THE BLOG

The Choice to Move: Slum Demolition in Islamabad

The year I learned the most in life was spent as a professional gypsy, drifting between eight non-formal schools set in the urban slums of Islamabad, Pakistan. My nomadic existence as a Coordinator for the Pehli Kiran Schools was a luxury. I took that time to earn a little less than an international development job could offer -- and see a little more of the world.

Mobility, however, is not always a luxury. The children who attended the open-air schools knew this too well. At any point, they could be made to move by the municipal authorities. Generally, this would only happen if a new construction project came up -- for instance, one of the communities had to move so that they wouldn't spoil the festive look of an upcoming wedding hall. The process was quiet, and they simply moved to a different "temporary" settlement.

Now, things have changed. Given the rise of terrorist activities on the national and international level, there are new suspicions surrounding the urban poor. The municipal authorities have an agenda, drafted in fear -- and made public and loud. Like many other securitized agendas, it is woefully short-sighted. Following an attack on the district courts of Islamabad, there has been a move to demolish the "katchi abadis" -- the informal settlements whose local name illustrates their "unbaked," makeshift look.

In spite of large scale protests by the inhabitants of the "abadis" and civil society actors, the process of demolition has begun. One of the first settlements to be razed was the one that housed "Pehli Kiran School No. 6."

I always had a soft spot for PK-6. But it was hard to reach, so when there were volunteer activities I chose it as my personal base. It was populated mostly by Afghan refugees, many of whom had been in the country for about three decades -- since the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s. They had lived an almost invisible existence on the very periphery of society, earning the bare minimum in terms of daily labour wages. Lacking legitimacy, there were few services they felt they could demand from the state.

That was why they valued the school. When a local cleric threatened to expand his mosque into the school space, the community banded together in defense. I was only one representative of a Trust, but I'm never going to forget the overwhelming feeling of being told, in broken Urdu: "Don't go. If you go, our children...?"

It was important, the question about the children. It is a lead-in to several other questions that can be asked of the authorities now, in Pakistan as well as any other country where displaced populations are pushed to the margins of urban life. After decades of neglect, the cities seem to be awakened only by fear -- in other places, in urban crime, and in nesting terrorism.

If they must be "cleaned up," then there must also be a clean set of options for people who have known no other life and have nowhere else to go. For the Afghan refugees, a process of repatriation is in process -- but the requirements for repatriation are that it must be "safe, voluntary and dignified." This is undermined by the brutality of the demolition, with no guidance or provision of alternatives.

For those upon whom mobility is forced, the alternatives are terrifying. A few days ago, an old friend sent me photographs of PK-6. All I could see was a pile of rubble and a mess of corrugated aluminum, and a little boy standing erect with his hands on his hips. I wonder what he was thinking. All that can be hoped is that wherever he is, he is safe -- and can some day find the tools to live a dignified life. Where that little boy will go is important for Pakistan -- and indeed, the world today.