A couple of days ago, I was at my gym when I saw a man wearing a cloth mask walk around the weights floor. He had his whole face and neck covered, and he was carrying a heavy sack to one of the rooms on the gym floor. My eyes almost immediately started watching him very closely, as he went to the room and then came out without the sack he had gone inside with. I was also at the same time seeing how to get out of the gym in the fastest way possible – marking in my head how to get to the stairs in case I had to make a quick exit. The man went upstairs, and after a little while he came down with another sack, and I realised he was just bringing materials for some construction work in the gym. My brain had gone into overdrive, thinking this man was up to no good and was figuring out ways to get myself out of the situation in case he had been bringing explosives or the like down into the gym, and had his entire face covered to hide his identity.
Fears of finding oneself in a situation where one might not get out of alive are not fears that people should have to deal with on a recurring basis. I was certainly not born with such fears – but the very tumultuous years after 2007 (when the Pakistani Taliban declared war on the Pakistani state) have ingrained these fears into the hearts and minds of a lot of Pakistanis in this generation. What followed was years of bombings in mosques, churches, markets, rallies, and even inconspicuous places like bus stations. What these terror attacks set out to achieve they did so successfully. During those years, we citizens felt no place was safe, and even though life went on as normally as it could, people were scared of sending their kids to school, going to restaurants, going shopping. They even had good reasons to fear for their lives every time they stepped inside a mosque for prayers. I remember there was a suicide bombing in a mosque in Saddar, Karachi during Friday prayers and the proximity of my dad’s workplace to that mosque was very disarming. At some point, almost every person who had been an observer to these events did realise that what they saw on the television could also happen to anyone close to them at any time.
During the terror attacks of that time, there was also an increase in targeted killings in Karachi. Dead bodies were found in ‘بوریاں’ (sacks) around the city, most with torture marks on them. These dead people were political party workers or simply people who had dared to disagree with the ruling party of the city at that time. These killings sowed fear into the hearts of Karachi’s citizens, and even though the brave and resilient people of Karachi went on with their work, the soul of the city was definitely shaken.
Growing up in this environment naturally gave me a reason to be suspicious of any people around me who stood out of the ordinary. And this is a fear I think I will carry for a long time to come. No one should have to deal with ‘being on the lookout’ all the time, and as societies, we should carefully evaluate the long-term impacts of terrorism on our cultures, our daily practices and our lives. When I look at random people in my gym with suspicion, I am carrying with me a legacy of events that I and people in Pakistan went through for more than 10 years (and continue to go through in parts of the country). And even though terrorism has gone down significantly, I am afraid of a new generation of people who will grow up with similar fears. The fact that political activists in Pakistan are picked up and made to be ‘missing’ by agencies in our country will leave behind a scar of non-participatory democracy, with people not sure about their own safety when they voice dissenting opinions – and that is not something that a democratic state should ever have to reckon with.