We betray our children


It is hard to be not touched by the haunting image of this Syrian boy rescued from the rubble in Aleppo after a devastating airstrike on Wednesday.

Since then, a short video of the boy brought to an ambulance has reverberated in social and mainstream global media. I confess that it was a major distraction, not letting me focus on the maddening hustle and bustle of our national politics.

The dazed and bloodied face of five-year-old Omran Dagneesh has brought back memories of another three-year-old Syrian child we saw dead off a Turkish coast. This was in September last year and that image, too, had apparently shaken the conscience of the civilised world. It underlined the devastation of the Syrian civil war and the plight of the refugees.

But the war in Syria has continued with the involvement of the US, Russia and some regional powers. In recent weeks, the spotlight has been on the country’s largest city Aleppo, a gem of history. Will the face of Omran Dagneesh prevail upon the world to take measures to stop the devastation and allow humanitarian assistance for the innocent citizens?

The civil war in Syria has gone on for too long. The State Department spokesman stressed this point when he said: “That little boy has never had a day in his life where there hasn’t been war, death, destruction, poverty in his own country”.

It does not seem to matter that we have repeatedly been tormented by the images of children dying and suffering in wars, famines and violent conflicts. In many developing societies children have to bear the burden of poverty and neglect. Yes, the face of a child in pain becomes unbearable. Our feelings are prompted by the love that we have for our own children and grandchildren.

That is how some parents expressed their feelings about the image of the weary child sitting in an orange chair inside an ambulance covered in dust, with blood on his face. They saw in this image their own son. A CNN newscaster started crying while reporting the story. It is quite natural. And yet, a world run by parents has been so cruel to little children, in spite of the obvious fact that these deprived children would grow up to perhaps upset the entire social order.

I sense an irony in how people, when they contemplate the state of their society or of the world at large, tend to be pessimistic but imagine the most glorious future for their own offspring and loved ones. This may be a reflection of how a society is shaped and governed. Feeling for others and making sacrifices for their well-being is a measure of civilisation and we, in Pakistan, are not very civilised.

When environmental issues became a global concern, there was one statement that I am now reminded of. The point made was that we have not inherited this earth from our parents to do with it what we like. We have borrowed it for our children and must be careful about how we use it. It is about the same argument that when we look at our children and the young, we proclaim that they are our future. So, do we care about our future?

As I felt overwhelmed by the Syrian boy’s picture that captures the horror of war, my thoughts wandered to think about the state of our own children in Pakistan. Their images we do not see very often on our television screens but those of us who have the need to walk on the streets and to visit poor localities do see them. They are visibly in distress.

As an aside, I am tempted to recall some personal memories of Aleppo that Omran’s image and stories of devastation of the city have revived. I had attended the celebrations in 2006 when Aleppo was designated as the capital of Islamic culture. I had visited Damascus earlier to realise a childhood dream to see the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. In Aleppo, they made the same claim.

The column I had written in this space had the caption: ‘A rainbow in Aleppo’. This rainbow I had seen looking out of my hotel window on the seventeenth floor. Aleppo remained one of the most enticing places for me, its old town wrapped in an Arabian Nights ambience. However, what hurts now is that a city that survived for long centuries is being destroyed now, in the twenty-first century. We may only have a historical sense of how mankind’s heritage is created and preserved. We can watch it with our own eyes how it is destroyed.

What we seem to be destroying in Pakistan has no bearing on our past. It is our future. Again, the wicked process is starkly visible. Look at our children, not the children of the privileged and the middle class who are pampered but the ones who are afflicted with poverty. It also matters that demographically Pakistan is a very young country and the percentage of children in the population is intimidating.

One agonising fact about our children that I have quoted before is that so many of them are under-nourished. Dr Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group, was in Karachi in February and said that 45 percent of the children of Pakistan are stunted because of poverty and malnutrition. This is a kind of human devastation. One wonders if our political leaders, the ones that populate our news channels, have any idea of or concern for what this means, including for their own aspirations for power.

Recently, there were reports of kidnappings of children in Lahore, though there are some ambiguities in how this story has been reported and investigated. Rumours of similar crimes being committed in Karachi have also disturbed middle-class parents. What all this means is that our emotions with regard to our unbounded affection for our own children have been aroused. Only, this passion is not transformed into compassion for children who are growing up stunted in the prison of poverty.

There are many different aspects of the present state of children in our society. The unbearable fact is that the negative trends are not being arrested. One headline in a newspaper I just noticed, as I write these words, is: ‘Child sexual abuse cases have increased by 36pc’. Yes, this is Pakistan and its leaders have not had the time to watch the image of the Syrian boy rescued from the rubble of war.

The writer is a senior journalist.