Disaster relief specialist Todd Shea has been living and working in Pakistan for the last decade since he first traveled there to help the victims of the Kashmir earthquake in 2005. His most recent humanitarian mission, starting in July 2014, has been providing medical services to IDPs fleeing the Pakistan Army’s operation to clear the Taliban and Islamist militants in North Waziristan. The Taliban have said this attack on schoolchildren was revenge for the Army operation.
CKB: What’s the mood on the ground right now?
TS: Everybody is just heartbroken. [Every parent is] wondering when the next market is going to get blown up or when the next attack is going to be at their school. I mean Pakistanis are used to the Taliban and their allies stooping very low and they have kind of learned to live with it and accept it in some ways, but this marks a change. It has just struck a nerve that even the children are not safe in their school from somebody that could just come in and start shooting them all. This is a new phenomenon in Pakistan.
People don’t know, children were hacked to death. They didn’t just shoot kids at point blank range, they slit some of their throats to scare the other kids and did all kinds of demonic and disgusting and perverted things.
CKB: The Taliban is a party for sadists. There’s a theory that the Nazis were also a party for sadists.
TS: Yeah, it attracts people who are sadists and psychopaths, or crazy nuts. And they’re given the weaponry, the opportunity and the money to do these kinds of things. So people, my staff included, are heavily affected and just sick and heartbroken. They’re sharing photos of these children. There’s one that really struck me that had four boys in it. Four buddies together. It said. “They lived together, they played together, they studied together and they died together.” (cries). They’re in their school uniforms and there’s a picture of them on their cricket field or something in their nice uniforms and they’re all dead.
Everyone was expecting some kind of terrorist act as a result of the military operation in North Waziristan. People were braced and ready for an attack on army HQ or police HQ, but nobody really thought that anyone would stoop this low, even the Afghan Taliban has condemned it. (It’s a different organization but they have close ties.) So when you have some of the worst of the worst condemning it, you know how bad it is.
CKB: How did you hear about it?
TS: I was on the airplane getting ready to fly to Denver [for a fundraiser] and I checked Google news like I always do. It just devastated me. I was crying on the plane. I couldn’t stop.
CKB: What is CDRS doing on the ground?
TS: We’re partnering with an organization in Karachi, Naya Jeevan, that usually does insurance for catastrophic injury or catastrophic illness for domestic workers, waiters, waitresses, maids, security guards, drivers, cooks and gardeners. The segment of society (low caste) that works for the elite in society (upper caste). We’ve worked with Naya Jeevan before, and some of their employees have worked with us as volunteers so we’re close already. We have undertaken a large effort to bring mental health professionals into Peshawar to help primarily the children who survived the attack but were injured or severely traumatized, and then the mothers and fathers and siblings of the dead children and the families of the nine adults who died as well. The idea is to do some mental health intervention without really calling it that. That’s how you have to do mental healthcare in Pakistan. There’s such a stigma attached to it – worse than in the US. You have to disguise it as something else, like we’re here to talk to you about your problems and how we can help. That gets people talking. You can’t go in and say we’re psychiatrists and we’re going to counsel you, you’ve been traumatized, you might need PTSD treatment. That doesn’t usually fly.
We want to make sure no one falls through the cracks after the initial rush of aid. We are identifying families with kids that may be needing long term medical care, scholarship funds or financial assistance. Students and staff. We’re looking at identifying the special cases to make sure everyone is covered and also to make sure we don’t duplicate services. We don’t want to help somebody who is already getting help. We want to find those who aren’t getting help who need help. And then identify how much help, because they may need additional help. I’ve been up all night talking to people and just catching sleep when I can during the day.
CKB: Do you think this will be a turning point for Pakistan, that once and for all they’re going to get the Taliban out of there and the government’s not going to continue distinguishing between good terrorists and bad ones?
TS: That remains to be seen. The initial appearance is that yes, it seems that people are standing together and fighting back more. The leaders are saying the right things, and there have been civil demonstrations in Karachi and Islamabad including at the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) which is a bastion of Taliban extremism. They’re talking about taking further action: doing more demonstrations, forcing their leaders and officials to do something about the madrassahs that are teaching hate and are funded by Saudi Arabian money.
And there are even people who are denouncing Saudi Arabia which I have never seen before.
CKB: That sounds hopeful.
TS: Yeah because Saudi Arabia, in order to keep the snakes out of their backyard, allows this ideology of hate [extreme and violent interpretations of Wahabbism and Salafism] and spends money to export it around the world in Islamic schools. They look the other way because they want to maintain their own peace. It’s a dictatorship wherein they let extremist elements have their way outside of Saudi Arabia. That’s how they keep people pacified and stay in power. They know absolute totalitarian control only goes so far, but being able to appease the snakes in your backyard and let them loose elsewhere, they feel like that’s going to help them from getting bit. Of course it probably won’t. It will play itself out.
CKB: You used the same metaphor Hillary Clinton did.
TS: I disagree with a lot of what Hillary Clinton has said, because I also know we helped put some of those snakes in their backyard. We trained the Taliban and sent them back. But she’s also saying hey, you can’t expect the snakes in your backyard to just bite your neighbors. It’s true. It’s a very good analogy.
CKB: Is there leadership in Pakistan that can make a change?
TS: The government of Pakistan is more of a musical chairs than it is a battle between good and evil. No matter what the elites or pseudo-democrats do, no matter what the army or dictators or the US or its allies do, it’s always been, at least since the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, that the people of Pakistan, the common man continually gets crapped on. In my decade in Pakistan, this is what I’ve seen as the only true constant.
CKB: What I’ve been reading is that even if people want things to change, there’s no infrastructure in the society to accommodate it. What do you suggest in terms of effecting real change?
TS: Unfortunately, the NGO business is different than actually doing what’s right for the poor. We need to focus on helping the poor rather than conducting the business of helping the poor.
If people around the world really want to get serious about Pakistan and really want to do something that is going to change the reality in Pakistan and [subsequently] the stability of the world, this focus must shift. Right now, most of the money goes to elites who don’t have a vested interest in large social change. The US and the West have helped put these people in power who are little more than dictators themselves. They talk the democracy game in order to woo the West but in practice what they do is keep people poor and oppressed and uneducated so they don’t know how to stand up for their rights. So that things can stay the way they are. Everyone wants things to stay the way they are when they are on top. It’s human nature. They’re doing fine, their friends are doing fine, their businesses are good. So they’re not concerned with the whole country.
If we actually take care of the people of Pakistan, then you will see a stable state emerge. We won’t have to put so many resources into dealing with militancy and terrorism. I very much believe that if people are reasonably fed, have access to justice and economic opportunity, some healthcare and education, then the extremists won’t have fuel for recruitment. If the US is really serious about these things, we can do it. I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it seems to me that the people who profit off of bombs and bullets don’t necessarily want that. That doesn’t fit with their financial interest. I mean how are you going to unload the next shipment of weapons if no one wants them anymore.
I think that demonizing Pakistan without being introspective and looking at our country’s leaders and other country’s leaders, what they did, doesn’t serve any purpose. It doesn’t make things any better. It’s not true.
CKB: I think this incident highlighted the fact that the most vulnerable victims are inside the country.
TS: I hope so. But I’ve seen people speaking, I’ve seen the op-ed pieces, the CNN interview with Musharraf over this. The American media still doesn’t get it, and the American people aren’t getting the information. There is no sense of collective responsibility. How can there be? Everything has been presented in such a distorted fashion. It’s irresponsible journalism, lies of omission, sensationalism. The coverage is politicized and opportunistic. Everyone’s talking and squawking about casting blame elsewhere. But the fact is, we helped create the Taliban, we helped keep it there. We recruited people from all over the world to go train there and go back to their countries where this ideology of hate has grown and spread like a cancer. This violent interpretation of Islam can be found in cities from Iraq to Syria to Afghanistan to Pakistan – and in smaller groups all over the world. In the 80s, we helped fund it and feed it. We weaponized it. We armed it. We loved it. We had it in our little cage like a pet and it got out of the cage.
The Saudis continue funding it, and we allow it as long as they keep us in cheap oil. So I’m sick and tired of Pakistan being the only scapegoat. It’s not that whatever’s being said about their leaders isn’t true, —
CKB: But people aren’t really blaming the Pakistani people. Have you heard that?
TS: Yes! Unfortunately, if you talk to your average American, they hate Pakistanis. They think they’re all terrorists. Because that’s the narrative they see and hear.
CKB: You’ve seen that in recent coverage?
TS: They don’t look at them as victims. American people are so uninformed, though they somehow believe they’re the best informed. In the last decade I wouldn’t be alive if the Pakistani people were mostly bad, or if they hated all Americans. People in Pakistan come up to me and say we love the American people we just don’t agree with the policies of their government. But we know your people are basically good and decent people. Even they say they know they don’t know the whole story. You talk to most Americans, they think they know the whole story. They think every Pakistani is a terrorist. They don’t have the same empathy in judging Pakistanis.
I talk to people here and I talk to people there. I know what the reactions are when people hear I’m helping in Pakistan. [I hear] the things they say. I know what the attitude is. I read it. I see it. I hear talk radio. In Denver, Houston, I couldn’t believe the things I was hearing on talk radio about Muslims, Pakistanis all this hateful stuff. The Pakistan depicted on Homeland doesn’t exist except in the minds of bigots. It’s so ignorant and so sad. The only thing that’s gonna work, that’s gonna make the world a better place, is if somehow we figure out what our role has been and what we’ve done wrong. We always want to deflect blame. It’s weak not to admit any wrongdoing or blame. And it’s always framed as a dichotomy: it has to be one or the other. Either you are waving the flag saying we do no wrong, or you’re anti-American. I love America, but this is a blind spot in our national policy and public relations. Thank God Malala has become an icon and a household name. For the first time, Americans are starting to realize all they don’t know. There are millions upon millions of beautiful children just like Malala who live in Pakistan. As the lone superpower, Americans must ask, are we truly on the right path? Are we going to keep allowing the most evil and greedy among us to bully the rest of the world with a big stick and all the latest spying technology? It’s not making us safer. In fact, it’s making us less safe.
We are ready to get into big brawls and act in the worst ways in front of children over a football game with the team from the next town over. We are ready to riot and demand sweeping systemic change over a referee’s bad call. We fall apart when, God forbid, our beloved team gets knocked out of post-season play. I’m asking please, give me five percent of the passion that you feel when the Cowboys and the Redskins play each other to the people of the world that are suffering. Just five percent.
You can donate to CDRS on their website: http://cdrspakistan.org