- I saw the unfolding of the dark side of media and regular people in a crazy mix of grief, shock, sensationalism, and tactlessness.
- That happens when you are in a hurry to tweet, giving no attention to fact checking
How to make sense of pain that redefines the very idea of existence?
Is that how those who lose their loved ones in a very random, very horrific way feel?
In a world smug in its futuristic inventions, its billionaires on their way to become trillionaires, its humanity encapsulated in its uniformity of sameness of human suffering, is there a scientific barometer of how much pain is too much pain?
You say see-you-soon to your loved one waiting in another city.
You watch your loved ones get in the car to drive to the airport.
You travel to the airport with your loved ones, absentmindedly, indulgently listening how much fun they are going to have once back home.
You say prayers, inaudibly, for your ailing parent in another city as you check your phone and glasses before repeating last minute instructions to your spouse to eat at time and not sleep at 4am every night you are away.
You finish your last conference call of the day before heading off to the airport to catch a flight for an overnight visit to attend a 9am meeting the next day.
You throw one more dress in your overstuffed suitcase, listing in your head the dinners you would be attending after your four-day hectic work.
You fold your once-worn uniform in neat layers, imagining in your tidy room the look your parents would have on their face when they see you home.
You wonder what it would be like to work, covered in PPE, inside a plane.
You look forward to flying your plane after more than two months of staying homebound in the time of coronavirus.
Were they? Thinking, and laughing, and talking, and joking, as they travelled to Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport on May 22, 2020?
It was the 27th of Ramzan.
Life had a different itinerary.
Life turned its face away.
An Airbus A320, flight PK8303, of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), took off from Lahore for Karachi at 13:00. Covering the distance of 1,031 kilometres, the flight’s ETA was 14:45. At about 14:30, a few hundred metres away from the runway at Jinnah International Airport, Karachi, the plane with its 99 passengers and members of crew crashed in the Model Colony neighbourhood in Korangi. In a matter of seconds, the Airbus 320 would have made it to the runway. Fate and failed engines, reportedly, had other plans. The plane crashed into a street, bursting into flames on impact.
A few hours later, all of them except two were pronounced dead. The two were the miracles of PK8303. The Airbus A320 turned into a molten mass of aluminium, titanium, steel, fibre metal laminate, seats upholstered in faded, worn cloth, luggage, food covered in cling film, and human beings made up of many, many things. The plane broke into countless pieces, charring everything, making human beings made up of many, many things indistinguishable from the inanimate pieces of the plane. 97 human beings lost their lives. Entire families died. Hundreds of families lost their loved ones.
Pakistan on hearing the harrowing news went into shocked pain. Trying to readjust to the tentative freedom of a lifted lockdown in the time of coronavirus, quarantine-weary, financially in trouble, the mostly fasting and praying Pakistanis were soberly excited about Eid that was expected to be on Sunday, May 24. The crash of PK8303 became Pakistan’s collective woe. Pakistan has a decades-old tradition of uniting in pain. Natural disasters, man-made terrorism, earthly hells created by failed engines of trains, automobiles, planes. There has been too much of that. Pain.
Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted: “Shocked & saddened by the PIA crash. Am in touch with PIA CEO Arshad Malik, who has left for Karachi & with the rescue & relief teams on ground as this is the priority right now. Immediate inquiry will be instituted. Prayers & condolences go to families of the deceased.”
Leaders of many countries, including Canada, China, India, Russia, Afghanistan, Australia, tweeted condolatory messages. International celebrities posted moving tweets. The world unites in pain.
My response to the indescribable tragedy of PK8308 was identical to that of millions of Pakistanis. But then responses to tragedy, despite their apparent similarity, are as unique as the person feeling them. How we respond to a public tragedy in our very personal space, within our homes, and outside among people, on real settings and virtual platforms is, sometimes, an encapsulation of our very fundamental humanity.
Time and personal pain, sharing the pain of my loved ones and friends, and profound observation of agony of my compatriots, people from other countries, and strangers I would never meet in person, in scenarios that are unfamiliar to my reality and sensibilities, have made me acutely aware of my biggest vulnerability: pain of people makes a hole in my mind, piercing through various barriers and armours I have tightly wound around me.
What happened on May 22 devastated me. What also happened on May 22 was the Twitter-isation of a soul-numbing tragedy. I knew I had to write.
As you wait for your loved ones, your friends, to exit the luggage collection area, suddenly there is an explosion that is not a good sign in a city that has seen too much terror, too much targeted violence. You phone starts to go crazy. People around you look confused, afraid. In a few minutes, all of you know. The plane carrying the people you came to pick up from the airport has crashed. Your heart sinks into the ground beneath your feet. Crashed planes only mean one thing: certain death. Except when there is a miracle, and two people survive.
After a few tweets, I hid in the solitude of my room, starting at my phone screen as if a monster would jump out, taking me by my throat. I saw the unravelling on Twitter.
As Sindh civil administration, Army Quick Reaction Force, Rangers Sindh personnel, Edhi Foundation, and other social work organisations conducted the hours-long process of rescuing humans from the charred remains of the plane, the absence of a civil rescue-crisis-disaster organisation in Sindh became starkly visible. Karachi is almost 20 million people. Karachi’s first responders are undertrained and under-resourced. The ruling elite is interchangeable, clearly alienated from the fundamental needs of a city that has the population larger than that of many countries.
I saw the unfolding of the dark side of media and regular people in a crazy mix of grief, shock, sensationalism, and tactlessness. That happens when you are in a hurry to tweet, giving no attention to fact checking. Twitter became the arena for breaking news, who would the first one to post the latest development. Twitter became the notice board for little truth, much fiction, unverified information, sensationalised facts. Electronic media presented the news of the crash. Uncorroborated WhatsApp forwards and frenzied phone calls added to that. Twitter transcribed it all.
TV anchors were the new aviation experts. Politicians became attention seekers. Not all, but many. Habitual haters found refuge in snarky attacks on PIA. Anti-establishment forces took the crash as a tool for regurgitation of their barely concealed hatred for all who had nothing to do with the present tragedy.
Failure of plane’s two engines was the new headline without waiting for any official verification.
Lack of sensitivity
The pilot’s last message to the control tower found its way to TV channels, becoming the only sound across the country, which, stunned, grieved, heard the pilot’s last words, on high volume, in their homes.
Did the pilot’s family hear his last message on television, too? Did anyone care?
Unverified news of survivors who did not exist was one of the main topics on Twitter, courtesy TV channels and other sources. Residents of the area who were rescued from the crash site, assumed to be survivors of PK8303, became the false hope for dozens of families. First, they heard the news of the crash. Then they heard the news of many survivors. There were only two. But many people prayed, and prayed in vain, for their loved ones to be in the list of those who made it to hospitals, lightly wounded or without a scratch. Twitter did not let up.
The whole day deaths of people were announced. Every few minutes, a repudiation of the same appeared. It kept happening, giving families a hope only to shatter it.
I kept reading tweets. Shaken, silent, in horror. It kept getting worse.
Names of passengers whose bodies were identified were announced on television. The information that should have been kept strictly confidential between the medical staff, PIA, government of Sindh, and heads of recuse organisations to be first given to the family of the identified passenger became a baton in a TRP race. Imagine, your beloved family member is no more. The news is not given to you with empathy and grace by a representative of the airline in the privacy of your immediate family. You find out through blazing headlines from dozens of TV channels simultaneously. The most painful moment of your life becomes a TV headline.
Family members of the passengers of PK8303 were asked insensitive questions, with close-ups of their grief-stricken faces. It is media’s responsibility to report and inform in the time of a huge tragedy. Using someone’s pain to fill your screen is not journalism. It is just vulgar, and very, very cruel.
There was much more that should not have been said, broadcasted, tweeted, implied, alleged, written in caps, shouted in microphones, taped on camera. What do I write, what do I highlight, what do I edit…
I keep thinking of all those who died in PK8303. All 97 of them. There were children on PIA flight PK8303. All of them died.
Twitter also became the voice of those who were grieving. For those who had lost their loved ones. Those loved ones whose bodies became charred remains, distinguishable only with DNA testing. That is the heart-breaking reality of most plane crashes. Bodies become unrecognisable. The loved ones become unrecognisable. The last memory is that of a face that is no more, a hand that can’t be held, a body that is not to be touched.
For those who mourned…
“My aunt and uncle… a lovely and happy couple”
“One of my friends… he has kids...”
“My friend Osama's brother 2LT Hamza Yousuf (141LC). He was coming back home after 6 months”
“My ex colleague and friend lost his sister and 3 nieces in today’s #planecrash. His sister was coming to see the mother who is suffering from cancer and in very critical condition”
“Our grand-nephew Arib’s wife and three children—victims of PIA crash.”
“My heart bled when I discovered that school mate died with her husband and three boys. She was such a star, had so much to do”
“My cousin’s friend was in the crash; this was his last snapchat”
“Following army officers were also on PK 8303: 2/Lt Hamza Yousaf; Maj Shehryar with family; Lt Shaheer; Lt Balach; Capt Ahmed Mujataba Khan”
“An old uncle and his daughter arrived there panicking. He said his wife and other daughter was on the plane”
“My grandfather was aboard that plane”
“Model Zara Abid was also on board in a PIA flight that crashed in Karachi. Her last Instagram post was ‘FLY HIGH, IT’S GOOD’”
“Ansar Naqvi’s daughter is our colleague at Geo. She was at work when the news of plane crash came. Her immediate response was ‘Papa was on that plane.’ Whole world came shattering down”
“Among the victims of PIA crash is Ansar Naqvi—a dear friend and colleague, an outstanding journalist and press freedom defender, and a thorough gentleman”
“Punjab lost one of its finest officers in the Karachi crash. Khalid Sherdil was a precious part of our team, a bureaucrat par excellence, a dedicated and thorough professional who wouldn't shy away from the toughest assignments”
“My uncle wanted to surprise his father, so he didn’t tell him that he’s coming over for Eid. The surprise took a toll. Husband, wife, 11yrs old daughter and 8yrs old son died”
“I lost my brother like friend Zain Polani who was on this unlucky flight with wife and 3 kids. He went to Lahore to pick his family who came from London”
“Her [one of the flight attendants] name was Anam Maqsood Khan. She was my sister. She was the world to us. She was so kind and generous that Allah called her to Him.”
“The incredible bit about listening to the released audio of Captain Sajjad Gul, the pilot of ill-fated A320 plane with the Control Tower is how calm and composed he sounded just moments before the crash. Staring death in the face with amazing grace”
The passengers and members of the crew of PK8303…
May those you leave behind remember you with love.
May their last memory of all your beautiful departed souls be that of your smiling, happy faces.
On this Eid, I send the loved ones of the passengers and members of the crew of PK8303 my love and my pre-dawn dua. May Allah give you all strength to live with your forever loss.
To the 97 deceased of PK 8303
May you rest in light and love