It has been nearly 15 years since I returned from India as part of a Rotary International Exchange Program, during which I lost 13 pounds in 26 days from food poisoning and spent 3 days in a hospital. That episode triggered a form of arthritis in my body that requires me to take a weekly injection to this day. So when I was offered the chance to visit that part of the world again, this time on a 10-day public administration exchange program to Pakistan, I chuckled aloud. Then I asked for 24 hours, explaining that I needed to ask my boss (who was encouraging), my doctor (who cautioned me), and my wife, (who was surprisingly supportive). A colleague playfully suggested my bride thought I said it was one-way.
As our 10-member delegation of Massachusetts local officials landed in Islamabad, Pakistan, I was struck by its contrast to my prior trip to the region. Yes, there was poverty, but it was not as crowded and there was no visible air pollution. There was a modern roadway system (at least in its capital city), and the preponderance of smart phones and technology that let me text, email, and share face time with my family and friends instantaneously. We stayed in five star hotels in Islamabad and Lahore – each with multiple checkpoints secured by guards with rifles or automatic weapons.
Pakistan has only been a country since 1947. In the last decade, its mountainous tribal region was a haven for Osama bin Laden, and various terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, and U.S. drone strikes didn’t do much to endear Americans to the Pakistani people. Pakistan’s first democratically elected prime minister was freshly minted in the last few years and its fledgling government was negotiating tenuous peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban as we arrived. Ours was the only U.S. delegation to get the green light to travel there.
Top photo: Touring Islamabad included a visit to the Pakistan Supreme Court and other governmental buildings
Bottom left photo: Posing with a school administrator from Western Pakistan
Bottom right photo: Receiving a gift from our hosts in the Planning Department in Lahore, Pakistan
As we gathered at the hotel for a two-day conference with 40 Pakistani public administrators to exchange approaches to ethics, transparency, service delivery, and government decision making, the Pakistani Taliban engaged in a bold attack on the Karachi Airport. There were 35 fatalities. The next day, a second attack on the same airport was rebuffed. The attacks were lead stories on every major news outlet around the globe. Our small delegation from the U.S. was besieged by calls and texts from family and friends checking on our safety. Astonishingly, our Pakistani counterparts were seemingly unaffected. They were undistracted and undeterred from participating in this program – some even came through the very city that was under siege. Their resilience in the face of domestic terrorism was strangely comforting as we bonded in the secure confines of our hotel. The news of U.S. drone strikes the following two days provided little comfort for Americans in Pakistan. Despite these events, our hosts were gracious and enthusiastically guided us on tours of government offices, cultural and historic sites, and the Pakistani Supreme Court.
Throughout our visit, our hosts showed no fear or concern and we echoed their behavior. We were emboldened to venture out, even among reports of earthquakes in Pakistan’s Quetta region. A sandstorm cancelled our flight to Lahore, so we rented vans for a surreal 180-mile, eight-hour trip that forced a 3 a.m. arrival in this city of five million not far from India’s border.
Lahore families taking an interest in our U.S. Delegation bus after a visit to a local museum
We toured, talked, visited with countless officials over the last few days in the 117-degree heat – ourselves now almost oblivious to the eyes of the world watching this fragile nation. As we ventured out on the last evening to shop, our shortcut crossed a military installation, and we were unaware that just hours earlier, the Pakistani government issued declaration of war against the Pakistani Taliban. After a few tense moments, we managed to extract ourselves and leave the way we came.s our flight took off, I recalled a conversation with a Pakistan public affairs officer who bluntly told us, “Thirteen years ago, America endured 9/11. Pakistan has endured hundreds of 9/11’s since then.” Boom! Our paradigm shifted. He went on to say American’s view all Pakistanis through a single lens: as head scarf-wearing soldiers with long beards, carrying automatic weapons. And he implored us to tell the real story when we returned home which is what I have attempted to do ever since.