What Privilege Feels like in a Conflict Zone

Zahra Haider

I was born in Islamabad, the federal capital of Pakistan, and returned to live there from 2003 to 2010 — i.e., during the most sensitive period the capital has recently experienced, due to the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) siege, a confrontation between Islamic fundamentalist militants (Pakistani Taliban) and the Pakistani government, under Pervez Musharraf’s militant based presidency at the time. The siege took place in July 2007 — however, the effects of its aftermath remained and impacted the capital for quite some time after. It was a fearful era in Pakistan’s recent history. It was time we were required to drive through barricades and police checkpoints just to get to a friend’s house. As fifteen to sixteen-year-olds of elite backgrounds too engrossed by popular culture, it appeared as though we were unfazed, or rather, unaware of the events taking place in our city.

Lal Masjid, July 2007. Attribution: Newsweek Pakistan

December has always been an interesting month for me, personally. I fell in love for the first time, I nearly lost my father to a brain tumour another year, and, it was the month I witnessed my first bomb go off. The day was December 2nd, 2009 — it was a Wednesday (a casual ‘hump day’). I left school earlier than usual due to exam season. My driver at the time (considered a norm amongst privileged Pakistanis), Ghulam Hussain, waited for me outside the school’s gates around, approximately, 1:30 pm. In Islamabad, school security disallowed anyone from leaving school premises without a recognized vehicle/license plate waiting for them outside. We were told this was due to ‘security reasons’, but secretly, we believed it was to prevent young girls from sneaking off with their boyfriends.

My school at the time, Westminster School & College was located on F-8's Main Margalla Road. Anyone who has ever lived in Islamabad knows exactly where this is, almost parallel to the Naval Complex, which is where I witnessed my first murder and suicide. Ghulam Hussain slowed down while we approached the intersection to take a U-turn. We were the only vehicle completely adjacent to the complex. Ironically, I can recall Dashboard Confessional’s ‘Hands Down’ playing on a CD I made for the car:
“Hands down, this is the best day I can ever remember…”

I remember hearing the loudest noise I had ever heard before. I remember our windshield gradually developing cracks with each vibration; a slow disintegration. I remember the tall, frightening dust cloud that appeared before us. I remember Ghulam Hussain frantically reversing the car and attempting to take a left, completely out of the direction we were meant to be going in. I remember once the dust cloud settled, all I could see was a man’s disjointed body, no longer filling his tattered shalwar kameez — his body still managed to be rolling sideways on the ground, with his limbs lying close-by. Next to him, lay a security official, perhaps the man who interrogated him and left him no choice but to kill himself in ‘God’s name’. The man was a suicide bomber, and he had not only killed himself but another, and injured other witnesses in the process.

Aftermath. Image Source: Unknown

We finally managed to sift our way through the plethora of distraught drivers and escape the scene — I was in complete disbelief. I felt paralyzed, nauseous. I turned back to catch a glimpse of the aftermath; drivers and pedestrians alike were trying to exit the disaster, as hastily as possible. In such haste, a Pajero (a large SUV and a popular choice by privileged Pakistanis) sped up right behind us, with no care in the world, no care for anyone else either, I assumed, because the last thing I saw was the Pajero driver dragging two, very small, young school children under his front bumper, along with his haste. I turned around to face forward, and Ghulam Hussain and I did not say a single word the entire way to my grandfather’s home.

Ghulam Hussain and I safely arrived at my grandfather’s home. Initially, I was far too panic-stricken to emote (my panic reaction is to laugh, when I hear someone has died, I simply laugh in disbelief). I laughed while I asked myself heavy questions, “Are those two children dead?”
“What just happened? Was that real? Am I imagining it?”
“Could we have died, had we taken the U-turn a few seconds earlier?”

“Is this all in my head?”, my panic-stricken laugh suddenly evolved into a hysterical, painful cry:
“But are those two children really dead?”.

**

Prior to the naval complex bombing in 2009, In October 2007, the Marriott bombing took place in the federal capital. That evening, I went for a dessert run with two of my best friends at the time. We went to a popular Islamabad hang-out spot, ‘HotSpot’s Haunted Hill’, which was in close vicinity to the Marriott Hotel (mind you, a decade ago there wasn’t much to do). In the midst of our hangout, I had a fight with one of them (he stepped on my retainer after it had fallen onto the muddy grass, out of spite). I was annoyed, and whenever annoyed my defense mechanism was always “I’m going home” (I was a major defeatist as a teenager). This time, however, I asked them to drop me off at a friend’s place nearby to ‘Haunted Hill’. I aggressively exited the car and went upstairs. Islamabad, in retrospect, is a very small city — but back then, it seemed like the entire world to me.

Hot Spot on Haunted Hill was a favourite hang out back in the day.

I perched myself onto my friend’s bathroom windowsill while I waited for her to come home, and this wasn’t your ordinary bathroom windowsill. Privileged homes in Pakistan resemble the mansions I’ve seen in Virginia’s farmlands or my distinct childhood memory of Dubai’s residential Jumeirah neighbourhood. I looked down at the green patch of grass below me, and the cloudy sky above me. Still annoyed at the destruction to my retainer, but the cool October breeze managed to calm me down. As I became calmer, I suddenly and out of nowhere, felt one the strongest vibrations I had ever felt before (almost as strong as the 2005 earthquake, which was a reported 7.6 magnitude on the Richter Scale) — the force was so strong, I fell off the window sill and onto the bathroom floor. 54 people died that evening, two kilometres from where I was sprawled.

Marriott Bombing, Islamabad (2007). Attribution: DAWN Images

Nearly a decade later, and I’m finally coming to terms with the harrowing effects of growing up in a conflict and terrorism-prone country; a country that I loved deeply. As a fifteen-year-old, it was easy to block. I locked it up in a cage and threw the key away. And that’s the thing about privilege: it’s easier to remain in denial of the catastrophes occurring right under your nose. I was never educated on the Lal Masjid siege, Tehreek-i-Taliban, Obama’s decisions regarding Afghanistan, the residual effects of Zia’s marital regime or why so many people mourned Benazir Bhutto’s death. My family never explained anything to me, nor did my teachers and my friends were clueless themselves — we were just told to remain cautious while we went on with our day.

My peers and I were too preoccupied with boys, drama, obtaining illegal liquor, sneaking out in the middle of the night and school to meet said boys, as opposed to educating ourselves on the tumultuous political situation of the country. But, I’d notice the older Elites, the aunties who carry designer bags and the uncles who play golf on the weekends — watching the news or reading the paper while producing a sympathetic, yet abhorrent ‘tsk tsk’ sound — in response to every televised tragedy. The kind of sound you make to call a horse. I grew to despise this sound, and I constantly questioned the sincerity of their empathy; if they truly cared, why did they go on with their day, have their dinner parties, fly first-class and remain completely unfazed? Why didn’t they get off the couch, away from the TV and do something about it?

I’ve finally realized my privilege in the world. I may not come from a two-parent home, and I may not be a white, heterosexual male — but I have the privilege of residing in a country where there is no war or terrorism, no deathly viral infections, and where there is freedom of expression. And, I had the privilege of not surviving, but thriving in Pakistan. Due to the inherent classism that poisons Pakistani society, ‘the elite’ are essentially untouchable. And many, use this to their personal advantage, rather than taking advantage of it for the betterment of our country.

Pakistan has seen better days recently, although bombings do still occur (and other atrocities). But, ask yourselves this before you nod your head in agreement; does your privilege really matter, does it really make a difference, when there are people dying right under your nose, beneath your feet or right across the street? For me personally, growing up in Pakistan was one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. While I find many things about our culture and nationalism abhorrent; the many things I was raised to love is what keeps coming me back. It’s what motivates me to write about Pakistan.

We are a collective society, no matter the tragedy or celebration — you’re never alone. Everyone almost always comes together, and I hope we can utilize our collectivism for a better, brighter and more beautiful Pakistan.

My beautiful city. Islamabad, Pakistan. Image Source: Wikimedia

Zahra Haider

Written by

writer with a focus on gendered societal practices, specifically patriarchy and women’s trauma in South Asia. based in Toronto. portfolio: zahrahaider.co

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