Tuesday, April 10, 2007

In a Courageous Village, Ballots Bring Bullets

Farzana Bibi mourns the death of her 14-year-old son, Waheed Rahman,
who was murdered because people in her town voted the "wrong way" in local elections.
Published: April 10, 2007


President Bush has become a bosom buddy of President Pervez Musharraf and sealed that friendship with $10 billion in military aid, but any American official who praises Pakistan’s “democracy” might want to visit this bullet-scarred village in the Punjab.

Dummerwala held free local elections here last year. But many people voted the “wrong” way, causing the candidate of the local feudal lord to lose. So a day after the election, a small army of gunmen arrived and began rampaging through the houses of the clan members who opposed the lord’s choice.

Waheed Rahman, a top student, 14 years old, who dreamed of becoming an engineer, was wounded in the opening minutes of the attack.

“When he was shot, Waheed fell down and begged for water,” said his father, Matiullah. “They were surrounding him. But they just laughed and shot at the water tank and destroyed it. Then they ripped the clothes off the women and dragged them around half-naked.”

For the next two hours, the attackers beat the men and abused the women, destroyed homes, and told their victims that the feudal lord had arranged for the police to stay away so he could teach them a lesson.

Indeed, the police did stay away. Even when two of the villagers escaped and ran to the police station, begging the officers to stop the violence, the police delayed moving for three hours.

By the time it was over, a woman was dying, as was Waheed, and many others were wounded.

The attack here in Dummerwala is a reminder that democracy is about far more than free elections. In Pakistan, many rural areas remain under the thumb of feudal lords who use the government to keep themselves rich and everyone else impoverished.

For real democracy to come to Pakistan, we’ll need to see not only free elections and the retirement of President Musharraf, but also a broad effort to uproot the feudal rulers in areas like this, 300 miles south of Islamabad. That’s not easy to do, but promoting education is the best way to combat both feudalism and fundamentalism.

Instead, we’ve been focusing on selling arms and excusing General Musharraf’s one-man rule.

Husain Haqqani of Boston University calculates that the overt and trackable U.S. aid to General Musharraf’s Pakistan amounted to $9.8 billion — of which 1 percent went for children’s survival and health, and just one-half of 1 percent for democracy promotion (and even that went partly to a commission controlled by General Musharraf).

The big beneficiary of U.S. largesse hasn’t been the Pakistani people, but the Pakistani Army.

General Musharraf has done an excellent job of nurturing Pakistan’s economy, but he is an autocrat. As Asma Jahangir, a prominent lawyer in Lahore, told me: “Until now, Pakistanis have hated the American government but not the American people. But I’m afraid that may change. Unless the U.S. distances itself from Musharraf, the way things are going Pakistanis will come to hate the American people as well.”

Just last week, General Musharraf’s secret police goons roughed up and sexually molested Dr. Amna Buttar, an American doctor of Pakistani origin who heads a human rights organization. Dr. Buttar says that she had been warned by a senior intelligence official not to protest against the government and that she was specifically targeted when she protested anyway.

When our “antiterrorism” funds support General Musharraf’s thugs as they terrorize American citizens, it’s time to rethink our approach. Imagine if we had spent $10 billion not building up General Musharraf, but supporting Pakistani schools.

One place we could support a school is here in Dummerwala. After the attack, the victims in the village were so panicky that they pulled all their children out of school.

“They say, ‘If you don’t cooperate with us, we will kill your sons,’ ” said Tazeel Rahman, one of the victims. “This is not democracy. This is a dictatorship. This is terrorism.”

(When I interviewed the attackers, they insisted that the victims had simply killed themselves. They compensated for this wildly implausible version of events by sending an armed mob to persuade me of its merits.)

We Americans could learn something about democracy from the brave people here. The villagers insist that if they are still alive and allowed to vote, they will again defy their feudal lord in the next election.

We in the West sometimes say that poor countries like Pakistan aren’t ready for democracy. But who takes democracy more seriously: Americans who routinely don’t bother to vote, or peasants in Dummerwala who risk their lives to vote?

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground.