Not far from the house where I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, there was a children’s amusement park. It sat on top of a hill, its slides and swings beckoning children from the houses below. As summer vacations dragged on, my brother and I would hear the gleeful screams of other children, and we begged my mother to take us. It wasn’t an easy sell. “The swings are so rickety,” she would say one day. “Aren’t you afraid you will fall out of the spinning wheel?” she would say on another. We were a little afraid, but we ached to go. That park was the only one we knew, and if it was shabby, its toy horses and pretend cars worn and weary, it still held the promise of exhilaration.
Like children everywhere, we were drawn to being a little scared. That, after all, is the pull of the amusement park: small thrills ordered and anticipated, and then conquered, fear confronted and overcome. When we did get to go, our hearts pumped wildly at the crazy height of a swing, our breath raced as our bodies were flung about; all of it made us wild with joy. Like everywhere, there were small dangers: grim grown men who sat at the periphery, watching giggling children with beady eyes; boarded-up or broken rides, like ominous warnings of thrills gone wrong; beggars who beseeched us for the coins we clenched in our fists. But the heedlessness of childhood worked its wonders; the swings and the slides blurred them into the background.
The children who died in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore on Sunday would have been riding those familiar crests of feeling: the wild joy of being high up or spun around mixing suddenly, grotesquely with the grim finality of death. Twenty-nine of the at least 72 dead were children, all of them, presumably, engaging in the child’s pastime of facing fear and surviving it. In the footage of the aftermath, their bloodied clothes and toys are strewn about; a green plastic toy car sits untouched in the rubble.
Their deaths are a stern rebuke to the country that failed them and to the world that turns away from them. The lurking men of the playgrounds of my childhood are no longer predictable villains, the deviants and kidnappers who feature in the cautionary tales told to children around the world. They are assassins, their hearts harnessed with explosives, their bodies bundled with bombs. The mothers refusing their children a trip to the amusement park will now tell them not about a rickety swing but about a bombing. Even the resilience of the very young cannot dream that away; the shadow of terror encroaches on childhood.
For much of the world, the deaths of Pakistani children are forgettable. They are, after all, the progeny of poor distant others destined to perish in ever more alarming ways. It may not be said, but it is believed that they are complicit in their own deaths, guilty somehow — even at 2 or 4 or 6 years of age — of belonging to a nation that the world has appointed as its own boogeyman, a repository of all its vilest trepidations. In December 2014, Taliban militants gunned down more than 140 people at a school in Peshawar, a vast majority of them students. A former American ambassador, speaking of his government’s lack of desire to help the Pakistani government fight extremists, put it succinctly: “There is great Pakistan fatigue in Washington.”
In the media, too, it seems. Two days after Sunday’s attack, Lahore has disappeared from the top headlines. Pakistan’s pain has already been extinguished from the global news cycle, its catastrophe a news item and not — as in Paris or Brussels — a news event. The world has many demands on its meager stores of empathy. The children’s names, their pictures, the terrain of the park where they fell to bits will never be familiar to a mourning world. Efforts to make the dead children of Pakistan real and innocent, worthy of a tear and not just a tweet, start, sputter and fizzle.
The playgrounds of Pakistan have fallen silent for the moment as the country buries its dead children. As I think of them, my ears ring with the sounds carried down by the wind from the playground on the hill. We wished to go when we couldn’t, but even that longing for the playground has now been denied to Pakistani children. What children ache to do when they stand on top of a slide or swing high in the air is simply to face their fear and vanquish it. In this the dead children of Lahore are braver than their country, braver than the world, braver than all of us who are scared but cannot confront our fears.
Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.