Abu Ghraib and after
One thing that must be recognised and saluted before all else is that the Abu Ghraib torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners was exposed by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker and by an American network on the celebrated CBS news programme 60 Minutes II. It has been newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post which have given big billing to the story and which have thrown their letters columns open, the Times more than the others, for readers to express their outrage.
Had it been left to the Bush administration, the world may never have heard about Abu Ghraib. So this is what a free press is all about. This shattering episode took me back to the days of Gen Yahya Khan and the military crackdown against the people of East Pakistan in March 1971 that led to the birth of Bangladesh nine months later. I was, at the time, a reporter on The Pakistan Times in Lahore and though we all knew what was going on in East Pakistan, we were not allowed to write about it. The mood among the ‘zinda dillan-e-Lahore’ was not one of compassion or concern for their countrymen a thousand miles to the east, but one of regret that the Bengalis were not being punished hard enough for their ‘Hindu ways and customs’.
The late ZA Suleri, who prided himself on being a lieutenant of the Quaid and a keeper of Pakistan’s ‘ideology,’ was writing incendiary editorials denouncing the ‘separatists and enemies of Pakistan’. To his lasting honour, the only man who stood up for the East Pakistanis in Lahore was the great Abdulla Malik who told a meeting of students at the Engineering University, “Hum Bangladesh ke mazloom awam ke saath hain” (We are one with the people of Bangladesh who are being subjected to atrocities). For this ‘anti-state’ declaration, he was charged under martial law and sentenced.
The only Pakistani journalist who was able to write about the atrocities in East Pakistan was the late Tony Mescrehnas, but not for the Pakistani newspaper he worked for in Karachi but the Sunday Times in London. He was denounced as a traitor. He told me in London years later, “I was the only Pakistani patriot in 1971.” It is 33 years since that chapter of shame closed with the breakup of the country, but to this day, no Pakistani writer or journalist has had the decency to transcribe a full and honest account of the rape of Golden Bengal.
The apology that we owe to Abdulla Malik’s ‘mazloom awam’ has not been made. What Gen. Musharraf once said about letting bygones be bygones is not enough. While The Pakistan Times was controlled by the government-appointed National Press Trust, there was nothing to stop the non-Trust papers from bringing the truth about East Pakistan to their readers. Why did they fail to do so? I bring this up because before we begin to lecture the world on human rights, we should examine our own sorry record and apologise for it.
Governments are always slow to own up when bad things happen. The Bush administration had been aware of the Abu Ghraib incidents since at least February when the army completed its inquiry. Even Congress was not informed and it is up in arms because of that. However, had it not been for the American press, the story might not have seen the light of day. The outrage felt by many here I found best reflected in what Philip Kennicott of Washington Post wrote. He said among the ‘corrosive lies’ a nation at war tells itself is that the ‘glory’ belongs to the country but the failures are those of a few individuals. The administration, he pointed out, has called Abu Ghraib an aberration. But the regret in official Washington, he added, is not so much at what happened but that America’s image has been besmirched.
“The problem,” he wrote, “it seems, isn’t so much the abuse of the prisoners … the problem is our reputation. Our soldiers’ reputation. Our national self-image. These photos, we insist, are not us. But these photos are us. Yes, they are the acts of individuals, but armies are made up of individuals. Nations are made up of individuals … No matter how many people are held directly accountable for these crimes, we are, collectively, responsible for what these individuals have done … These photos show us what we may become as occupation continues, anger and resentment grows and costs spiral. These pictures are pictures of colonial behaviour, the demeaning of occupied people, the insult to local tradition, the humiliation of the vanquished.”
It is not too late for a Pakistani to write like this about what we did in East Pakistan in 1971.
Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent