A trip to Pakistan is always a frustrating challenge certainly, but with intertwining interesting episodes that can leave me in tears or giggling incoherently. You may have read my earlier episodes of forays into this badbakh country, so I will spare you a detailed repeat of much that occurred during my most recent trip but the flight from Mumbai to Karachi on February 14 is noteworthy.
The PIA flight is delayed, not surprising, yes, except this is delayed nine hours. The incoming flight from Karachi had to return back to Karachi after takeoff due to a technical glitch. The replacement aircraft is so ancient, Indian airport authorities decide, perhaps, to hide it at a secluded spot to where we ride a bus that takes twenty minutes. I am so fed up, I don’t care my knees sorely scrape the front seat. Clouds of mosquitos are trapped inside the cabin so we all either clap them dead or slap our exposed skin silly. Lo, I would have laughed my head off in different circumstances, all of us in a bizarre dance of clapping, slapping. When the flight does finally take off, the lights come on and off like at a disco dance floor. The middle of the cabin, where I sit is freezing. When I point this out to a young heavily pimpled airhostess, she simply smiles and says technical problem Ji, sorry. Interestingly, passengers at the rear complain of unbearable heat. Strange no?
The flight stabilizes, we are served a snack and Miss Pimples begins handing out landing cards. I take one look at it, baffled; the landing cars are for India! Another technical glitch, are we returning to Mumbai? Alarmed, I frantically wave Miss Pimples over; she sighs in frustrating and gives me awhat now? look. Ma’am, I say, these cards are for disembarkation in Mumbai, we are going to Karachi, yes? She rolls eyes to the heavens, exhales forcefully, grinds teeth and retorts in terrible English - Sirji, you must to fill it. All passengers must to fill it. It is Pakistani rules. Now, you fill it also, okay? It is my turn to begin breathing hard and grind teeth. Ma’am, I understand it is Pakistani rules to fill in a Pakistani landing card, not an Indian one. Please tell me we are going to Karachi? She fingers the pimples on her cheeks gingerly, regards me in amazement, cocks her head in deep thought; bingo, the nickel drops in place. Startled, she peers at the Indian landing form on my hands, reddens so scarlet her pimples stand out like projectiles, snatches the paper away from me and goes flying around seizing them from other startled passengers as well. She returns presently with correct forms and hands me one, avoids making eye contact; I calm down and breath easier. Not for long. Disco lights come on again when the pilot begins the decent for Karachi, giving me an uncomfortable knot in my belly. A hole in the head would be a better way to go than crashing on a PIA flight like this...
I have not much to do in Karachi except strategize over US$60,000 CAI donors have contributed towards aid to injured and maimed victims of sectarian killings in Pakistan. I do this with Hassanbhai Aboolo of Hussein Foundation who is also coordinating my upcoming visit to Islamabad and Quetta tomorrow afternoon. A fairly new Boing 777-300 PIA departs on time to Islamabad. An English newspaper informs me about a proposed tallest building in the world, to be built in Karachi; I am not sure if I should laugh, or weep.
Zammur Khan, ex Pakistan Army Brigadier no less, now head of HF in Islamabad picks me up from the airport and drops me at a local hotel. I spend next day reviewing CAI donor sponsored projects with him - completion of three laboratories / library at Al Kawthar Women’s College, sponsorship of ten poor students from same college, sponsorship of five poor boys from Uswa Boys College, sponsorship of twelve poor students from Husseini Foundation, completing a water project for a poor sadaat village and completion of two mosques. Just when I get a good feeling of accomplishment seeing donor funds safely committed, a ping on my cellphone informs me a suicide bomb in Quetta has killed four, then ten, then twenty two, then fifty, then sixty four...eighty seven have perished. Most Hazaras, mainly Shia Muslims; I began to despair, my heart shatters.
My despair deepens and I get despondent as devastating images of victims and their grieving families repeat on TV. I was supposed to be in Quetta today but the flight was cancelled so I came to Islamabad first; am planning to go to Quetta Tuesday to visit victims of last months bombing that killed over a hundred and maimed scores others. CAI is working with Hussein Foundation to bring those very critical to Karachi where better medical facilities might save them. Will I go to Quetta now? Is it safe? The bomb was in a public area, near a market, anybody could be a victim. Maaha Zainab emails me to be careful wherever I go; Tasneem’s email says don’t go. I return to fresh violence hit Karachi; Hassanbhai is now teetering about going as well.
Monday dawns ominously over Karachi where a strike has been declared over the killings in Quetta. I want to go visit the victims of earlier bombings but the strike has paralyzed all movements in the city. The hotel I am in has no bread, no laundry services, night staff continues working as replacement staff can’t come, the duty manager looks at me dubiously when I say I am going out... Razamama from HF just called and says we will not go visit the victims; the area is a fair distance, amongst possible protest mobs; mission aborts.
Will I go to Quetta tomorrow? I await Hassanbhai’s advice and decision. Stay tuned.