Voices from the most dangerous nation on earth

by Adrienne Hyat

Since my recent return from a lengthy stay in Pakistan, I’ve been asked numerous times about my safety while I was there. My standard reply is something like, “It was a tumultuous year–and I could have done without all the headlines–even encountered a few anxious moments–but for the most part I felt pretty safe and welcome.” But that reply often is met with puzzled and doubtful looks. It’s difficult to convince people that there is another side to the place that has been called, “the most dangerous nation on earth.”

To those with first hand knowledge, the reality on the ground is in sharp contrast to the image the media presents:

Pakistan_mapFather Daniel Suply, 75, is a missionary priest with the Roman Catholic order of Belgian Capuchans. He has resided in Pakistan for nearly 45 years. When asked about his safety, Father Suply spontaneously replies, “I feel absolutely safe.”

He teaches in a seminary and performs religious services in a parish. Except for one brief incident in the early 1990’s which was quickly snuffed out thanks to Father Suply’s fluency in Punjabi, he has never felt threatened here.

Nevertheless, he finds it difficult to convince people back in Belgium to the contrary—until, that is, they come and see for themselves,

“Over the years quite a few people have come to visit us from Europe.” He says. “Of late, many of these people are often advised not to travel to Pakistan because it’s[considered to be] such a dangerous place. When they do come here, they say, ‘…no, no, no it is totally safe. We are totally safe…That was a very negative picture we got from the people.’ A very negative picture… which is not just, actually. Not correct. Not the reality. Of course, Waziristan, that is a dangerous place. I would never venture to go there. The Taliban are there.”

Father Suply is quick to point out that Pakistan is facing some deeply critical issues which could lead to the destabilization of the country. However, he does not dwell on those issues. Instead, he focuses on his “very meaningful ministry” in which he finds great reward and which, he adds, “is very much appreciated” by his students.

Alan Cheshire, 52, is a former United Nations Field Officer. He is currently working on a bio-fuel project in Pakistan. Cheshire has done stints in Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo. He finds Pakistan much safer than any of the other places he’s been.

“In those places,” Cheshire says, “I could not go out without an armed guard. But here in Pakistan, I go into the villages on my own.”

He, too, finds it difficult to convince people back home to the contrary, “They think Pakistan is full of terrorists,” Cheshire says, shaking his head. “ …they’re actually lovely people. The only problem I’ve got is too much tea. They’re always offering me tea.”

Cheshire has felt threatened here, once, on the night of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. He and two Norwegian friends were in a restaurant in the inner city of Lahore when they heard the news. Riots broke out, shops closed and they rushed to get home. On their way, some local shopkeepers lifted up the shutters of their shops and invited them in. “These people were prepared to risk their lives for Europeans. Now that”, says Cheshire emotionally, “is friendliness.”

Laura and Dale Sinkler are from Kalkaska, Michigan. They have lived in Pakistan with their children for several years. Their first stint was from 1996-2001 in a remote area in the outskirts of Multan where they worked on construction of two power plants. In 2001, they left Pakistan to work on power projects in Bangladesh. In 2006, Dale returned to Pakistan this time working for his own power generation firm. Laura and two of their children, a third is in the US Army, joined him in Lahore in 2007.

They speak fondly about Pakistan and the people they’ve met here. They say that coming back to Pakistan the second time around, “felt like coming home.” What has impressed them the most has been the generosity and hospitality of the poor villagers whom they befriended while working in the outskirts of Multan.

“We would go to their homes and have lunch or dinner with them.” Dale Sinkler says. “Oftentimes, we’d feel very uncomfortable because they would be serving us food that we knew they couldn’t afford to serve us. We’d go there and sit on a charpoy [a wooden framed straw bed] and they’d treat us like royalty out of a tin cup.” Even now, years later, when the Sinklers go back to visit their friends in the villages they are treated “like royalty”.

As for their security, the Sinklers say they have felt safe and comfortable during their time in Pakistan despite the risks, which they don’t necessarily consider to be any greater than the risks that exist in other places. And, as experience has shown, some things they perceived as threats actually turned out to be friendly encounters.

Laura Sinkler amusingly recalls a nervous encounter she once had while horseback riding in a village with some female friends “… my horse got away from me, I couldn’t stop it, so I pulled it’s head back to get it to stop and it ended up turning and I actually ended up in a little yard of one of the mosques. I was afraid I was going to be in trouble because you know, that’s their holy ground, so I hurried up and got it out of there but instead of getting in trouble they invited me in for tea.”

The Sinklers have found that the secret to their success here has been tolerance. “If you treat them with respect” says Dale, “ultimately they will return that two-fold.”

Gillian Thornton, 48, is a school teacher from England. She came to Pakistan in 2006 to work for a year as a volunteer teacher trainer in the government schools in Lahore. Thornton explains her reason for coming to Pakistan, “I found the idea of working in a Muslim culture very interesting…from the perspective of a single woman, I wondered if I could fit in and how.” Thornton admits, however, she was apprehensive about the decision of whether to come to Pakistan in light of media coverage about the country.

Two years, and a second contract later, Thornton believes she does, indeed, fit in here, thanks to her willingness to respect the culture. Her experience has been so positive she now has plans to stay on for a third year. She says the best thing about her time here has been the way she’s been received by the Pakistani people and the friendships she has made with them.

As for the apprehensions she had before coming here, she says, “The reality of living and working here has been very different than the media coverage. I’ve never been threatened, I feel very comfortable here…I’m living proof that Pakistan is not the place the media has portrayed it to be.”

Thornton credits her experience in Pakistan for broadening her horizons and understanding of the world. She and some of her fellow former volunteers, who originally came to Pakistan through the UK-based Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), have joked about VSO’s motto, ‘Sharing skills, Changing lives.’ “It was, undoubtedly, the lives of the volunteers,” says Thornton emphatically, ”that changed the most!”

To be certain, there are parts of Pakistan that are very dangerous and especially hostile to foreigners—parts of the Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan, as well as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA, which is reportedly the current home of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. And even the major cities throughout the country have had their share of violence. Earlier this year, Lahore, which was historically peaceful and quiet, experienced several suicide bombings. And attacks specifically targeting foreigners have also occurred throughout the country.

But to consider these events as an accurate reflection of the whole picture is a gross misperception. Just as it is wrong to assume that the extremist views held by a few represent the many. And the irony in adapting these views is that it tends to fuel anti-Western resentment. As Dale Sinkler put it, “If you treat people like that is what they’re made of than that’s exactly what you’re going to get in return.”

Ms. Hyat is an attorney who has lived and taught law in Pakistan.