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Saturday, March 27, 2010

At the Presidency: Tearful on Pakistan Day – by Adil Najam

March 26th, 2010 Sarah Khan , Cross-posted from All Things Pakistan

On March 23 I was at the Presidency in Islamabad for the Pakistan Day Awards Ceremony.

This is usually a festive occasion full of pomp and ceremony and amongst the most elaborate state occasions of the year. The grandest room at the Presidency is all spruced up. There are starched military uniforms bedecked with chests full of shining medals (most of the awards handed out are always military awards). The President as well as the Prime Minister of the Republic preside over the proceedings. National power-brokers – political as well as bureaucratic – are all assembled. Everything is choreographed to convey a sense of pride.

This is how it should be. After all, it is the nation and the state honoring those who they choose to honor. In normal times this should be a day of pride and joy.

But these are not normal times. These tend to be tearful times. And so, too, was the ceremony this year. It was not meant to be that way, but that is what it became. It still conveyed a sense of pride, but it was pride drenched in too many tears.

The event started on a high note with the swearing in of the new Governor of Gilgit-Baltistan, Dr. Shama Khalid and later the merit awards for the military's top-most brass. But then came the gallantry award, the Sitara-i-Bisalat, and it was as if the room changed in front of us. It was a parade of wives receiving awards for dead husbands, mothers and father for dead sons, sons and daughters for lost fathers.

Each a poignant reminder of the times we live in. None more poignant than when the young son of Maj. Mohammad Akbar Shaheed – barely 6 or 7 years old – came up to receive his father's award. Dressed in a child's mock military uniform he walked up to the President to give a brisk salute. What might otherwise have been cute, was outright heart-breaking. When the President picked up the child to give him a hug he too was fighting back tears. I do not think there was a single person in that huge hall whose eyes had not filled up. Some, like myself and at least a couple of the generals sitting next to me were no longer even trying to hold them back.

Later, it was the wife of a Army Captain, herself in the Army (Medical Corps), whose uniformed presence reminded everyone just what price we are asking our young men and women to pay for our safety from extremists. When the aging mother of another young shaheed began walking slowly to the dais and the President walked down to meet and console her, I wanted to be able to do the same. Amongst the very few people who was given a Sitara-i-Basalat yesterday and was not aShaheed turned out to be someone who had actually been a class-fellow of mine in school – Muhammad Nouman Saeed, now a Colonel in the Frontier Corps and a commander in the Bajaur operation. I shook his hands to thank him. I wish I could thank them all: The wives of the guards who died battling the terrorists who attacked Islamabad Marriott, the brothers and sons of tribals who were parts of lashkarsthat battled extremists, the mothers and fathers of policemen – too many – who died in trying to hold back suicide bombers. And so many more.

Somewhere during the ceremony, I too got a medal around my neck. But by then that mattered little.

I hope everyone else in the room – President, Prime Minister, Generals, Admirals, Air Marshals, Ambassadors from across the globe, Ministers and politicians, bureaucrats, and all the rest – I hope all of them had the same feeling of gratitude that I had for those who are doing the dying for all the rest of us.

In a sad and sombre way, this was not an easy ceremony to sit through. But I am glad that those who were there, were there. We all need to sit through this. And to think deep and hard about just what we are living through, even as others are not able to 'live' through it.

Indeed, all of them made us proud. But the pride was drenched in too many tears. I wish and I pray that when the ceremony is held again next year, there are fewer tears to shed.

But let me end on a note of pride without tears.

One of the last people to receive an award yesterday was young Ibrar Ahmad Ghazi from Konodass, Gilgit. The young man, who must be in his teens or barely out of them, stood there in an orange T-shirt and black pants with white words and motifs printed on it, sheepishly twitching as his citation was read. I hope he realized just how proud he made everyone in that room – certainly he made me proud. His story is one of humanity and duty to humanity. He found himself walking over Konodass suspension bridge over River Gilgit just as two young (nursery school) girls fell 160 feet into the river. As others looked on in horror, young Ibrar immediately jumped into the fast flowing river and saved the two young girls.

This, too, was a story of courage that made one proud. May all our stories of courage have happy endings with joyful pride.

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