Pakistan: The Toll Of Ceaseless, Horrific, Numbing Violence

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People wheel a man who was injured by a bomb explosion, at a hospital in Quetta
People wheel a man who was injured by a bomb explosion, at a hospital in Quetta

On the same day that a series of suicide bombings killed at least 100 people and injured hundreds of others in the Pakistani city of Quetta, another dozen people were killed (and 40 injured) in the same city in an earlier bombing at a crowded marketplace; while another 11 died in one hour of violence in the teeming metropolis of Karachi.

If that was not enough carnage for one day, another 21 people were killed and 70 injured at a religious seminary in Swat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on the northwest border near Afghanistan.

And that is just one 24-hour period.

Killings in Pakistan -- whether they are motivated by religious or ethnic hatred, or if they take the form of domestic acts of violence against women and children -- have become so routine and mundane that the media in the country as well as the public seem completely numbed to it.

Consider Karachi, which is one of the most dangerous and violent cities on earth.

In just the month of December 2012, headlines in Pakistani media included such nuggets as “Health worker shot dead in Sohrab Goth”; “Three including prayer leader gunned down in Karachi”; “Seminary teacher among 10 shot dead in Karachi” and “Bomb-making factory found in Karachi.”

A great deal of these killings is spurred by the hatred of Sunni Muslims (Pakistan’s dominant faith) against Shi'as.

Last summer, the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center (NOREF) published a report calling sectarian violence the biggest security threat facing Pakistan.

“Most frequently, such violence involves clashes between members of the two main sects of Islam -- Sunnis and Shi'as – but violent incidents between… sub-sects of Sunni Islam are also on the rise,” wrote columnist Huma Yusuf on behalf of NOREF.

“The heightened frequency and brutality of Sunni-Shi'a clashes threaten national security -- Pakistan’s is the second-largest Shi'a population in the world after Iran – as well as bilateral relations with Iran and the regional power dynamic vis-à-vis Saudi Arabian influence.”

Yusuf traced the surge in sectarian violence to the rise of the Pakistani Taliban in the mid-2000s and their deepening alliances with homegrown militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

“Sectarian violence is arguably the most dangerous fallout for Pakistan of the U.S.-led war against terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan,” she posited.

“Sectarian violence has spread across the country and is increasingly directed at disenfranchised targets such as Balochistan’s Hazaras (an ethnic minority) and worshippers at Sufi shrines. The government’s continuing failure to dismantle militant groups, enforce bans on hate speech and sectarian propaganda, improve the criminal justice system, and reform the madrassas has allowed sectarianism to thrive.”

Another Pakistani columnist alleged that the government is both in denial over the magnitude of violence enveloping the country and helpless to do anything about it.

Writing for the Guardian newspaper of Britain, Mustafa Qadri said sectarian attacks are not new in Pakistan, but there has been an upsurge, especially in Baluchistan (where Quetta is located) since at least 2010, as well as in tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan, Karachi and across the Punjab.

“There are two broad reasons for this violence,” he wrote. “First, discrimination has been institutionalized to such an extent that it has become normalized. The syllabus in our public schools and the discourse in our media describe non-Muslims as enemies of Islam, while our passports require us to affirm that members of the Ahmedi religious sect are not Muslim.”

In addition, he noted, groups preaching violence have been allowed to exploit legitimate grievances.

“Violence targeting people on the basis of their religion should be an urgent concern for everyone who cares for Pakistan and the region,” Qadri added.

“The failure to address these abuses will only exacerbate the general breakdown in law and order in the country by sending the signal that there is total impunity for any abuse justified as a protection of religious sentiments.”

Alastair Lawson of BBC proposed that the Shi'a-Sunni schism that has ensnared Pakistan in decades of violence is a legacy of the rule of President Zia ul-Haq, who imposed Sharia law in the country in 1979 in order to strength his military rule, which, in turn, legitimized hard-line Islamic extremist groups.

Zia was further emboldened by guns and money he received from both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to help the mujahedeen in Afghanistan fight against invaders from Soviet Union, thereby flooding Pakistan with thousands of weapons.

Now, almost 25 years after Zia’s mysterious death, Pakistan is left with the grim reality of endless sectarian killings.

Moreover, the ceaseless violence -- and the always-present fear of impending violence -- has imparted deep psychological damage across a swath of Pakistan's beleaguered people.

A group of academics led by Dr. Muhammad Tahir Khalily, senior clinical psychologist at Mental Health Services Roscommon in Ireland wrote, in a scientific journal: “Psychological trauma is on the rise… As a result, [Pakistani] individuals are manifesting a number of symptoms of psychological trauma, which is impacting on all aspects of their lives.”

The study, which appeared in The Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, also noted that as a consequence, Pakistani people “are feeling a great sense of helplessness and experiencing psychological trauma in addition to the severe physical damages. The severe prolonged massive-scale war, and associated abuse of power, sense of helplessness, pain and severe losses, inevitably inflicts a severe psychological trauma in the survivors of the violence.”

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