Humans of New York Gets It All Wrong

My people are treated like dirt in a country that did not exist three generations ago.

My people live in slums on the land they’ve loved for 6,000 years.

My people are vilified and called rodents, terrorists, leeches, in a place they’d never imagine would be called anything other than “Afghanistan” and “Hindustan”.

Yesterday I logged into Instagram to see heartbreaking pictures and captions on the Humans of New York page. The admin was in Hunza Valley, Pakistan:

 

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“Education changed the lives of my entire family. Before education, we knew only how to work. It was always very quiet in our home. My grandfather was a laborer, but he paid to send my father to a tutor so that he could learn to read. He told my father that, if nothing else, he should begin by learning how to read and write his name. When I was born, my father taught me how to read. I started with local newspapers. I learned that our village was part of a country. Then I moved on to books. And I learned that there was an entire world around this mountain. I learned about human rights. Now I’m studying political science at the local university. I want to be a teacher.”

 

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“We lost their mother to a heart attack recently. And their father is overseas trying to find a job. So I’m currently Grandpa, Grandma, Mom, and Dad. Luckily I have five children and eighteen grandchildren, so I’m very experienced. There’s actually one more child at home—he’s eight years old. And none of them can fall asleep unless they are lying next to me. So I have to put the oldest one to sleep first. Then I get up quietly, and lie down between the other two. The only problem is sometimes they fall asleep on top of me.”

 

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“I admired her from afar for a while, and eventually summed up the courage to tell her my feelings. She told me that she felt the same way. This was before cell phones, so at first our meetings were limited to random interactions on the street. But then we both got mobiles and started talking on the phone. Eventually she told me that she wanted to marry me. I sent my mother to ask her family for permission, but they didn’t think I was a suitable match. They were a higher class of people. They were educated. Her father was a business owner. I tried to plead with them: ‘I’m not paralyzed,’ I told them. ‘I work. Why am I not good enough?’ But I was never given an answer.”

 

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“My father passed away a year before I got married. I wish he could have lived to see me start my own family. After God, he was my god. There was no infrastructure here when I was growing up, so we lived through very hard times and often there was no food. But he’d do whatever he could to make us forget. One night he organized an entire musical. We couldn’t afford instruments so we pretended that we had them. Every one in the family had a role. I was the star.”

 

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“My life is on repeat, every day. This area is surrounded by water, but my village has no access, so every morning I make a two-hour trek to the glacier so we have something to drink. During the day I work to maintain this road. I get $100 a month. In the winter, I make daily trips to cut wood so we can stay warm. I can’t leave this land because it’s all I have. There is no happiness or sadness in my life. Only survival.”

 

This last photo is a direct referral of what this blog post will address:

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“It’s a difficult time to be a socialist. The left has been depleted everywhere else, but in Pakistan it’s been decimated. I belong to an organization called the Awami Worker’s Party, and right now is a crucial moment for us. We are trying to resist slum evictions in Islamabad. There is no affordable housing in the city, so servants and laborers huddle together in informal settlements called kachi abadis, which have no water or electricity. Recently, the Islamabad high court has issued an eviction notice, and the land is being sold out beneath them. They are defending their actions by saying that terrorists hide in the slums. Right now an operation is underway to remove the slum inhabitants by force.”

 

Please refer to this picture throughout the post.

I couldn’t help but notice that most of these people looked Afghan, probably ethnic Pashtuns or displaced refugees. I recognize my countrymen when I see them, these people were not Punjabi and not Muhajirs.

My anxiety built even more as I saw comments of sympathies and prayers. These well-wishers had no clue that these were not Pakistanis. That the tragic stories had more to do with the meddling of Pakistan with the Soviet War than anything. That these were aftermarks of displacement, war, and trauma, all inextricably linked with being an Afghan in a land that once belonged to your forefathers.

There was no such thing as Pakistan when my grandmother was a girl. The world has since changed, and occupation and colonialism continue to go unnoticed. But not to the Afghans. Many Afghans see no difference between the government of Israel and the government of Pakistan: Both found on the concept of religion:

Pakistan is like Israel, an ideological state. Take out the Judaism from Israel and it will fall like a house of cards. Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state; it would collapse.

-Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s ruler, December 1981

Both of these newly-created states forged themselves on violence, forceful deportations, displacement, and so on. Even the name “Pakistan”, is a manifestation of the names of stolen land:

 Although nationalist scholars and politicians tend to romanticize the notion of Pakistan, with some even tracing its origins to the founding of Islam itself,5 the term Pakistan was coined only in 1933 by a Cambridge student, Choudhary Rahmat Ali. “Pakistan is both a Persian and Urdu word,” he wrote. It is composed of letters taken from all our homelands- “Indian” and “Asian.” That is, Punjab, Afghania (North West Frontier Province), Kashmir, Iran, Sindh (including Kutch and Kathiawar), Tukharistan, Afghanistan and Balochistan. It means the land of the Paks — the spiritually pure and clean. It symbolizes the religious beliefs and ethnical stocks of our people; and it stands for all the territorial constituents of our original Fatherland.

Except how can a place be spiritually clean when it is only existing because of the mass murder of it’s minorities?

Afghans and Balochis are killed and displaced daily. Balochi protestors are literally abducted and vanish into thin air, their bodies found months later by families; showing clear signs of torture and abuse pre-mortum. The excuse is “countering terrorism,” but women, children, protestors –  these people are not terrorists. “Cleaning out” Afghan slums is not countering terrorism.

Six days ago, around July 30th, 2015, the Capital Development Authority of Pakistan launched an operation in Pakistan to demolish Afghan slums, beginning with Sector I-11, Afghan Kachi Abadi. As the bulldozers arrived, as the police siren wailed, 20,000 of my countrymen awaited their fate, standing outside of their home with batons in protest.

Just like Palestinians facing Jewish settlers.

The picture above of the young woman from the Awami Worker’s Party describes the mostly Pashtun-supported and backed political group that is working to save Afghans in Islamabad slums. She is not referring to Punjabis or Mohajirs in that caption. She means Afghan refugees. Like the ones in Afghan Kachi Abadi I-11.

Apparently, another artist collective was just as pissed at the Humans of NY project as I was. Pictureosophy, a photo journalist page on Facebook, decided to shed light on what they call “the more deserving humans of Pakistan”. These were my countrymen of I-11. The photojournalist created a photoessay to get his message across. I have reprinted the pictures along with the captions here:

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I watched as the young boy of about 10 pulled out a roughly hewn slingshot from his pocket. His face broke into a smile as he identified his target. The look of delight on his face belied the squalor, the dirty streets and the mud houses he was surrounded with. Why? This place was where he was born, where his parents were born. This was home.

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Not any more, however. Last week, the young boy, along with everyone else in the I-11 Afghan Katchi Abadi were forcefully evicted by the Capital Development Authority (CDA), their homes bulldozed to the ground, down to the last mud hut.

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These days, Pakistan’s digital social media space is inundated with news of Brandon Stanton, the man behind Humans of New York, and his visit to Pakistan.

 

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Stanton’s ‘Humans of Pakistan’ segment has taken forums like Facebook by storm.

 

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But in this frenzy, are we forgetting those humans of Pakistan that are currently more deserving of our attention?

 

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No one speaks of these people; they have been forsaken by the media and society in general.

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The ‘Humans of the slums of I-11.’ I dare not call them Humans of Islamabad for fear of offending the aristocratic society of Pakistan.

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The name ‘Humans of I-11’ is clearly a ripoff of Stanton’s project, but this is deliberate. It attempts to redirect some of the attention the Humans of New York has received.

 

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Pakistan is a generous country. In the past, we as a nation have often taken up the cause of those who we feel deserve our help. And we always survive, albeit with some baggage.

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The Afghan war was one of these undertakings, in which we proudly helped the Afghans defeat a superpower. We came out victorious in the end, but the baggage that we carried away with us still lingers.

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The baggage I talk about, of course, is the refugee crises Pakistan has had to face since the 1990’s. The refugee community this photoessay focuses on are the residents of the Afghan Katchi Abadi of I-11

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The CDA has justified this vast scale eviction by claiming that these Katchi Abadi’s harbor terrorists and criminals that are a threat to Pakistan’s security.

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It is true that our country faces a security dilemma, but will the CDA’s line of action pacify the situation? That is the question.

 

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In all probability, this eviction might quite well contribute to the security crisis

 

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Disrupting the lives of the residents of the I-11 slums, who have been living here for the past 25 years, by forcefully evicting them would, by all sociological understanding, create even more criminals.

 

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These people are being pushed to the point of desperation where they could be forced to resort to criminal activity in order to survive.

 

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The already deprived are being deprived even further

 

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As I mentioned earlier, the Katchi Abadi slums are, or should I say were, home to Afghan refugees who migrated into Pakistan, fleeing from Soviet forces in 1989, during the Soviet-Afghan War.

 

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Today, even after three generations, these people exist without an identity; for what more defines one’s core identity than ones nationality?

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The offspring of the refugees are citizens of the world, so to speak, as they do not officially belong to any country.

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Thus, for the past 25 years, these refugees have been living in deplorable conditions, without access to proper housing, hygiene and health facilities and education.

 

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These beautiful human beings are forced to do menial labor in order to survive.

 

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In fact these slum dwellers provide most of the cheap labor in Islamabad, receiving less than minimum wage.

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The elite class, who are so hell bent on trying to get rid of these people, have no problem hiring them to build their houses and water their lawns.

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As I walked around the basti, I noticed stones protruding out of the ground marking the graves of those who had transgressed to the next world.

 

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I realized how deeply anchored these people are to this basti now. The CDA has evicted the living, but what about the dead?

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For us, these might just be mud houses and dirty streets, an eye sore that has to be beheld while driving to and from Islamabad.

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But to the residents, it is home. And no human should have to suffer seeing his home being razed to the ground.

 

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No matter how miserable home may seem, the familiarity one feels when entering it is a constitutional right that should be given to every soul living in Pakistan.

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While giving the authorities the benefit of the doubt, the uncertainty of the fate of these people should haunt the population of Pakistan.

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To most of Pakistan, these are just faceless human beings, but let us not forget that they are humans, nonetheless.

 

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The eviction of the residents of the Katchi Abadi blatantly exposes the discerning indifference of the people of Pakistan.

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For it is our moral responsibility to stand by those less fortunate than ourselves.

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Alas, what is done is done. All we can do now is hope to be more humane towards our fellow man. Bearing in mind that standing by silently, while injustice prevails, makes one accomplice to the aggressors.

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Strange that even in its unplanned, shabby existence, the slums above gave a whif of home to some humans of Pakistan. Who are we kidding? They were just humans of I-11.

Just as Armenians cry over Eastern Turkey being Western Armenia, just as the Amazonian tribes mourn the loss of their homes, just as Palestinians lament the loss of their cities, so too did the Afghans lose a part of themselves during partition.

The partition narrative is greatly told from the perspective of Indians, but what of us, the mountain-people to the north? Did we lose nothing? Did we self-determine? The answer is no. All we gained is the status of “terrorists” and “rodents” in an infant nation.

How long can Muslim countries turn their back on systematic racism in Pakistan? How many more slums will be demolished, leaving thousands without a roof over their head? Why doesn’t the world think that Afghan lives matter? Why do our “Muslim brethren” deny recognizing these issues?

For as long as Afghans are displaced, and as long as they are treated like vermin, there will be no end to extremism. Because by placing these valiant and proud people at the bottom of the pyramid, by robbing them of a nation, by denying them their rights as citizens of Pakistan, by keeping their wages low, healthcare infrastructures in shambles, and demolishing their homes, by silencing them when they cry, by ignoring their pleas for support and recognition,  you create a system where they will not “feel” Pakistani. If the nation was found on Islamic principles, then are Balochis and Afghans kafirs?

 

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