were bombed for carrying out, this time, was hospitality.  Strangers come to your home and you feed them.  During my visit here in Pakistan, soon to end, I’ve been shown profound respect and hospitality, although I’ve come here from the land of an enemy, from a country that brings terrifying robotic planes here, constantly surveilling and routinely killing from the skies in a manner reminiscent of science fiction. The drones are a daily fact of life here, brought by visitors; U.S. bombs are now part of their sky: new planets on rotation.

Here, the enlightened West now stands for mechanized death from the skies, “a timed bloodletting with different excuses.”

Yesterday, the “excuse” our visitor described, the rationale for incinerating women, children and elders, was a mere act of hospitality – the extreme, obligatory hospitality shown to friends and enemies alike in this part of the world.

I’m soon to leave Pakistan and its targeted regions. Last week, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke and a small delegation left after a short visit. It’s likely that U.S. generals and advisers will continue to shuttle back and forth between the U.S. and Pakistan.

All who come from the U.S. are guests here.

How do we hope to be treated?

A Weaver’s Welcome

2 June 2009, Islamabad — Shortly after arriving in Pakistan, one week ago, we met a weaver and his extended family, numbering 76 in all, who had been forcibly displaced from their homes in Fathepur, a small village in the Swat Valley.

Fighting between the Pakistani military and the Taliban had intensified. Terrified by aerial bombing and anxious to leave before a curfew would make flight impossible, the family packed all the belongings they could carry and fled on foot. It was a harrowing four day journey over snow-covered hills. Leaving their village, they faced a Taliban check point where a villager trying to leave had been assassinated that same morning. Fortunately, a Taliban guard let them pass. Walking many miles each day, with 45 children and 22 women, they supported one another as best they could. Men took turns carrying a frail grandmother on their shoulders. One woman gave birth to her baby, Hamza, on the road. When they arrived, exhausted, at a rest stop in the outskirts of Islamabad, they had no idea where to go next.

While there, the weaver struck up a conversation with a man whom he’d never met before. He told the man about the family’s plight. Hearing that they were homeless, the man invited them to live with him and his family in a large building which he is renovating. He offered to put the reconstruction on hold so that the family could move into the upper stories of his building.

The weaver was also fortunate to have known, for many years, a family that had sold his art work through a small shop in Islamabad. Women in this family have been working, as volunteers, to assist refugees who’ve come to Islamabad. They and their companions have delivered one thousand “food kits,” plus cots, mats and cooking supplies, to desperately needy people. Two of the women, Fauzia and Ghazala, invited our small delegation to visit the weaver and his family, in Islamabad’s Bara Koh neighborhood.

When we arrived, older men and boys were outside, ready to unload a truck delivering mats and flour. The generous building owner invited members of our group into his home, on the ground floor, where plans were already being made to turn the top floor into a school for the children.

Several tots led me upstairs to meet their grandparents. The elderly couple sat, cross-legged, on cots. When we entered, the grandmother stood, embraced me, and then softly wept for several minutes. Soon, about twenty men, women and children clustered around the cots. All listened attentively while one of the weaver’s brothers, Abdullah Shah, spoke with pride about the school in Fathepur where he had been a headmaster. The village had three schools, and his school was so successful that even Taliban families sent their children to study there. Now, the Taliban has destroyed all of the schools in Fathepur.

He and his brothers wonder what their future will be. How and when can they return to their village? And how will they start over? The crops are ruined, livestock have died, and land mines have been laid. Most of the shops and businesses have been destroyed. Many homes are demolished.

The trauma endured by the refugees is overwhelming. Yet, numerous individuals and groups have swiftly extended hospitality and emergency aid. We visited a Sikh community, in Hassan Abdal, which has taken in hundreds of Sikhs, housing them inside a large and very famous shrine. Nearby, we stayed for several days in Tarbela, where families in very simple dwellings have welcomed their relatives. The townspeople quietly took up a collection to support the refugee families. Some of the townspeople accompanied us to Ghazi, just up the road from Tarbela, where 155 people are staying in an abandoned hospital, relying entirely on the generosity of their new neighbors. Doctors from Lahore invited two of us to go with them to villages near Mardan, where people from the Swat Valley are still arriving. The doctors were part of a project organized jointly through Rotary Lahore, Pakistan Medical Aid, and Jahandan, which has worked with area councils to convert schools into refugee centers. The doctors take turns, several times a week, delivering relief shipments and helping supervise distribution.

Generosity in the face of such massive displacement and suffering is evident everywhere we go. But Pakistan needs help on a much larger scale. The U.S. has pledged 100 million dollars toward relief efforts. Two other disclosures about money budgeted for Pakistan should be considered in light of the unbearable burdens borne by close to two million new refugees. First is the decision to spend 800 million dollars to renovate and expand the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and to upgrade security at U.S. consular offices elsewhere in the country. Secondly, the U.S. will spend 400 million dollars, in 2009, to teach counter-insurgency tactics to Pakistan’s military. The 2010 Defense Spending budget requests an additional 700 million for counter-insurgency training in Pakistan.

What would happen if U.S. officials put plans to expand the U.S. Embassy on hold? Suppose the U.S. were to declare that helping alleviate the misery of people forcibly displaced by Taliban violence and the recent military offensive is a top priority, one that trumps spending money on renovating and expanding the U.S. Embassy.

Suppose that the U.S. were to redirect funds designated to train counterinsurgents and instead make these funds available to help alleviate impoverishment in Pakistan. No one seems to know how the Taliban are funded, but they clearly use large sums of money to build their ranks, giving each new recruit 25,000 rupees, a sum that exceeds what a teacher earns in one year. In villages where people don’t have enough resources to feed their children, the Taliban would initially move in with plans to build schools and offer two meals a day, plus clean clothes, to the children. Later, they would exercise increasingly fierce control over villages. But their initial forays into villages were marked by offers to reduce the gaps between “haves and have-nots.”

Enormous resources will be spent to “crush” the Taliban, and as always happens in warfare, the bloodshed will fuel acts of revenge and retaliation.

The relationship that began when a stranger took the risk of offering shelter to a weaver holds a lesson worth heeding.

The weaver and his family will never forget the extraordinary, immediate kindness extended to them when a man put his renovation project on hold so that he could help them find shelter in his building.

The U.S. could help assure that every Pakistani family displaced by the fighting has enough to eat and the security of at least a temporary home. It would be an unusual but sensible homeland security initiative within Pakistan. And it would be a signpost pointing to greater security for the United States. The maxim that guides this idea is simple: to counter terror, build justice. Build justice predicated on the belief that each person has basic human rights, and that we have a collective responsibility to share resources so that those rights are met. This means eliminating the unjust and unfair gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” It means weaving new relationships that don’t rely on guns and bombs for security.

Kathy Kelly (kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org).  She, along with Dan Pearson, Gene Stoltzfus, and Razia Ahmed, is part of a Voices delegation to Pakistan due back in the U.S. on January 13th.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

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