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Loss and Closure

It is indeed a sad time for Pakistanis. The nation mourns the loss of the passengers on aboard Air Blue flight 202. May their souls rest in peace.  While a hundred and fifty two lost their lives, the lives of hundreds more they leave behind have been altered, forever.  May God give the relatives of the departed the strength to endure their loss.

This day was all too familiar. Four years ago, same month, we lost forty five people when a PIA aircraft crashed in Multan. My father was commanding the ill-fated plane. This was the sixth aircraft of its kind, in Pakistan’s aviation history, to have suffered this fate. Several reasons have been cited for the crash; slipshod overhaul and maintenance; ill thought-out flight schedules; extreme temperature s and poor visibility; faulty calibration instruments; unreported excess cargo (and this one doesn’t appear in the official cocktail of reasons, this is insider information); and pilot’s error. Let’s see then, the plane was cleared for take- off when it shouldn’t have been, there was more cargo than there should have been on that plane (crates of Multani mangoes [1]for crying out loud!) which was apparently not reported on the trim sheet, the aircraft started falling apart right before lift-off, the engine catches fire, the pilots want to turn back and land but the visibility is poor so they rely on the control tower to guide them but the airport navigational aids are not quite in the working order they ought to be, hmmm I guess it was pilot’s error. I mean come on, the pilots should have checked each and every nut and bolt on the aircraft before deciding whether to fly it or not and while they were at it, they should have weighed the cargo as well and since they are two of them in the cockpit one of them should have extinguished the fire engulfing the engine, and of course which pilot in her/his right mind doesn’t check the state of the tower equipment? Isn’t that what they are paid for? The cockpit can take care of itself!

My point is, to this day, my family and I don’t know who or what was the main culprit. Civil aviation blames the airline management, the management blames the airport administration, the employees union blames flight services, the pilots association blames the engineering department and somewhere down the line, more appropriately in this game of passing the buck, the buck stops at the pilots.  Convenient, they ain’t coming back to tell their side of the story. Suits everyone perfectly. But is this fair to the families of the departed? Is it fair to those who cannot come back to defend themselves?

I hope things are different this time, I hope, for the sake of those who died and those they left behind, the authorities involved will invest their efforts in identifying the real cause of the tragedy instead of looking for a scapegoat.  What will actually happen only time will tell. What has happened in the past doesn’t give much hope but maybe, just maybe, this time business will not be done as usual and everyone responsible will be held accountable.

Which brings me to my muse; Cambodia.  Before moving on, I must clarify what follows and the situation described above, are not similar. However what is common is the tragic sense of loss and hope for closure.

July 26, 2010, has become an important day in the history of Cambodia. This is the day the Extra Ordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)[2], or the Khmer Rouge (KR) tribunal of crimes against humanity and war crimes, delivered its first verdict against a high-ranking official of the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), Kaing Guek Eav, more commonly referred to as (Comrade) Duch.  Duch was the former chairman of the notorious S-21 prison camp (Tuol Sleng), right here in the centre of Phnom Penh, where approximately 14,000 people were tortured and killed under his watch. The court pronounced him guilty; 30 years after the atrocities were committed. He has been sentenced to 35 years of prison of which he will serve no more than 19 years, since the court deducted time he has already spent in incarceration. The time he spends in prison might be reduced further since he will be eligible for parole after serving two-thirds of his sentence, according to Cambodian law.

Has justice been served? The KR, at least Kaing Guek Eav, is a criminal in the eyes of Cambodian and international law. The Cambodia Daily (July 26, 2010) quotes one of the prosecutors saying, “This verdict sends out a powerful and unequivocal message that those who abuse their power…cannot act with impunity- they will be judged and they will be tried in the court of law…[this] is a day of hope and healing.”

Are the people healed? Judging by the press, they are not. The civil parties in this case had demanded at least 30 years of prison for Duch, free health care for life and erection of memorials for the victims. What they got was a 19 year jail sentence for the perpetrator and the right to have their names included in the final judgment along with the authorization to compile and publish an ‘expression of remorse’ by Duch (The Cambodia Daily, July 26, 2010). Given that the sentence for one murder under Cambodian law is 15 to 20 years, people’s disappointment is understandable. But the court has its reasons; the defendant’s expression of remorse, cooperation with the court and the fact that the crimes were not committed by Kian Guek Eav in his individual capacity, lead the court to mitigate the sentence.

Despite political opposition and doubts about the sustainability of the tribunal and its ability to deliver a meaningful judgment the trial has taken place and the tribunal has successfully delivered its verdict against the offender.  Four more are expected to follow. This development should not, I think, be taken lightly. The appropriateness of the sentence will be seen in a different light by different people.

They say such trials lead to truth and reconciliation and bring closure to the suffering of victims. Do they? In part, I think. They do bring out the truth about the crime having taken place; a spade is called a spade. They do hold those responsible accountable for their crimes. They do alter the reality of the perpetrators, maybe not the same way as the lives of the victims were altered, but there is some retribution. Do they offer closure? Perhaps not. Perhaps even the severest of judgments cannot offer that. How can you shut out loss? Is there an emotional account that you can balance and close at the end of the year and not carry forward anything? There are some accounts you can’t balance I suppose, and you carry the loss with you, it changes over time, just like you do, but it doesn’t go away.


[1] Mango is not just a sweet bright yellow (sometimes with a greenish or reddish tinge) summer fruit; it has, in our country, acquired the status of a political fruit having been used as a dictator exterminator in the past and is an imminent tool of diplomacy if the Americans follow through with their proposition of  importing Pakistani mangoes. Perhaps someone should look into political economy of mangoes, maybe I should.

[2] The tribunal was set up under an agreement between the UN and the Royal Government of Cambodia in May 2006. 7 Cambodian and 5 international judges are presiding over the present case.

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Missed the Boat

Not having a 9 to 5 routine can have a strange affect on one. I, for one, often find myself thinking of embracing begum[1]-hood. I mean wholeheartedly, about giving it a serious chance. But then you see that involves commanding an army of chauffeurs, cooks, maids, throwing (and indeed attending) lavish kitty parties, displaying the latest Louis Vuitton bag (or the Birkin, or any other you would like)- preferably using the right forearm, kept parallel to the ground, holding the bag as if lifting a weight, held as such till there is no sensation left in the arm but the sheer joy of holding THE bag (that no one else has ) keeps the arm in place- and of course it requires a coterie of other begums. Right now I have to make do with a tuk-tuk driver and one part time house-cleaner, both of whom do not understand what I say in English (or Urdu) so ‘commanding’ becomes rather difficult. There are certainly no LV bags (although knock offs aren’t hard to find but did you know these seemingly innocuous fakes can also be used to transport drugs and/or weapons, according to NatGeo at least). However there are (substitute) begums, yes my fellow country women. But (and there is always a but) I don’t seem to fit in with them!

Ah yes there are quite a few of my fellow country women here; completely shattered my hopes of being (possibly) the only Pakistani female expat in Phnom Penh; sigh I was not to have that singular honor. A couple of them live very nearby, with their respective spouses, and they are young, at least five years younger than me- one of them even gasped when she heard I was 29; surprised I’m not called aunty! (or maybe she gasped because I wasn’t wearing shalwar-kameez, jab we met). The first time I met Ms. Gasp she asked me whether food goes bad if you freeze and then defrost it and whether you need to wash meat before cooking it. Now for those who have seen me lately, do I look like a bawarchi? The second time I met her she asked me whether I was getting star plus on our TV. Star plus, you know the (infamous) channel that runs Indian soaps (they are called soaps because back in the day soap manufacturers used to sponsor day-time serials broadcast on radio, specifically to target housewives, and I’m not making this up) which are insanely popular among women of the sub-continent, for some reason, so much so that some women even go into a trance and repeat the stunts at home (these ‘soaps’ should come with a warning!). Sorry, I’m digressing. I said I didn’t know since I don’t watch star plus…this was followed by a long silence. Oh and yes I was also asked at one point if I knew of a beauty salon where one could go without the fear of contracting AIDS…since slashing and piercing is part of any normal beauty treatment?! Or maybe it involves the other thing we are not allowed to talk about? What do you say to that, tell me?

I am told there are others (fellow country women i.e.) and that they and their spouses (fellow countrymen, of course) meet for dinners and teas every so often. They (the women only of course) apparently know about me, but I clearly don’t. I recently bumped into young girl her dupatta flying all over the place. I said hello, out of familiarity with the dress, and she said ‘oh you are the LADY from Lahore’. I said yes, I was indeed the lady from Lahore. Clearly I can be a topic of discussion for them when they meet for chai or rooh-afza or whatever beverages (non-alcoholic of course) they have, but I am not to be part of the ‘group’. Apparently they all (fellow country men and women) met at an eid gathering organized on a boat which my husband and I missed (fortunately or otherwise) owing to our absence from the city; hence we seem to have lost the opportunity to know our Pakistani behan bhai. Anyway that (love) boat brought them all together and now they are an exclusive club (the love-boat club, as I like to call it), joining which is next to impossible. I guess we’ll have to wait till the next (love) boat event, and hope to be invited, i.e. if we are considered worthy enough (what constitutes that, I am unable to fathom). Ooh, Eid ul Azha is around the corner, we should sharpen our knives (and this is only meant for the animals to be slaughtered) just in case. I wonder how qurbani will be done on the boat though…

Think that’s enough ranting for now.


[1] The word ‘begum’ is an amalgam obtained by combining two words of  the Urdu language; bay which means without and ghum which means worry, i.e. without a worry. So a bay-ghum (begum, as it has now come to be written/known) is someone who is carefree, someone without a worry. However the concept, like every other concept, has been adulterated and is now reserved as a title for a certain clique. You will understand more about this group as soon as you go back to the main text. [Don’t ever use this explanation because I just made it up but the bay-ghum part makes sense!]