Archive for December, 2009

As we approach 2010, blogs and media agencies everywhere are compiling their lists of the past year and decade – the best music, movies, political events, scandals, the list goes on. Rather than give you a somber top 10 for Pakistan, I wanted to list some of the funniest and most memorable quotes of the year:

  1. From RehmanMalik.com, “A welcome massage by Mr. A. Rehman Malik – Minister for Interior.” (Just in case you don’t feel relaxed when you’re in Pakistan.)
  2. Columnist Nadeem Paracha defines Imran Khan as, “A man who still thinks the Taliban is a brand name for a series of chubby, cuddly teddy bears.” (Funny because it’s true.)
  3. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to PM Yousaf Raza Gilani, “Excellency you are not a simple politician but a political magician and I am deeply impressed by your way of governance.”  (Hey, Jadoogar. Harry Potter called. He wants his wand back.)
  4. Lollywood’s sweetheart Meera, exclaiming, “Oh no jaani no, I work for people day and night, for poor people.” (Poor Meera, she can be such a layer.)
  5. A GEO Television reporter, after meeting Tehreek-e-Taliban head Hakimullah Mehsud, said, “Hakimullah is a lively man. He told us he could give us two gifts. One was the Humvee military vehicle that his fighters had captured during a recent raid in Khyber Agency on an Afghanistan-bound supply convoy for Nato forces. The other was a jeep that his men had snatched from UN employees in Khyber Agency.” (I mean. What a gentleman.)
  6. The Pakistan Cricket Board’s TMI press release: “The medical board has reported that Shoaib Akhtar was suffering from genital viral warts, and electrofulguration was done on May 12, 2009.” (Shoaib Akhtar was itching to get back on the field after that procedure.)
  7. AQ Khan wants us to know more about his special interest in the Makrani people: “Makrani children are extremely cute…They looked very much like African pikaninis with dark curly hair and shiny eyes.” (He also wants us to pray for divine intervention, visit Timbuktu, and continue reading his “Random Thoughts” column.)
  8. In response to whether Rehman Malik will be arrested after the National Reconciliation Ordinance was declared null and void, PM Gilani told reporters, “Interior Minister arrests people. So who can arrest him?” (Details, shmetails.)
  9. President Obama, in an interview to Dawn this summer, “Oh, keema … daal … You name it, I can cook it. And so I have a great affinity for Pakistani culture and the great Urdu poets.”  Dawn: “You read Urdu poetry?” Obama: “Absolutely.” (I also can play concertos blind-folded while plucking a banjo with my toes.)
  10. Pakistani cricketer Shahid Afridi: “I would like them to remember me as the craziest cricketer that ever played for Pakistan.” (Boom Boom, Afridi.)

The above quotes were my personal favorites, but there were plenty more. Write in with your own memorable Pakistan-related quotes of the year in the comments section!

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Bombing in Karachi Kills 25

Image: Reuters

On Monday, a suicide bomber attacked a Shia procession commemorating Ashura in Karachi, killing at least 25 people and injuring 50. Today’s incident on MA Jinnah Road was the latest in a string of violence in Pakistan this past weekend. Following the assassination of mid-level political administrator Sarfaraz Khan and his family in the Kurram tribal area Sunday, a suicide bomber killed at least 10 people and wounded more than 80 during a Shia religious procession in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. According to the Guardian, this attack “shook the authorities as the city and region has a much better record of Shia-Sunni relations during Muharram than most other parts of Pakistan.”

On Sunday, more than a dozen people were wounded in an incident in Karachi. Although the bombing was later attributed “to a build-up of gas in faulty sewage pipes,” extra paramilitary troops had reportedly been mobilized in Karachi and the rest of the country had been put on “red alert” prior to Muharram (in Lahore, all entry and exit points to Shia processions for Ashura were sealed and all participants had to reportedly queue for scanners). Despite the heightened security and “stringent” measures, a bomber walking amid the procession managed to blow himself up during the climax of Muharram, when worshipers were commemorating the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson.

The anger and fear following Monday’s attack in Karachi was palpable, manifested by people in the crowd firing shots into the air and others pelting police and medical teams with stones.  According to Al Jazeera, “Local television stations reported that more than a dozen vehicles and a four-story building were also set ablaze by people reacting to the attack.” Talat Hussain from AAJ Television told the news agency, “People have been saying that the government has been apathetic to the listening to the warnings of potential attacks and people’s fears.”

Numerous political officials condemned the bombing Monday and appealed for calm. Karachi’s mayor Mustafa Kamal asserted, “I want to appeal to the people, to my brothers, my elders to stay calm. I am hearing people are clashing with police and doctors. Please do not do that. That is what terrorists are aiming at. They want to see this city again on fire.” MQM leader Altaf Hussain, speaking to GEO News, echoed this appeal but added that he had been “repeatedly warning the citizens of Karachi and Pakistan” about the threat of Talibanization. “The authorities,” he noted, “did not pay heed to my warnings.”

Interior Minister Rehman Malik showed off his business euphemisms Monday when he appealed to Shias to cancel their next two days of processions, adding, “This pattern shows that this was a joint venture between Tehreek-i-Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).” This recognition of a connection between the “Pakistani Taliban” and the militant groups in Punjab is significant, particularly since groups like the LeJ and Sipah-e-Sahba are sectarian (anti-Shia) in essence.

In the April issue of the CTC Sentinel, Hassan Abbas wrote that the LeJ is believed to be “the lynch pin of the alignment between Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and sectarian groups.” In the Long War Journal‘s coverage of Monday’s Karachi bombing, Bill Roggio noted the LeJ has a strong presence in South Waziristan, “where it formed alliances with the Taliban, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Al Qaeda, and created a group called the Fedayeen-e-Islam,” which claimed responsibility for several attacks, including September 2008 attack on Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel and the March 2009 storming of the Lahore police station. In the wake of the military’s operation in South Waziristan, the LeJ and militants part of the TTP network reportedly shifted fighters to Karachi. Roggio noted, “Last week, Karachi police told the Daily Times that they had intelligence that indicated Lashkar-e-Jhangvi would strike at the Shia in Karachi.”

Watching the news footage on Karachi today, I can’t help but find President Zardari‘s favorite line, “Democracy is the best revenge” (most recently propagated here) hollow and irrelevant. With the country burning, corruption endemic, food prices high, and governance weak, “democracy” seems to be the least of our worries.

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Happy Holidays!

Wishing all our readers a very happy holiday season! In honor of Christmas being a wonderfully globalized holiday, see  this properly irritating yet amusing video (who knew you could desi-fy Jingle Bells?):

December 25 is also the 133rd birth anniversary of Pakistan’s founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Given the tremendous obstacles facing our country today, below is a timely message Quaid-e-Azam delivered to the nation October 24, 1947:

My message to you all is of hope, courage and confidence. Let us mobilize all our resources in a systematic and organized way and tackle the grave issues that confront us with grim determination and discipline worthy of a great nation.

Here’s to our families and friends staying safe and well in 2010. Happy Holidays!

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On Monday, an “anti-terrorism” court in Lahore ordered that two men have their ears and noses cut off as punishment for doing the same to a woman who refused to marry one of them. According to Reuters, “The two brothers, Sher Mohammad and Amanat Ali, abducted their 22-year-old cousin, Fazeelat Bibi, at gunpoint in September after her father refused to let her marry Mohammad.” Government prosecutor Ehtesham Qadir told the news agency, “They put a noose around her neck and tried to strangle her. After failing to do so, Sher Mohammad chopped of her nose and two ears with a knife.” According to Punjab province chief prosecutor Chaudary Mohammed Jahangir, they mutilated her to “set an example.”

Fazeelat Bibi’s horrific and chilling story is tragically one of many honor crimes committed in Pakistan. In Honor: A History, author James Bowman cited NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who said, “On average, a woman is raped every two hours in Pakistan, and two women a day die in honor killings.” In an epidemiological study released in April 2009, the European Journal of Public Health found that one in every five homicides in Pakistan can be classified as an “honor killing,” the majority occurring “in response to alleged extramarital relations.”

The sentencing by Lahore’s anti-terror court [although honor crimes don’t really fall under “anti-terror” parameters, the Guardian noted, “Serious crimes are often referred to anti-terrorism courts in Pakistan because they move faster” and CNN said the crimes “created tyranny in the district“], is significant because it enacts an “eye-for-an-eye” form of justice, part of Islamic law [Shari’a] but also dating as far back as Hammurabi’s Code. For a woman who had her ears and nose cut off in the name of honor, such punishment, [which also includes the two men being sentenced to 50 years in prison and ordered to pay fines and compensation to the woman amounting to several thousand dollars] is some form of retribution for her suffering.

Such a story is interesting because it raises several issues for debate. First, are punishments within the realms and nuances of an honor society something we should condemn or champion? While human rights groups promoting both women’s rights and universal human rights may find this development a bitter pill to swallow, exacting justice in this manner could be a way of challenging the status quo from within. As such, should we see such a sentence, if carried out, as progress or too excessive? Second, given that this sentence needs to be certified by a High Court, and such courts have suspended similar sentences in the past, why do such discrepancies occur and is this something that should be further investigated?

Definitely some food for thought.

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Image: Flickr Zahidpix

Throughout Pakistan’s history, the role of the country’s military has been intertwined with the state, often playing a decisive role in the political sphere. While many perceive the military as the watchdog of the state, others disagree, arguing that the institution impedes the progress of Pakistan. Below, Tariq, based in Karachi, (who asked not to have his full name printed) presents the latter view in his opinion piece for CHUP:

Pakistan’s day of reckoning is near. At this moment, we should rise up to seize our collective destinies without equivocation, because the country that we are left with tomorrow will be the country that we deserve – either a war-torn banana republic fit for a nation of people with medieval values, attitudes and aspirations or a modern democratic republic fit for a nation of progressive thinkers, who aspire to harness social justice to personal freedom. The urgency cannot be overstated and we cannot continue our meandering drunken walk as usual.

For too long, we have offered rhetoric and platitudes, instead of introspection and a direction to this country, because our baser instincts took precedence. Our disdain for the West. Our hatred for India. Our self censorship due to platitudes and a misplaced sense of patriotism. Our sense of victimization. The rumors of conspiracies. The blame on fate. The list is endless. This cannot go on – the tumultuous events of the past year have convinced me that the we have arrived at the fork in the road. This is one the main reasons I decided to write this piece.

As a first basic step, I propose that the Pakistan armed forces be completely overhauled. Not reformed, but completely overhauled.

Before you stop reading because your misplaced sense of patriotism got pricked, because I insulted the “Guardians of our Frontier,” let me remind you of Mark Twain‘s golden words: “A patriot supports his country all the time and his government when it deserves it.” The armed forces are not our country, and only sometimes our government (The sarcasm is intended).

This is an army, no matter how we choose to whitewash their actions, indulged in genocide in Bangladesh, trained terrorists in Afghanistan, is still training terrorists to fight in Indian Kashmir and Punjab, overthrown the civilian government three times (or four if you count the dictators), presided over the loss of one-half of our country, hung a popularly elected civilian leader, intimidated our media and politicians through “the agencies,” set up a parallel economic system, stole elections, has a budget which is never tabled at the Parliament and runs without civilian oversight. Only an irrational idiot would still believe that our armed forces serve the popular opinion of the people and is accountable to them. Their hierarchical structure, lack of accountability and leverage over all centers of power make them a single point of manipulation and a single point of failure for the entire country. The foreign hand and foreign bodies, that we so frequently obsess about, need only buy and influence the top echelons of our army to take over the direction of the entire country, and this is what they very well might have done.

The root of our ills is our armed forces.

Yes we have a biased judiciary. But the judiciary has shown that they still can stand up for justice, even if the motive is self preservation.

Yes we have a corrupt polity. Yes, prices are rising, and yes, bribes are freely being given and taken, but which civilian government ever indulged in genocide and gave up half our country ? We tend to confuse individuals and policies with the “political system.” Our political system has never been given a chance to evolve, note that even the United States had a George Bush before it elected a more reasonable Barack Obama, but their governance is firmly rooted in the rule of law and democracy. In Pakistan, the civilian leaders we so bitterly complain about were all a result of  a compromise with the army, be it, Zulfiqar, Benazir, Nawaz or Zardari with his NRO. When have we ever held a free and fair election with no overarching army manipulation of the political class?  While I am no Zardari supporter, I do pity the man. Why did he come to power ? He made a deal with the Army. And now his deal with the army is unraveling. On the one hand, he has to be in the good books of the army and on the other hand he should not rub America the wrong way (who don’t consult him on anything anyway, and go straight to meet General Kayani). So pray tell me, when does he ever have the time to do what the people want ?

Why do we lack a credible leader who can mold public opinion through rational discourse and deliver good governance ? Because we don’t have people who lead, we have people who cut deals with the Army. Name the top two civilian leaders Pakistan had — was it Jinnah and ZA Bhutto? What is different between these men and the men who followed them ? Could it be that they did not derive their power through deals with the army ? Look at the tiny bearded turbaned man across the border, have you ever wondered why he struts around with so much confidence ? Is it the blessings of his army chief who commands a million men with guns or is it the vote of a billion people which makes him walk tall? It is stupid to blame the failures of the civilian leadership so far on the civilians, when the army is pulling the strings — either leaving them paralyzed or giving them a sense of infallibility of being backed by guns. As long as the army is involved as a player in politics and is an unaccountable center of power, we will never have a leader who can serve the people and do what is good for the country. We will only have leaders who grab power by cutting deals with the army, or have leaders who get overthrown in coups or fall because of manipulated elections.

Pause to ponder military historian Captain Sir Basil Henry Liddell-Hart‘s words from Why Don’t We Learn from History:

We learn from history that democracy has commonly put a premium on conventionality. By its nature, it prefers those who keep step with the slowest march of thought and frowns on those who may disturb the ‘conspiracy for mutual inefficiency’. Thereby, this system of government tends to result in the triumph of mediocrity — and entails the exclusion of first-rate ability, if this is combined with honesty. But the alternative to it, despotism, almost inevitably means the triumph of stupidity. And of the two evils, the former is the less.

Let us now visit our armed forces. There are some who offer the same cliched arguments:

  1. They sacrifice their lives for us. So does the army of every other modern state. None of them get to rule the country.
  2. They are the only corruption-free meritocracy. Says who? I would imagine that for an army answerable to no one, whose expenditure and income are not tabled anywhere and who cannot be scrutinized by an external agency, it is easy to maintain a “corruption free” record. This is laughable. However, the details that do slip out once in a while make for interesting reading. I would  recommend reading Ayesha Siddiqa‘s Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy for those who offer platitudes about the “lack of corruption in Pakistan armed forces”.
  3. They are the only stable institution in Pakistan. So say Americans who find it easy to deal with a dictator without the inconvenience of public opinion. Moreover, I would expect a bunch of men with all the guns and money with no accountability to be at least “stable.”

This brings us to the basic problem with our armed forces – a lack of accountability. The ability to manipulate our politicians, and more importantly, the ability to manipulate our society actively through propaganda and passively through the denial of information. The basic requirement for a functioning modern state is a “well-informed society,” not a society barred from details about the  country’s fundamental decisions. For making decisions about our future, we need a full account of what is happening and what has happened.

What exactly happened in Bangladesh in 1971 (Recommended reading: declassified portions of Hamdoor Rahman report) ? In Kargil in 1999 ? Who were the “freedom fighters” in Kashmir and Punjab? What do they have to do with the madrassas in Punjab and the Pushtuns in Afghanistan ? What is our relationship with the the various militant leaders? Who are these “Sarkari Taliban”? Are we supporting or did we ever support the “Quetta Shura“? How effective was our operation in Swat, Bajaur and South Waziristan? How many civilian causalities were there? How many people disappeared in Balochistan? Was Bughti killed? What about the many Pakistanis who have “disappeared” and were handed over the United States? How is Musharraf living in style in London with 24/7 protection from the British Police ? What was the deal between Musharraf and Nawaz (then and now)? Between Musharraf and Zardari ? Is it true that our bases are being used for predator attacks ? If so was it done because of the discretion of the army? Why is the ISI not under civilian control and why can a declaration of bringing it under civilian control so easily be reversed with a single phone call from COAS ? What about AQ Khan?

Almost every “security issue” that we have in our country today can be traced to one or more questions above, questions that need to be answered by our armed forces. All these and the entire armed forces need a thorough airing and a stint in the sunlight. Only then can we really know our past list of omissions and transgressions, where we stand as a country and make decisions about our future.

But for now we can rest in peace, because General David Petraeus after visiting our COAS has assured us that there will be no coups in the near future. I can only hang my head in shame.

The contribution is the sole opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the opinion of CHUP. If you would like to contribute a piece to CHUP, please email Kalsoom at changinguppakistan[at]gmail[dot]com. Pieces should be no longer than 800 words please. For past contributions, click here.

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NYT: I have superglued myself to this chair...just TRY and move me.

On Wednesday, a 17-judge bench of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, declared the infamous National Reconciliation Ordinancenull and void,” a ruling hailed by media outlets as a “landmark” and “historic” decision. According to the ruling, corruption cases registered between Jan 1, 1986, and Oct 12, 1999 that were dismissed by the NRO can now be reopened, meaning that more than 8,000 people, including 34 politicians, are now under scrutiny.

The main fall guy in the aftermath of this development, though, will be President Asif Ali Zardari. Wednesday’s ruling further fueled criticism of Zardari, who has earned the nickname “Mister Ten Percent” for good reason. Technically, Zardari cannot be prosecuted for these charges, since the Constitution cloaks the president with immunity. We all know that. And if we didn’t, his band of 1920’s-style-cronies were there to remind us yesterday, (I could almost hear them muttering, “Meh, hide the dough“). Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babur told reporters Wednesday, “The president enjoys the immunity under Article 248(2) of the Constitution.” And despite calls from opposition parties for him to step down, Babur asserted the president had “no intention” of doing so.

Borrowing a line from a well-known Bushism, this does not mean more will not be done “to smoke Zardari out of his cave.” Prior to the NRO ruling Wednesday, the NY Times reported that “indignant” Supreme Court judges “demanded to know why $60 million in the suspect gains of President Asif Ali Zardari had been given back to offshore companies in his name rather than returned to the national treasury, where they said it rightfully belonged.”

In the ruling on Wednesday, the judges found that the withdrawal of the cases against Zardari in Switzerland, (ordered by the former attorney general, Malik Qayyum), was illegal and that Swiss authorities should be contacted to “restore the proceedings.” The case, which implicated the late Benazir Bhutto, Zardari, and their agent Jens Schlegelmilch in allegations of taking $60 million in kickbacks, was pending in the Swiss court at the time the NRO was promulgated by former President Musharraf (and brokered, ironically, by Britain and the U.S.) in October 2007. It was then dropped in April 2008.

Amid this controversy, Zardari could take the moral high ground and step down from the presidency, thereby shedding his immunity and leaving him vulnerable for prosecution. However, survival always trumps morality in Pakistani politics. Therefore, Zardari will try to stay in power – but given that his own party seems to be distancing themselves from him – he will increasingly shift power to PM Yousaf Raza Gilani, everyone’s favorite jadoogar.

This shift has been occurring for some time now. Last month, just hours before the expiry of the NRO, the president transferred the power of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to Gilani, who has increasingly been depicted as the “good guy” in this mess. Zardari is also under increasing pressure to relinquish his other key powers, namely those related to the 17th Amendment, by the end of this month.

Will this be enough to satisfy his opposition? Maybe, but it will also dull the symbolic impact of the Supreme Court ruling yesterday, a decision meant to stab at the rampant corruption in Pakistani society. In the aftermath of the NRO nullification, though, we must also go beyond just holding people accountable and develop solutions that address the root causes behind corruption, and why it is so ingrained in Pakistani culture. If some charges against politicians are politically motivated (because, let’s face it, many are), how can bureaus like the National Accountability Bureau be effective tools in weeding out the good cases from the bad? While complete transparency is a utopian ideal for any society, what good practices can be instituted to get us on a better path?

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AP Image

On Tuesday, at least 27 people were killed and more than 60 were injured in an attack in Dera Ghazi Khan, close to the region where Pakistan’s Army is carrying out the offensive against Taliban militants. The blast, described by news outlets as a “suicide car bombing,” ripped through a market, destroying shops and badly damaging a mosque in the area. Watching the television footage today, of people being pulled from the debris, of reporters saying women and schoolchildren were among the victims, all I could think was, “How did we get here?” When did bombings and daily attacks become the norm? When did deaths of innocent civilians become a tragic statistic?  Below, Mubashir Noor, an audio engineer from Islamabad, expresses his reaction to the current situation in a poem entitled, In the Life:

Bye, bye little bird
Its time to fly away
The harsh winter cares not of your wings,
I hope to see you again on groundhog day

Godspeed to you,
And donʼt crash into any planes
You donʼt have malintentions,
But our hospitals can only take so much strain

Tell them I said hi
Tell them weʼre doing well,
That weʼre hanging on
The threat is 60 miles away but weʼre not forlorn

The sun still rises from the east
The sky still holds true a blue hue
Sometimes the sirens will make yours ears bleed
But that’s something you get used to

The roads are still paved,
And weʼre still burning gasoline
We get by with little water,
Nowadays the blood seems to wash them clean

My brothers are off to war, theyʼre going to catch Satan
But I feel theyʼre going the wrong way
Satan lives in the hearts of men,
And those men call themselves politicians

So little bird,
Remember to choose your friends wisely
Kingmakers some might be,
But many are fire-starters

And a lit flame,
Cares not for alliances or partners
It scorches without discrimination,
The sinners and the righteous

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Tamreez & Asim on the trek

The Citizens Foundation (TCF) is a not-for-profit organization that provides education opportunities for underpriveleged families in Pakistan. As of 2009, TCF has established 600 purpose-built school units nationwide with an enrollment of 80,000 students. TCF also encourages female enrollment and boasts a 50% female ratio on almost every campus. From October 16-25, 2009, Friends of The Citizens Foundation, a UK-based organization that fundraises for TCF schools in Pakistan, organized a trek of Mount Kilimanjaro, in which participants raised money and awareness about the organization’s work in Pakistan. The team as a whole raised nearly £80,000 – enough money to run nine TCF schools in Pakistan for a year, educating approximately 1350 underprivileged children. Below, CHUP talks to Tamreez Inam and Asim Khan [click to see their blog], a married couple who completed the trek in October and raised nearly £6000 for TCF:

Q: The Kilimanjaro Trek was such a unique fundraising idea developed by Friends of The Citizens Foundation (FTCF), and participants ended up raising nearly £80,000 for TCF schools in Pakistan. How did you get involved with the project and what inspired you to do it?

Tamreez: I had gotten in touch with FTCF because I was interested in finding out more about TCF’s work in Pakistan. As a side conversation, the trek came up. I thought it was such an exciting opportunity and for such a great cause, so I thought “why not?” I decided I would probably only do it if Asim would be willing. To my surprise, it hardly took any convincing before he jumped in as well! It was later we realized what we had gotten ourselves into when we had to start fundraising and training! But it was the adventure of a lifetime and I’m so glad we did it.

Our greatest inspiration was the work of TCF in Pakistan. Their schools are run to the highest standards, competing with elite private schools. For example, the high school pass rate of TCF students is 99% compared to the national average of 60%! They hire only female teachers to ensure high ratios of female enrollment in their schools. Some of the schools have evening shifts for children who work during the day to supplement the family income. The organization maintains high levels of professionalism, transparency and financial accountability. So what really inspired me was their professionalism combined with their ethos that caters to the poorest segments of Pakistani society in very innovative ways.

Q: How did you prepare mentally and physically for the trek?

T: Mentally, I don’t think it really sunk in until we were in Africa, but we tried our best to read up as much as we could before we went. We spoke to people who had already done the trek. I read online blogs of people’s experiences and their tips for making it through the grueling six days of the trek.

Coincidentally, we also read Three Cups of Tea which is American mountaineer and humanitarian Greg Mortenson’s incredibly inspiring story of his commitment to building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan’s remotest areas. That story really inspired both of us and it was an added coincidence that Greg climbed Kili at the age of 11 and spent the first 12 years of his life in the town of Moshi (our base camp for the trek)!

However, nothing could have prepared me for summit night (on the final day for the summit climb, we had to trek eight hours through the night in temperatures that went down to -22 C°). The last hour of the climb, I was crying from exhaustion and the biting cold. I was absolutely convinced that I had frostbite and when I returned, my fingers and toes would have to be chopped off! It’s surprising that I still didn’t give up and kept going. The fact that we were doing it in a big group and saw others who kept climbing, motivated us as well. Also, Asim and I kept pushing each other through the night and somehow when one of us would feel particularly weak or tired or cold, the other would get a surge of protective energy!

Physically, we trained for about three months prior to the trek. We would go to the gym a few times a week and also went on long walks. However, the main change was that we started living a more active lifestyle. Gradually, we saw our stamina improve. However, during the trek we realized we should have trained a lot more! For others who want to go on the trek, I would advise doing aerobics and definitely do a few climbs and treks in the months prior to Kilimanjaro.

Asim: Looking back, I wish we had done a lot more training than what we did. I personally felt mentally strong from the very beginning; the cause itself was a huge motivation and when the funds started flowing into our JustGiving page, we felt more and more into it.

Q: Given that you and Asim raised nearly £6000, how did you go about fundraising for the trek? What kinds of responses did you receive?

Asim & Tamreez: Most of our fundraising was online through our JustGiving page. We sent email reminders to friends and family who passed on the link to others. We also organized a bake sale and a Pakistani handicrafts sale, both of which got really good responses.

The month of Ramadan came during our fundraising as well and as we all know, we’re all particularly generous during that month, so that helped too! We made sure TCF was eligible for zakat and that we paid for all the costs of the travel and expenses ourselves. That assured people that their money would be going directly to the organization and not funding our trip in any way.

More than anything, we were impressed by the generosity of strangers or those who had just met us and found out about the cause. Friends we hadn’t spoken to in ages were some of the first people to donate. Friends of friends came forward and donated anonymously. Family members donated anonymously! It was quite touching. Honestly, the whole experience of fundraising from May to October really strengthened my belief in humanity.

Q: About 25 other people were also climbing for TCF – what was the dynamic like among the group and how did that evolve as the trek went on?

A & T: We were very lucky that we had an amazing group and that we all got along well. Everyone was really nice and friendly and they all believed in the cause. We would laugh and joke and motivate each other to keep going. The scenery was breathtaking throughout the trip and we would stop for photos which led to many memorable moments.

There were about 13 people who joined us from Singapore for the trek and there was a friendly rivalry that developed between the UK group and those from Singapore. As the trek went along, we all started looking out for each other and helping those who weren’t feeling well. It’s quite interesting that when taken away from your usual surroundings and sharing tents and camp toilets with people, you open up and trust each other a lot more than you normally would!

We had about 60 local porters and guides on the trek who were absolutely amazing. They would be singing and laughing and teaching us Swahili words and phrases.

The organizers from the tour operator, Action Challenge from the UK, who came with us were all really great people as well. They made sure we remained on schedule but still had fun. We had a representative from TCF, Hina Suleman, undertaking the trek with us. She was absolutely wonderful. Despite being as tired as the rest of us, she would still make sure everyone was doing well at the end of the day and even on days when she wasn’t feeling well herself, she would still be motivating and taking care of others!

Q: What was the most memorable experience about the trek itself?

T: I think the people we met made it very memorable for us. Honestly, if we hadn’t somehow all gelled, we might have been miserable through the ten days of the trip. Climbing and trekking isn’t easy and add to that altitude sickness, dehydration and hypothermia and you could have a potentially very miserable time ahead of you. But like I said, given we all got along so well, we really enjoyed ourselves and knowing that others were going through similar experiences, it really kept us motivated.

A: Each day of the trip was unique. We experienced almost all climatic zones, from tropical weather in Moshi to extremely cold conditions on the summit. We saw thousands of unique plants in the rainforest. It was amazing to see the tree line disappearing behind us. Reaching the summit was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. But the most memorable experience for me was our daily conversations with the local porters. Each one of them had life story of his own to tell. It not only gave us great insight into the local language and culture, but we learned a lot about the plight of a porter. They have a very tough lifestyle and some are forced into it due to their circumstances. From their strife to earn a day to day living to their determination to achieve the best for themselves and their families; it was an eye opening reminder for me.

Q: Do you think creative initiatives like the Kilimanjaro Trek can help not just raise funds but raise awareness about the work of NGOs in Pakistan? How necessary are charities like FTCF in leveraging support for local NGOs?

T: Oh absolutely! Friends of The Citizens Foundation, a UK registered charity and independent from TCF, serves as TCF’s fundraising arm in the UK. Similarly, TCF-USA does the same for it in America. These organizations go a long way in building support for the TCF and creating awareness about the cause. They are one of the most transparent, professional and efficient organizations I have ever come across. Working with them is a pleasure. So in a sense, they restore your faith in Pakistani organizations and those working for Pakistan. Also, because they genuinely care and translate it into actual work on the ground, I think they serve as great ambassadors for not just the NGOs, but our country in general.

A: It’s definitely a great way to raise awareness and hence more funds. It worked in our case. So many people we approached never heard of this charity before and that included Pakistanis. FTCF organized a similar trek to K2 base camp a couple of years ago and that team raised a similar amount too. FTCF no doubt is doing great job in raising awareness in this region. It is one of the biggest fundraising wings of TCF.

If you would like to learn more about The Citizens Foundation, visit their website. If Asim and Tamreez’s story inspires you, you can donate via their JustGiving page, or if you’d like to donate directly to TCF, please visit their website, TCF-USA, or FTCF.

The group

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Five Americans Arrested in Pakistan

Five men from Northern Virginia were detained at a house in Sargodha, a town in Pakistan’s Punjab province. The house reportedly belonged to Khalid Farooq, the father of one of the young men, Umer Farooq. According to police sources cited by the NY Times, Khalid Farooq is said to have ties to Jaish-e-Muhammad, a banned Punjabi militant group. The NY Times added in its coverage, “Pakistani news reports also said security officials linked the house to the militant group.”

The story garnered much Western media attention earlier on Wednesday, though most news agencies could not say whether the five men, three of Pakistani heritage, one Egyptian and one Yemeni (all were American citizens), had any direct links to terrorism or were even the same five men who had disappeared from their homes in Alexandria, Virginia late last month. However, as the story developed and more details were known, the Washington Post confirmed all five men, ranging in age from 19 to 25, were reported missing by their families last week in the U.S. and were taken into custody near Lahore on Monday. According to the Post,

The men…went overseas without telling their families, who grew concerned after a family member called one of them on his cellphone and “the conversation ended abruptly,” said Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

CAIR reportedly got the men’s families in touch with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) last week, where they played an 11-minute English video “with jihadist undertones” for agents and Muslim leaders at a lawyer’s office. Discussing the video with the Washington Post, Awad said, “I was very disturbed by the contents. . . . It made references to the ongoing conflicts in the world and that a Muslim has to do something about them,” adding that it showed “a profound misunderstanding and potential misuse of Koranic verses.”

However, although Awad called the video “a farewell statement,” law enforcement sources assert that there is no evidence verifying this claim, adding they “had no information on the men’s intentions.” One official further noted that they had no reason to believe there “was some big plot or big plan…Our primary focus is, let’s get them back safely.”

Looking at the facts so far, it seems there is little direct evidence so far linking these young men to terrorism. Nevertheless, the Western media coverage of the development has been interesting. First, the story gained significantly more traction in the Western/U.S. media than in Pakistan, where the arrests actually took place, [though Pakistani outlets did cover the story Thursday]. Second, several of these news agencies framed the arrests in light of the recent shootings at Fort Hood, Texas and the charges filed this week against David Headley, a Chicago man accused of links to last year’s Mumbai attacks, [Headley, a Pakistani-American, pleaded not guilty in court today]. The NY Times in its coverage Wednesday noted these recent arrests come “at a time of growing concern about homegrown terrorism” in the United States. However, by grouping today’s arrests with Fort Hood and Headley, are news outlets in effect sealing their guilt or merely pointing out a potential trend?

Newsweek cited a source familiar with the investigation, who noted the family “of at least one of the detained men attends the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, located in a Virginia suburb of Washington,” the same mosque also once attended by Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused Fort Hood shooter. Newsweek added, “Before 9/11, one of the mosque’s preachers, Anwar al-Awlaki, was in contact with at least two of the 9/11 hijackers.”

If this news coverage is reflective of anything, it’s of the increasing interconnected and transnational nature of militancy, a point that is certain to have ramifications for Pakistan if this story plays out. It also seems to indicate an increasing  U.S. paranoia reminiscent of the months following 9/11. While this paranoia is not unfounded (Fort Hood was of course an immense tragedy), I find it disconcerting that we cry, “witch!” with near reckless abandon before all the facts have been revealed. I also find it sad that the Muslim-American community has to constantly be on the defensive, releasing immediate statements in the aftermath of such developments, initiating campaigns to educate Americans about Islam.

I’ll leave you with a quote by Ali Eteraz, author of Children of Dust, who recently raised an important point worthy of debate:

There is no need for one Muslim to condemn the crimes of another. Collective responsibility cannot, and should not, be accepted. Where one accepts collective responsibility one opens the door to collective punishment. Are Muslims individuals? Or are they one singular marionette that pirouettes each time its string is pulled?


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The above message, tweeted by columnist Mosharraf Zaidi (@mosharrafzaidi), does not account for today’s string of devastating bombings, targeting three of Pakistan’s provincial capitals. On Monday, 36 people were killed and 130 were injured when twin bombings struck Lahore‘s Moon Market, 10 were killed and 49 were injured when a suicide bomber on a rickshaw blew himself up near a courthouse in Peshawar, and eight people were injured in an attack in Quetta. Today’s death toll means that in the last 62 days, 490 Pakistanis were victims of militant attacksthat’s about eight victims a day (thanks @mirza9).

For those who follow the Pakistan situation closely, these statistics offer a shocking reality check, a stark reminder of the human cost of this conflict. If these numbers are depressing, then the reaction from our ministers and politicians following these attacks were even more so. After the Lahore bombings Monday, Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah told reporters the attacks were the work of “foreign help…anti-Pakistan forces are attacking us.” While the government had reportedly “received reports of possible terror attacks in Lahore,” Sanaullah said foreign intelligence agencies, “including India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Israel’s Mossad, were responsible for the current terrorist attacks in the country.”

His statements further strengthen an argument put forth by this weekend’s NY Times piece, The Demons that Haunt the Pakistanis. In the article, Sabrina Tavernise quotes Dr. Malik H. Mubbashar, vice chancellor of the University of Health Sciences in Lahore, who asserted, “The real terrorists are not the men in turbans we see on Al Jazeera…It’s coming from Americans, Jews and Indians. It’s an axis of evil that’s being supervised by you people [U.S.].” Mubbashar even contended that Blackwater employees, who had rented the house next to his, tried to lure his servants with sweets, alcohol and “McDonald’s food every Sunday.”

According to Ishma Alvi, a psychologist from Karachi, conspiracy theories are “a defense mechanism that protects one’s psyche from something too difficult to accept.” She added, “It’s a denial of personal responsibility, which goes a long way to cripple our growth.”

Regardless of how founded or unfounded these theories are, it seems our politicians will do whatever it takes to absolve themselves of blame. Sure, the government received reports of possible terror attacks, as Sanaullah indicated. But who could possibly halt the actions of evil outside forces working against Pakistan? Not the lil ole government!

This constant scapegoating, in my opinion, is indefensible because it fosters a culture of fear-mongering without offering any real solutions. If RAW/Blackwater/Mossad/Evil-baby-geniuses-by-the-name-of-Stewie are really out to get us, then what do these politicians propose to do aside from spouting rhetoric and dealing out hollow condemnations? What real retribution can they offer the families of 490 victims of terror, aside from vapid excuses?

At the end of the day, this threat lies within our own borders. While the military is fighting the Tehreek-e-Taliban network in South Waziristan, militant groups once fostered by the state have pervasive influence in southern Punjab. These same militants are said to be behind the attacks in Pakistan’s main cities. So, government of Pakistan, here’s my advice: 1. Put a lid on the fear-mongering. 2. Develop a broader strategy to tackle militant groups in strongholds like Punjab, using provincial government forces if necessary. 3. Provide relief to the families of these victimsdon’t just visit hospitals and say how sorry you are, show it, whether it’s in monetary form to the families or shelter/food/clothing to those displaced by the conflict. 4. With the buzzword NRO in the air, make examples of yourselves. Because as a Pakistani, I am increasingly ashamed to call you my leaders.

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