In Harsh Times, Pakistanis Seek Comfort On Facebook

04/20/2010 08:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Arshad Kaleem left Baton Rouge for Pakistan two weeks ago to attend ceremonies following his mother's funeral, his wife Saima posted her fears online by updating her Facebook status. Bombings erupted in Lahore just hours after Kaleem boarded his flight.

Saima Zaman-Kaleem is glad Arshad is almost in Islamabad and very worried about things in Pakistan

she wrote in the status line of her profile on the widely popular social networking website.

Nearly instantaneously, her update elicited support and sympathy from friends and family members. "InshaAllah he goes safely and comes back safely," wrote one poster. "Yeah, it's crazy there," her brother replied. "I told mom to be careful too!" Another friend tried to console her. "Oh boy," she wrote, following the phrase with a string of prayers and good wishes in Urdu.

While the nation's news media has been prohibited from reporting extensively on military exercises, on Facebook and over instant text and e-mail messaging, concerns crop up swiftly among Pakistani users when attacks ensue. Lately, among those Pakistanis who live either at home or abroad, discussions on whether the government's offensive to root out Taliban militants might have been implemented any sooner are becoming commonplace.

Estimates reflect three million people have now been displaced from Buner and Swat districts - a figure akin to the late nineteen-forties when the region saw tremendous upheaval during Partition, that moment in which modern India and Pakistan were first formed. The vast migration of people to the two, newly-cast, separate territories forced millions from their lands and ancestral homes at the time, leaving families vulnerable to mob attacks, rioting and civil unrest.

The day Kaleem's plane landed in Islamabad he had planned to attend ceremonies in his mother's hometown of Malakand, a village near Swat, several miles north.

But once he arrived, explosions seventy-five miles south in the eastern city of Lahore prompted him to change course. Minutes from the blasts, Shahana Munawar, a mother of two, began alerting friends and family as she watched the news. She uploaded television footage of the incidents to her Facebook profile. Munawar had been called to pick her children up from school and, at the time the incidents occurred, felt her doors and windows vibrate.

It was alarming. [I] didn't know what it was till messages poured in. Got a call from my 6-year old's school to collect him in the middle of final exams. The school decided summer vacation was in immediate effect.


In response to the news footage Munawar posted, one friend considered other harrowing moments in the country's previously unstable past.

This reminds me of all the madness that happened in Karachi and in the southern part of the country in the 80s

he commented under her video.

I remember some place called Bhori Bazaar and seeing pictures in Time magazine.

Pakistanis have experienced significant violence in recent weeks, but similar incidents in the late seventies plagued the country, after the proxy war the US launched in Afghanistan to thwart Soviet interests, made life perilous for locals. Weapons that flooded the country's frontier provinces brought mayhem to city residents. Similar explosions were planned in prominent and heavily-trafficked civilian areas. Karachi, otherwise isolated by its geography in the south, turned out being most vulnerable to resulting sectarian clashes.

Mehreen Jabbar, a Pakistani filmmaker, based in the city was emotional the day of the Lahore bombings.

My bleeding, beloved country

she wrote in an update. The response to her post was brisk and spirited. "It hurts," wrote one Facebook friend. Another suggested people donate to help those displaced from Swat Valley. Others urged for a local theatre production promoting patriotism and free expression.

In an interview, Saima Zaman-Kaleem was rueful. "This operation is something that should have happened years ago. Why would they take this long to do it? Why broker a compromise in Swat at all?" Zaman-Kaleem's family members, in the meanwhile, canceled plans to have the funeral in Malakand after curfews were instituted, and relatives instead opted to stay in Peshawar where much of the family is based. However, Zaman-Kaleem says they are now considering a move to areas away from the outskirts where much of the family lives and where military operations are underway. Instead, they're searching for a place closer to the city center.

Munawar stressed that her friends on Facebook are concerned about safety but haven't yet opted to move. According to her, they support the military's offensive.

Most people I know have one stance and that is, "Long live the troops, drop dead Taleban." They are not taking any measures to leave or migrate. If they travel, it's only for summer break.

She added the city is back to normal and that people who choose not to leave home daily do so not because they fear attacks, but because of citywide power cuts and the unforgiving summer heat.