Around September 2008, I was sitting in the lounge watching the television when my father turned on the news and everyone got really quiet as the channel reported that a suicide bomber had brought down the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. It was a violent affair, watching the remnants of the building laying in rubble, not knowing what was underneath all of it but suspecting that human lives had been lost in numbers unprecedented. We didn’t talk about it after, it was something that had happened and now we stayed inside our house on days when we were usually out.
Sometime later I was in school, it was a cold day. I can’t remember how many periods we had sat through but all of a sudden everyone was told to stay inside the classroom, to shut the windows, stay away from them. The teachers were instructed to make sure we didn’t leave. When we asked what had happened, our teacher told us that an eagle was flying around the big tree outside and that it was dangerous for us to be out because it could attack us. Shortly after, parents started arriving and my class mates left with them. We were confused because how dangerous could this eagle be and why had it never been a threat before? I was scared my parents wouldn’t come pick me up because they would have no way of knowing about this eagle. But a little while later my dad came and picked me up and when I sat in the car, I saw that he had picked up both of my siblings who studied in another school and I asked them about eagles. That’s when he told me about the bomb blast that had occurred in the neighbouring area, and we hurried back home. The entire ride back I felt like I was going to die.
The school gave us a couple of days off and in my naïve innocent mind, this was the best thing that could ever happen. I had always disliked school and the violence happening in my country was a distant event that did not concern me.
However, when I returned to school, I realised that things were going to change. We would no longer have assemblies outside at 8am in the mornings where we would sing the school anthem followed by the national anthem. We wouldn’t get to see our friends from other sections and there would be no plays or short skits that different classes arranged every day. That sense of community was gone. Now we would go straight to our classrooms, and we wouldn’t be allowed to leave or play in the grounds. At the end of the school day, we would have to sit in lines and stay put till our names were called and we would be escorted to our cars. The walls of the school were protected by tall shrapnel so no one could climb over.
The teachers told us we were going to start having emergency drills. Some while later the school rang a thirty second bell and that was our signal to lock the doors and climb under our desks and to be very, very, quiet. We were kids so we tried to make it fun, and even a look from one of my friends would drive me to laughter because I didn’t fully understand what was happening. But our lives had changed forever. We had to lock the car doors when we drove around the city. My heart would start beating very loudly whenever my dad was inside a shop, and I was left in the car with my mom and a stranger would get too close to the vehicle. It felt like there was danger everywhere.
There was never any serious conversation about what was happening and what had happened. We were expected to go on as usual in school when so many restrictions were placed upon us. And the teachers weren’t allowed to answer our questions because it was a “sensitive” issue. I think in times like these someone should have told us what was happening, someone should have guided us about the fear that was slowly seeping into our bodies.
I think it is important to highlight my privilege in never having come into direct contact with any of the brutalities that were happening in my country. I and my friends may have felt fear but I didn’t have to think about my daily needs not being met. What about the countless children who grew up with war raging right outside their doorsteps?
It is dangerous for children’s development to think bombs and guns and violence are a part of daily life. We were desensitised to such gruesome terror, as are so many children around the world today. It’s no surprise that we don’t question our systems and governments when such horrific images appear on our screens because our entire lives we have been made to believe that this is all normal: just a part of life.