It’s my first time in Pakistan, and like any other first time, there’s a knot in my stomach; a mixture of anxiety and excitement, of fear and joy, with a lot of preconceptions due essentially to my ignorance.
In fact, I know nothing about Pakistan. I’m just barely able to locate this country on a map. I know it borders Afghanistan; it is involved with India’s history and is often spoken about in the context of armed opposition groups. Like everyone, I vaguely followed the American raid on Bin Laden’s home but it’s impossible for me to recall the location’s name. I know the story of the murder attempt on the young schoolgirl, treated afterwards in London, but again, I’m unable to say where it happened. I know that Pakistan is a nuclear power, and it seems to me it likes cricket much more than football. That’s about it!
I have already met some people from Pakistan on past missions and during training sessions at the Bordeaux logistics centre. Each time, I was pleasantly surprised by their spirit and kindness. I had images in mind of a Pakistan deeply rooted in ancestral traditions, following a radical and extremist kind of Islam (totally distorted images formed by what I have read in the newspapers). But here I am, meeting kind and capable people, dressed like Europeans and speaking English perfectly (or at least far better than me). All expatriates coming back from Pakistan come back saying how nice it is to work with the people there. It’s possible the country has some secrets – secrets that don’t appear in the background briefing documents headquarters sent me and that I studied before committing to it..
Reading the first reports, security concerns dominated our medical activities: suicide bombers, murders, kidnapping, various threats. Then came documents about personal behaviour and the need to avoid “western” attitudes: men should wear the traditional outfit (shalwar kameez) and women should wear headscarves; men must not touch women and women must not smoke in front of others; tattoos should be hidden and alcohol should not be consumed in public;. I wondered if I might be a bit crazy to accept an assignment with such constraints.
I landed in Islamabad's Benazir Bhutto airport at 3am. Despite the time, it was crowded. The first thing that struck me was the discipline at the customs desk. Here there was no mob like in Juba, South Sudan, but rather five orderly lines waiting in front of the five open desks. a straight-forward baggage claim process facilitated by a functioning conveyor belt, a discreet police presence, and a speedy exit
An MSF car was waiting for me, a simple white sedan, without MSF identification, with an tidy interior and the engine purring softly. Far from our noisy four wheelers, far from the usual dusty bumpy roads, far from pseudo-soldiers with dangling Kalashnikovs and at times boozy gazes, I was discovering Pakistan with a sceptic’s eye. Was I really in Islamabad?
The car turned on to well-lit motorway, streetlights becoming fewer and farther between as the car drove away from the airport. It was dark but I still could distinguish the relatively well maintained shoulders on the roads. I was torn between the desire to observe the town or to close my eyes, letting myself be lulled by the imperceptible movements of the vehicle. I was exhausted by my journey and excited for this new adventure. I didn’t want to miss anything although I knew I would have many more opportunities to wander around.
My astonishment grew as we approached the house. There, on the other side of the road about 20 meters away, were three towers at least 60 meters high with hundreds of green, red and blue spotlights giving a certain magic to the whole scene.
Minute by minute, Islamabad was surprising me. In the days to come, Pakistan would delight me.
To be continued...