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Archive for December 29, 2014

Will 2015 spare our children from the violence of 2014?

First published in The Express Tribune here >

A Syrian child cries as he waits to be registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Arsal, in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, on November 19, 2013. PHOTO: AFP

Thousands of miles away, in a candle vigil for the children of the Peshawar attack, the Mayor of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, Bonnie Crombie said,

“The children lost in Peshawar were not just Pakistani kids; they were our children, the children of this planet.”

I shuddered to imagine the paranoia of millions of parents in Pakistan on the day that their children will have to go back to school after winter break. And along with them, my mind wandered to the other children on the planet – the children who have lost their lives and so much more.

I couldn’t help but think of the 200 plus school girls that Boko Haram kidnapped in Nigeria. Will these girls ever be able to return to school again?

Last September, Gaza was short of almost 490 school-going children, as schools reopened after a 50-day war with Israel during the summers. Many of the kids who survived had lost their homes and family members. The Israeli kid who died after rockets were fired from Gaza was also a child of the same planet.

How can one not think of the millions of displaced children of Syria currently spending their fourth winter in refugee shelters, attending makeshift schools in the camps, while nearly 14,000 have perished?

My heart aches for the children who have been brutally beheaded by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for not converting. Hearing the spine-chilling stories of Yazidi minor girls who are being sold as sex slaves makes me tremble.

“They will sell my girl for $10.”

This cry of a Kurd father from Sinjar haunts me to date. So does the recount of a 19-year-old Yazidi girl who managed to escape:

“One day we were given clothes that looked like dance costumes and were told to bathe and wear them. One girl killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself.”

In a lesser heard Central African Republican, almost 6,000 to 10,000 children have been snatched of their school lives and have been forcibly recruited as child soldiers, some being as young as eight-years-old. There are child soldiers recruited by Iraqi militias and ISIS too. Amnesty International reports there are 250,000 child soldiers world over.

Closer to home, around the time of Malala Yousafzai’s incident, 12-year-old Mehzar Zehra was shot on her way to school and while her father became the victim of target killing for being Shia. I also think of little Rimsha Masih, who had to languish in jail, and Aitzaz Hasan from Hangu, who lost his life while averting a bomb attack in his school. Let’s not forget the Hazara kids who either perished or were injured in Mastung and other attacks on the Hazara community. Let’s not forget the hudreds of children who have died during the drone attacks in Waziristan.

Forgive me for not being able to enumerate every child who was lost to meaningless wars happening around us. Echoing Mayor Bonnie, each of these are children of the same planet. And it is incumbent upon humanity to ensure them a safe childhood.

According to a UN report,

“More than one billion children under the age of 18 were living in areas in conflict or emerging from war. Of these, an estimated 300 million were under age five and more than 18 million children were refugees or internally displaced.”

As the calendar flips to 2015, there will hardly be anything new for these children. Those who have perished shall sleep below heaps of earth with their innocent dreams buried in their hearts. Those alive will continue to bear the trauma of bare survival, feeling lucky to have lived another day, no matter how.

This is not all.

Beyond active warfare, vested interests in media, state or faith-based groups also subject children to psychological abuse by preaching warmongering and hatred. A child’s video on Memri TV telling tender Palestinian children about evil Jews, a seven-year-old boy from a madrassa who sings jihad against infidels, or a 10-year-old boy from a Gurukul who spews hate and desires to combat Muslims – these are just a few examples, and not a concoction of my mind. Even on social media, we violate war-torn kids by sharing gory pictures of disfigured or dead children to evoke emotional propaganda.

Is this the quality of life the children of our planet deserve?

Why are we so disgustingly insensitive about how detrimental something like this could be to a child’s health and potential? Would you put your child through this physical or psychological politics of hate and violence? Why do we fail to think of the long-lasting adverse consequences of violence on their tender minds and bodies in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Do these children even have an idea of the geopolitics, war on resources or hegemony of sects or tribes, for which they are subjected to the worst form of violations?

The hope kindled by voices like Kailash Satyarthi or Malala or Edhi is only momentary. The scale of the war industry is too huge to be countered by a few sincere souls. UN reports reveal a change of war tactics in current conflicts that have made children even more directly exposed to warfare. This only makes the future grimmer.

Violence and hatred are not inborn. They are learned behaviours, and we, as adults, are the culprits who have taught our kids through words, actions and inactions. Even if we can’t create a world without conflicts, can we at least be civilised enough to spare children from being caught in this crossfire of hate and violence?

Garcia Machel, UN’s Secretary-General, correctly stated,

“It is unforgivable that children are assaulted, violated, murdered and yet our conscience is not revolted nor our sense of dignity challenged. This represents a fundamental crisis of our civilisation.”


But yes, yes, do wish each other a happy new year.

India spontaneously with Pakistan

First published in The News Aman Ki Asha here >

A special prayer: Special needs children pray for Pakistani children. PTI photo

By Ilmana Fasih

December 16, 2014 was the darkest day in Pakistan’s history. Over a hundred young, bright lives were barbarically extinguished at the hands of hate and bigotry. I switched on the television and there was a man wailing, “We took 20 years to raise our kids, and they did not even take 20 minutes to finish them”.

Adjectives strong enough to express my pain seemed non-existent.

I went to office, wondering who would ask the first question and what it would be. As I entered the office, I learnt that Peel District School board in Mississauga, several thousand miles away from Peshawar had decided to lower its flag at half-mast till December 19.

On Twitter, Indian Prime Minister Nartendra Modi tweeted with a heart touching message appealing to schools across India to observe two minutes of silence the following day as a mark of solidarity.
It was evident that the pain was not just of the Pakistanis. It had travelled across borders and seas. Sympathies started to pour from all corners of the world.

A friend responded quoting a verse from Kabir: “Heart goes out to beautiful Pakistan. Sadho dekho jag baurana!”

Then there was this dream tweet with the thoughtful hashtag #IndiaWithPakistan from Tehseen Poonawalla:

These could so easily be our kids. Nothing justifies harming these innocent children.#IndiawithPakistan

Oh and then another, with the same hashtag, then another. There was a treasure of tweets and every single one was coming straight from their hearts.

A. Dhanvantri Prayers for our brothers & sisters from Pakistan. #IndiaWithPakistan

Rituparna Chatterjee IndiaWithPakistan today as one nation, one tragedy, one voice. Terror will not break us. Will not drown our voice.

IndiaSpeaks Some days overwhelm years of painful history. Today is one such day. Politics & battles can sit this one out #IndiawithPakistan

Arun Nambiar When you lose family, the only shoulders you want to cry on is family. We are one with our family in Pakistan! #IndiawithPakistan

Priyashmita Guha Hearing the wail of parents on TV. How do u even make sense of this? How do u tell parents it will be ok #IndiawithPakistan

In no time, was trending at the top on Twitter after Peshawar Attack.

With re-tweets, tears rolled down my eyes. Bewildered, one moment I was sobbing in grief, the other smiling at the empathy that every tweet of 140 characters or less carried.

When I reached this tweet, I could not hold back anymore and began to cry aloud.
Chandan Bharti Aaj padosi ka choolha thhanda pada hai, bhookh hamaree bhee mar gayee #PeshawarAttack #IndiawithPakistan

I kept scrolling down my timeline. There was an ocean of compassionate messages of solidarity and of grief from Indians as if it was their own tragedy.

Even the remote corners of India had responded with a testimony of a picture:
Nitin Jaunpuri Tears from the remotest disaster hit area of India #Uttarakhand #IndiawithPakistan #PakSchoolSiege #PeshawarAttack

Overwhelmed by the deluge of love and empathy, I tweeted: “I am so proud of #India I grew up in. Compassionate and tolerant. United with #IndiawithPakistan as #Pakistan is shaken by #PeshawarAttack”

The most amazing thing was that the outpouring of emotion was largely un-orchestrated. Prime Minister Modi did provide it a framework but its expression came not just from the usual peace activists but also from the man on the street. The rickshaw-wallahs, the tea vendors, teachers, children, housewives and every other section of the society you can think of. It was unscripted and uninhibited.

That brings us to the question, where was this camaraderie when India and Pakistan were at each other’s throats after the infamous jockey match in the Champions Trophy semi-finals? The Indian media and public went from being a sore loser to overwhelmingly magnanimous in a matter of three days. Pakistan went from being aggrieved and counter-attacking to humble and receptive.

Another week later, as the sympathy recedes, the conspiracy theories, the lecturing, sarcasm and stereotyping are making their way back into the public narrative.

What we need is consistency and maturity of behavior on both sides of the border. Pakistan is not a monochromatic hotbed of bearded ‘mullahs’ perpetually plotting, planning and executing violence against India. There are some rabid and regressive elements but when has the public ever voted for them? Similarly, India may have its share of preachers of hate and some of them may have tasted political power but any objective assessment would indicate a largely tolerant society.

It is time the silent tolerant majority in both countries kicks the troublemakers out of the limelight and asserts itself. It would help if the authorities in both countries took necessary steps to allow a free people-to-people contact through a liberal visa regime. #MilneDo

The writer is an Indian gynaecologist and health activist married to a Pakistani. She blogs at

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

There is nothing wrong in wishing someone a Merry Christmas

Published in Express Tribune Blogs on 25 December, 2014 >

Pakistan saw its darkest hour when innocent kids were brutally massacred in Peshawar by terrorists last week. As every single Pakistani was in mourning, the whole world beyond borders and beliefs stood by us. Thousands of miles away here in Canada, Peel District School Board lowered its flag to half-mast for a whole week. In India, every school observed two minutes silence and Twitter trended #IndiaWithPakistan.

The Christian community in Karachi sang prayers for the children of Peshawar. I hear now that the Christian community in Pakistan has decided not to celebrate Christmas this year.

When I heard about this, it took me down memory lane, a decade and a half ago, to the time when I was working in an institution in Saudi Arabia encompassing 27 other nationalities. An Irish Catholic nurse worked with us too. She used to fast in the month of Ramazan with us out of respect for her Muslim colleagues. We loved her for her understanding nature and for respecting Islam.

A few months later came December. It was only a few days before Christmas when Muslim employees quietly circulated a memo. The memo, which each of us was to sign, stated that Muslims were to refrain from wishing Christians on Christmas.

This upset me terribly.

In an effort to understand why such a memo would be circulated, I decided to talk to a Muslim friend. While she tried to avoid discussing this with me, because the decision not to wish our Christian brethren was ‘the right thing to do’, she reluctantly came up with an excuse, which, in my opinion, was meant to placate me. She said,

“Actually, they add rum to the Christmas cake. So if we wish them, we will have to eat the cake too.”

This absolutely ridiculous explanation upset me even further.

I couldn’t understand why saying Merry Christmas had become such a taboo.

Still restless, I came home and decided to search for answers. Hours later I couldn’t find one, neither in favour of it nor against it. All that came up again and again was,

“Allah judges you by your intentions.”

I felt even worse on Christmas Eve. Since Christmas was not a statutory holiday, the nurse came into work. Knowing that Christmas is an important day and she probably wanted to celebrate the day, I went up to her in an effort to alleviate the tension,

“Merry Christmas! How come you are at work today?”

She ignored my wishing her and said,

“Yes I couldn’t take off.”

I could see in her eyes that she knew I had signed the memo not to wish her. I felt horrible. My eyes could not lie. She patted me on my shoulder, and I began to cry.

“I am so sorry, Carol.”

She hugged me and smiled. I tried to change the topic,

“Carol, where is my Christmas cake?”

She said,

“It’s at home, I will bring it tomorrow. You can actually eat it. I don’t put rum in the cake. I haven’t done that in many years.”

I smiled sheepishly and said,

“Let’s meet over lunch in the cafeteria. Lunch is on me today.”

We met at the café that afternoon and chatted for an hour where she shared a touching story about an incident.

“In Dublin, some 10 years ago, I used to see an Arab man selling souvenirs on the footpath. When it would be time for prayers, he would pack up his stuff, turn his back on the pile and pray. I was curious. He said he was a Muslim from Tunisia. On asking why he does not keep the pile in front of him, he told me that his God will protect his stuff while he prostrated for Him.

He was an illegal immigrant, yet had so much positivity. Being a Catholic, I thought it was Christianity which preached peace, but he himself was so much at peace, that I was touched.

On my way to the grocers, we used to exchange greetings regularly. He would always ask me how I was doing. Once, on Halloween, I took some pumpkin pie for him. He said he was fasting, but would take it home and eat it when he breaks his fast at sunset. That is when I began to fast, in support for a young man who stood hungry all day, selling things. It was then that I learnt that fasting teaches us self-control. I developed a deep respect for him and for Muslims. Hence, I decided to travel to the Middle East.”

I thought she would continue, but she did not. Instead she said,

“I learnt from this young man how to stay positive even in the toughest of situations.”

This young woman, in her deep respect and curiosity about our religion, travelled all the way to the Middle East to know more about us. She observed Ramazan and displayed many qualities that Islam preached to its followers, so then why was it taboo for us to merely wish them on Christmas?

Recently, a Christian couple was burnt alive for allegedly having committed blasphemy, yet we see the generosity of our Christian community to forego their celebrations for the kids massacred in the Peshawar school attack.

Did we even think of not celebrating Eid when the Peshawar church was burnt down?

Close your eyes, look into your heart and really think, would God really approve of you hurting another person’s feelings? Are kindness, compassion and respect not virtues that Islam endorses? Can we not be grateful to another human for their compassion towards us? Can we not return the favour?

While you ponder over those few questions, I would like to wish all my Christian friends, in Pakistan and the world over, a very happy Christmas.


Dr Ilmana Fasih

An Indian gynaecologist, married to a Pakistani, Ilmana is a health activist, and m-Health entrepreneur, who writes on social and health issues as a passion. She dreams of a world without borders and wars.

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