Mourning for Pakistan

Making naan - in the midst of tragedy

“My sons were flowers, borrowed from God.” grieving father to Reuters correspondent @mehreenzahra.

“Next to a tiny body bag, there is dried blood on this hospital floor. Trampled by footsteps of crazed parents, resolute attendants

In the midst of work emails, a cup of coffee, and trying to plan my day the news of the attacks at a school in Pakistan came into my world. The news came the way it usually does – through a fellow third culture kid who also grew up in Pakistan and loves the country the way I do.  The way so many of us who took our first baby steps on Pakistani soil love the country and her people.

An attack in a place you love against a people you love feels personal. 

The attack happened at a public military school in the city of Peshawar located in the northwest part of the country. Growing up, Peshawar was a common stopover during vacations when we would go to the Swat Valley, or to Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass. It is in the northwest part of the country, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Peshawar is considered the “oldest living city” and has a history that goes back to 536 BC. It is a city of trade and boasts ethnic and linguistic diversity.

Over 130 dead and counting. Most of them are children.

The school is run by the military, largely for the children of military families, but there are also civilian students. A large group of them were in a main auditorium, ironically having a lesson on first aid.

Killed by Taliban insurgents. To punish the military? To what end? For what?

The evil is a stench. 

The body count rises even as I scan the internet for more news. Reports of crazy militants, dead bodies of children, chaos and grief are inescapable. I feel nauseated looking at them. Yet I can’t help myself. It’s the only thing I know to do. I can’t get on a plane and go to Pakistan. I can’t use my nursing skills or sit and comfort the grieving. And so I peruse every social media site I can and watch the world step back in horror at a heinous act.

Outside my window I hear the sirens of ambulances and police cars going to the site of an emergency in Boston and I wonder about the sound of ambulances and police cars in Peshawar. It is now night-time and those involved are heading fast into the after effects of shock and terror, the domino effect of tragedy.

This is the season of Peace on Earth, the season of Holy and Silent Nights, the season of Joy to the World. How can it be when a world away the cries of moms and dads echo to the heavens?

I want to scream “Does this pain matter? Does it matter to you God?” 

I look back at the words I wrote after the marathon bombing that happened just a mile from where I now sit. I cling to them and reread them, make them applicable to this horror in Pakistan, even as I pray.

“The collective grief makes me want to scream, anything to release the sense of helpless fury in the midst of senseless, inane violence. The images of the news juxtaposed against the images of Christmas make me feel guilt as I sit in comfort looking at a tree with sparkling lights, candle light, gifts.

And then I remember the call to pray.

Five times a day a Call to Prayer rings out across the Muslim world. Five times a day for much of my life I have been reminded to lift my heart in prayer. And the five times stretches to many times in between until I realize I am slowly learning that I can’t make it through this life without prayer; that the exhortation to ‘pray without ceasing’ is life-giving. That in the midst of senseless acts of violence, in the midst of tragedy, I am called to pray. Called to pray to a God who hears and loves, a God who is present in tragedy and accepts our “why’s”, a God who knows no national boundaries or citizenship, a God who took on our human pain and suffering when he “willingly endured the cross”.

In the middle of my rambling words comes the voice of wisdom and grace through my sister-in-law, Carol.

“The call to prayer is ringing out now.

‘Come Lord Jesus’ is the cry of my heart! We live in a pained confused world! There is chaos that mars the landscape of God’s design. Yes we do experience His mercy and grace but the ache, the groan of pain is heard all around.”*

This is my call to pray. To pray for Pakistan, pray for her people and her land. Pray for healing. Pray for change. Pray for proper condemnation of the act. Lord have Mercy, hear my prayer. 

“The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer as quoted in First Things

Picture Credit – Dan Mitchell photography; word art Marilyn R. Gardner

Public Health, Polio and Pakistan

Photo of newspaper headlines about polio vacci...

In less than three decades the goal to eradicate polio had become a public health success story.

Polio is a disease that comes on suddenly, cripples quickly and kills indiscriminately. There is no cure and at the peak of the polio epidemic millions were affected and killed in every country. The disease brought fear to people and public health workers alike. In a document that tells the story of the work to eradicate polio, UNICEF says ”

“Unlike most infectious diseases, which normally take their greatest toll on
the poor, polio knocked on the door of every level of society. Rich and poor, adults and children – no-one was safe.”

In the 1950’s Dr. Jonas Salk came on the scene and developed the world’s first ever polio vaccine. This discovery was followed in the 1960’s with Dr. Albert Sabin’s development of an oral polio vaccine. Going from a shot to drops made giving the vaccine simple and allowed for more wide-spread use of the drug.

And so in 1988 world leaders decided to embark on a world-wide campaign to eradicate the disease.

This campaign has been extremely successful. Last year less than 300 cases were reported world-wide, and many countries have eradicated the disease completely.

Anyone in the field of public health is well aware that when you embark on health campaigns in a community the first step is earning the trust of that community. You plan with, not for, the community. And part of planning with a community means connecting with trusted leaders.

Enter the CIA and a fake Hepatitis B vaccination campaign in 2011 in Abbotabad, Pakistan. I’m sure in the archives of CIA projects there are notes as to who came up with this idea, but whoever did surely did not take into account  the long-term public health impact on Pakistan.

Because when word got out that this was a fake campaign designed to gather intelligence, intelligence that ultimately led to the finding of Osama Bin Laden, every single vaccination program in Pakistan had the potential to become suspect.

In December of this past year, nine vaccination workers were killed in the city of Karachi, accused of being a part of a plot to hurt Pakistan. Taliban religious leaders in the Pakhtunkhwa area of Pakistan have warned people against vaccine programs saying they are foreign sponsored and designed to hurt, not help. Leaders in the area report 11 cases so far this year, and it hasn’t yet reached the peak of the season which occurs after the summer monsoon rains.

Even before the CIA ran its fake vaccination camp, vaccination workers had to convince people that they were legitimate, convince people that they were not part of a bigger scheme to identify drone targets. Once the word spread that indeed, there was one camp that was fake – it became a battle, the vaccinators the warriors.

When governments use healthcare and public health campaigns to advance their agendas, no matter how “noble” or “ignoble” those agendas are, it is wrong. It is pathetic. It is unconscionable.

I don’t care who the government is. The idea and the execution of the idea are indefensible.

The effort to kill one man will potentially result in thousands that are killed from polio, I believe in war it’s known as collateral damage.

So I ask myself – was there really no other way to get the intelligence needed? Were the minds of those devising this scheme so uncreative as to have no other options?

Americans know well the deception of fake health projects. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was not very long ago and still results in suspicion from African-American communities when they are asked to take part in research projects. And it should.

The experiment was barbaric.

Barbaric –  just like the setting up of a fake vaccination program for intelligence purposes. There are no excuses. There is no defense.

It is no secret that I love Pakistan. When the owner of a Pakistani restaurant near our home recently introduced me as “a daughter of our nation” I was speechless and deeply moved. I long to communicate across the extreme boundaries that divide my two worlds – Pakistan and the U.S; Muslim and Christian. As a nurse, I have in the past been able to do some of that through health care, through health clinics.

But health care has been compromised as a vehicle of communication and care. 

So in a time when we desperately need bridges between worlds, between world views, between nations and religions, the nails in the coffin of US-Pakistan relations are pounded in harder every day.

An article in The New Inquiry called “Prescription Strike” says it far better than I ever could in the closing paragraph:

“Identity is the primary resource in a war against an idea. The distrust “they” in Pakistan have for “us” reflects the distrust “we” have for “them.” How many drone attacks, CIA scandals, and covert operations does it take to cast vaccine workers as foreign threats? How many terrorist attacks did it take to warrant the search of every brown man at the airport, the spying on Muslim Americans, the launching of  two separate wars? We conflate large swaths of Asia into a single Muslim enemy that lurks in deserts and caves; we retroactively label every “military age” male killed by drone a militant. They conflate all Western initiatives into a single operation bent on their demise, every health worker a potential spy. Meanwhile, Pakistani children die of polio and Americans ask, “Why do Pakistanis hate us? We’re only trying to save them.”