A World Away: Bannu, May 2015.

Extracted from undergraduate thesis, first published in 2015. 

The Margallas finally come into sight, a hazy blue presence becoming clearer and clearer with every mile of motorway. The Peshawar-Islamabad route is beautiful. There are rivers and canals and trees, cattle, and small, neat farmsteads. There are some rugged peaks too, but they are not the Margallas. The Margallas are home.

I am excited and I am bewildered. With every stretch past the toll plaza that tells me I am officially in capital territory now, I am nearer to home. It’s a road I travel every day- one long highway from NUST right up to my house. As we drive past, I am looking at the cars and I am looking at the buildings in the distance. I am looking at the Margallas. The trees are green and there is a calmness, a sense of structure and predictability. The city is welcoming me back to what I know. I am blended into the traffic, into the hundreds of happy commuters who instinctively know me as one of their own. It’s very quiet. I say my goodbyes, grab my bags, and walk straight into the house. My mother is waiting, laughing, she has stories to tell me.

How do I tell her that just a few hours away, the world is very different? Islamabad to Bannu is about six or seven hours by road. Lahore is the same distance- in the opposite direction. It is a bustling, historical hub, spilling over with life, a dash or two away from the Indian border. Bannu is on the edge of FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), where the constitution of Pakistan ceases to apply. It’s a couple of mountain ranges and a few jagged roads away from the Afghan border. It is a city that lives in a hush.

Less than an hour away are townships and villages that have been bombed, bazaars that have been razed to the ground. The ‘War on Terror’ is an everyday reality here. There are over a million Internally Displaced Persons- villagers and farmers and cattle-rearers and small businessmen and workers. The lifeblood of these townships has been emptied out. A small fraction lives in army-run camps. Another fraction lives in NGO- sponsored settlements. Where are the rest? Who are the rest? Who are the ones accounted for?

Who was I? A little student in a big world, pottering about and trying to gain some semblance of understanding. We were a group of five, not counting the security detail, and we had respectfully and dutifully donned our chaddars for the trip. The culture is strict: we did not see a single lady without the full burqa in all its local glory. Our translator was proud of her Urdu and proud of her English and proud of her job as a teacher in Bannu City. I, who have travelled continents over the last month and happily articulated my own way through, was reduced to smiling emphatically at every juncture, every new greeting and every farewell so I could somehow convey to these women that they were brave and they were beautiful and that I couldn’t thank them enough for bearing with the tedious translations because I didn’t know a word of Pashto.

And underneath those burqas, they were certainly beautiful. Every face told a story, sometimes etched into the wrinkle lines. One could lose oneself. They laughed openly and generously, listened closely, and couldn’t wait to talk. We started conversations with three or four people in a relief tent, the translator never losing the smile on her face, and ended hours later with twenty or more crowded in and someone whirling a woven fan ferociously at you because you looked a little warm and in need of it. They showed you their children and watched proudly if they were photographed.

The military men were young and dashing, and took themselves so very, very seriously. The one with the tray of cool water as we pottered out of the relief tents, weighed down with notes and folders and a head full of thoughts, seemed to be a vision with a halo. It gave me a new appreciation for the kind of attention to detail it takes to run an institution. This account won’t be complete unless I mention the frenzy of excitement every time someone walked in with a tea tray. I’m still making up for all the coffee in America- and these military men know how to ruin you for every cup of tea you’ll ever have again.

Who were these women then? Who were these children growing up and going to school in a camp because their homes were, well, gone? When and how and for what would they be going back? More central to my story- who was I? An armchair crusader from the sleek and elegant capital, feeling so wonderful about doing a thesis on the poor and unfortunate and displaced? Who knew how many had lost family to both sides of the war? After all my emphatic smiling and all my curious questioning- we all knew I was going to step into a car and zip away. I was a stranger to the language and a stranger to the garb and to the problem and to the solution. I was even a stranger to the hard, rocky peaks ringing the dry plains where the camp was set up. I did not like the thought one bit.

But these are our people- a people who are living in tents so that we may sleep in peace at night. Bannu is a city that lives in a hush, and nearby are townships that have been silenced for a good long time to come. There has been sacrifice- immeasurable sacrifice- and we cannot even begin to understand. We turn away from the tough questions or lose ourselves so deeply in the debate that we forget these are real people with real lives, just like you, or me, or the ones we love and couldn’t bear to see hurt. We asked them if they would live elsewhere in the country if given the choice. Many said no, never.

For a few days, I caught a glimpse of a different world. Maybe the glass I looked through distorted my image, maybe I only saw a tiny corner of the whole picture. But that world is very different from this one I live in every day. It lives and breathes and grows just like mine. It has real characters, real stories, real dreams, just like mine. But that backdrop- that harsh bare rock- takes no prisoners. The jagged peaks and dry, flat plains do not pretend to be gentle. There is a brutal honesty in the exposed brown earth, a boldness that does not hide under grass or trees. It leaves you bruised, jarred, a little frightened. It leaves you a little more human than you were.

The Margallas in the distance were like the military man with the tray of cool water- a relief and a vision. But they hold in their lap an anomaly- precious and wonderful- but an anomaly nonetheless. If we remember to remember that, again and again and again, we will have come a long way.


Image Source: https://www.internationalsos.com/countryguide/images/Maps/Map66.gif


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