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I stopped the car by the side of the road.  There was no fruit at the bazaar; the festival of Eid means that everything shuts down and there are as few supplies in the shops as there would be on Christmas Day in England.  The fruit-seller at the end of our street somehow had his cart piled with apples, peaches, bananas, and the last of the summer mangoes.

He greeted me warmly.  We chatted about prices for a while and then he started to put fruit into the set of scales on one end of his cart: first crisp red apples, then peaches, then mangoes which he said would be the last this year; they seem to disappear with the summer heat.  A kilo of each, plus a dozen bananas, came to about £4.

My daughter, five years old, climbed out of the car and came to stand by my side.  She watched the fruit-seller closely, then whispered in my ear:

“Why is his arm broken?”.

I hadn’t noticed, but his left arm ended below the elbow.  I asked him what had happened.  He told me how he was born in Kashmir near the Line of Control.  One day, as a child, he found a round, metallic object in a field near his house.  He picked it up, and it – a landmine, perhaps, or a bomb dropped from the air – exploded, taking off his left hand.  He told all of these things in the painfully straightforward, unemotional manner in which Pakistanis seem to relate extraordinarily tragic and painful things.

I translated for my daughter and she looked at him, wide-eyed.  He smiled and tickled her on the cheek.

“Praise God, you have wonderful children” he said, smiling.

We drove home in silence.  We stopped outside our house and I turned off the engine.  My son’s voice broke the silence.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a war-stopper” he said.

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We were sitting outside the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore.  A light rain was falling.  We huddled underneath a large umbrella and sipped the cups of chai which we had ordered.  We needed the warmth from the tea as much as the caffeine, in much the same way that people in England drink tea to dispel the murky chill of February days more than for the actual taste.  My son looked around.

“I don’t think God can love people here” he said sadly.

I was surprised by this.  My wife and I have made a point of teaching our children that God loves all people equally.  This is a fundamental tenet of our Christian faith, and a great number of cruelties in the world can be directly attributed to the mistaken belief that some people are more loved by God than others.  I asked him what he meant.

“Look at all the garbage” he said mournfully.  “How can God love people when they don’t care for the world he created?”.

I looked around.  There was, indeed, a lot of rubbish.  Paper cups, empty crisp packets, cigarette packs, crushed juice boxes – the detritus of a thousand tourists was strewn all around the courtyard in front of the mosque.  During our train journey to Lahore we had looked out of the window to see immense piles of trash heaped up on the sides of the railway embankments, flung carelessly out of houses and left to fester.  It is a part of life in the developing world that we have not yet learned to deal with.

“Well”, I said, “do you remember how Mummy and I told you that we love you always, even when you’re naughty?”.

He nodded.

“We do that because God loves us even when we’re naughty” I continued.  “Even when we do bad things, God always loves us.  So we should always try to be better”.

He was silent for a while, looking around at the heaps of rubbish strewn around the courtyard of one of the most magnificent mosques in the world.  Then he said:

“That’s a lot of love”.

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Summer in Pakistan is hot.  Also, the Pope is a Catholic.

Pretty obvious, I know.  Yet the heat and the sheer fierceness of the sun when it beats down on Pakistan comes as a surprise to anyone who grew up in the UK.  Over there the sun manages, somehow, to seem rather weak and puny – in the words of Douglas Adams, “Several billion trillion tons of superhot exploding hydrogen nuclei rose slowly above the horizon and managed to look small, cold and slightly damp”.  In Pakistan, those same tons of superhot exploding hydrogen nuclei look like, well, like several billion trillion tons of superhot exploding hydrogen nuclei.  You walk out of your house in May and the sun hits you – physically assaults you – on the head like a mugger waiting outside your gate with a truncheon in his hand.

This has a number of unexpected effects.  I frequently leave my sunglasses on the dashboard when I park the car, only to burn myself, often quite seriously, on the bridge of the nose when I come to put them on again.  Seatbelts are so hot they burn my kids (so we sometimes do without them; everyone else does anyway).

And then there are swings.

We take our kids swimming pretty regularly during the summer months.  Last week one of them hopped out of the pool and ran over to the small playground nearby.  She jumped onto the swings with an expression of glee.  This expression rapidly changed into one of surprise, then one of anguish.  A sizzling sound, such as you get when you chuck a couple of sausages into a hot frying pan, arose.  With a yelp she leaped up again, sprinted back to the pool, and jumped in, whereupon clouds of steam arose from her scorched thighs.  I checked to see what had happened and realised that the seat of the swing – constructed, with a palpable lack of foresight, out of metal – was hot enough to fry an egg.  Same for the see-saw.  Anyone wanting to rustle up a quick breakfast could have saved the bother of purchasing a frying pan and simply cracked an egg on the top of the slide; by the time it reached the bottom it would have been nicely cooked.

Goodness knows how we’ll cope if we ever return to the UK.

We were visiting friends for “High Tea”.  They live in a house on the outskirts of Islamabad, which served to remind me that it’s possible to drive for ten minutes out of the city and be in the countryside, surrounded by fields and farms and birdsong.  There can’t be that many other capital cities in the world so closely embraced by nature.

“High Tea” sounded like a somewhat unappetising idea – in England it would probably consist of tea and sandwiches, not exactly the kind of thing you’d drive a long distance for, but Pakistani hospitality being what it is, we were served with kebabs, samosas, pakoras, salad, and a dish of haleem, a kind of stew of lentils, chicken, and roughly eighty-four spices.  Everything was delicious.

Our kids ran up to the roof to look at the view, back down again, up again, and then down once more.  Then they proceeded to eat every single crisp in the house, drink Coke, and ask for more.  Pakistanis can never refuse a child’s request, so more came, and were duly despatched.  I stepped in to sort out some of their more boisterous behaviour but our host stopped me.

“It’s ok” he said, smiling indulgently as one of my offspring crawled through a gap in their screen door, laughing uproariously.

“In Pakistan we say that when you meet a child, you are in the presence of God”.

Yesterday one hundred and thirty-two schoolchildren were murdered by terrorists at their school in Peshawar.  The funerals are already taking place, as is normal in Islamic countries.  One hundred and thirty-two coffins, heartbreakingly small; one hundred and thirty-two sets of grieving parents; one hundred and thirty-two families whose future has been snatched away in a heartbeat.  It is too much to bear.

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Jesus, whom Christians like me believe to be the son of God, had much to say about suffering.  On numerous occasions he predicted that suffering would come, that his followers would be handed over to the authorities, that they would be killed.  In the Gospel of Matthew he stated that he was sending his followers out “like sheep among wolves”.  Yet he also instructed us how to respond to suffering.  We should not retaliate, but instead should “turn the other cheek”, we should “bless those who persecute us”.  Paul, a leader of the early church, agreed: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse”.

I cannot do it.  When I see the pain carved into the faces of the people crowding around Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar, the inchoate grief of those uttering funeral prayers over coffins that are far too small, forgiveness is far from my mind.  The only thoughts in my mind are dark and murderous.  May the perpetrators of this deed know nothing but pain and anguish.  May their houses be destroyed, may their crops be ruined, may they weep and grieve and die far from their loved ones.  I want to offer them not forgiveness, but bombs, and bullets, and violence.  I – even I, a committed pacifist! – want them to look into the eyes of the weeping mothers, the anguished fathers, and know just a fraction of the unspeakable pain that is tearing their souls into pieces.  The impossibility of forgiving the kind of people who would shoot schoolchildren cowering under their desks – this impossibility stares me in the face and mocks my futile rage.  I am failing as a follower of Jesus

But this rage will not help.  Fighting violence with more violence will only beget yet further violence.  This attack was carried out in response to the army offensive against terrorists in Waziristan, an offensive that was launched in response to terrorist attacks in Pakistan, which were carried out in response to a previous offensive against terrorists in the Swat Valley….and so the cycle goes, an eye for an eye, a bomb for a bomb, a massacre in return for a massacre.  The same cycle spins in Israel and Palestine, and it spins in Syria and Iraq, and it spins wearily on its bloodslicked axis wherever men with cruel faces lift rifles to their shoulders or pull pins from grenades.  Nothing will change, if we carry on like this.

This is why Jesus said what he did.  Because he knew that the only way out of this deepening torrent of murder and darkness was to choose a different course of action, a decision so illogical, so difficult, that it makes us want to laugh.  To forgive.  To refuse to bear a grudge.  To offer love in the place of anger.  This is why he chose to give his life in our place, uttering the words “Father, forgive them” even as men committed barbarities against him.  Because this offers us a way out.

I can’t do it.  But I know that I have to do it.  The words of forgiveness stick in my throat, as if even my larynx cannot bring itself to utter something so contrary to human nature.  It is a choice between darkness and light, and yet darkness is so much easier.

It is still too raw.

We were driving to school.  The Monday morning rush hour is, for reasons unknown, an absolute bunfight, quite the worst day of the week to be on the roads.  It continues to mystify me that Pakistani people, normally so charming, turn into such monsters when behind the wheel of a car.  Somehow the action of sitting behind a steering wheel turns gentle people into fearsome road warriors, beeping and swerving and gesticulating like maniacs.  Suddenly my son piped up.

“Why is there smoke coming out of that bus?”.

I explained the basics of the internal combustion engine but he wasn’t listening.  Instead his mind veered off on a wild mental tangent, a train of thought just as erratic as the driving of the cars around us.

“If you get hit by a car your body will be broken and you will be died”.

“Er, yes”.

“If you become died then you will not breathe any more”.

“Er, no”.

“Or you might have a broken arm or leg like the people asking for money at traffic lights”.

There followed a pause as he and his sister digested these thoughts.  Then:

“Daddy, turn the AC up”.

“Well, we don’t want to get too cold.  It’s cool enough as it is”.

“Can you die from being too cold?”.

“Well, only if you fall asleep in the snow.  Then you might die”.

A shocked silence, presumably as visions of ice-encased corpses drifted before the fevered imaginations of my tiny children.  Then:

“TURN THE AC OFF!  TURN THE AC OFF!  WE’RE GOING TO DIE!  WE’RE GOING TO DIE!”.

Our third child, and second daughter, was born recently.  This leads me to make two observations: firstly, that three children are a LOT more work than two, and secondly, that life is unfair.

 I’ll explain.  A Pakistani friend of ours also had his third child recently.  Like us he had a boy, then a girl, and now another girl.  Like us he loves his children very much.  Like us he and his wife are devoted parents.  Like us they are delighted to have three healthy children.  But there the similarities end and the differences begin.

 Our kids have Western passports – two each, actually, since they have dual nationality.  For both of those countries the life expectancy is over 80 years.  The literacy rate is effectively 100%.  If we had to return to either of our home countries our kids would benefit from high-quality healthcare at a low cost.  Both of our home governments score highly on transparency ratings, since Western countries have largely eliminated corruption.  If we got into trouble our foreign offices would, in all probability, get us out of it.  While it’s impossible to say that our children will have trouble-free lives, their passports give them a ticket to a life of significant privilege.  They are probably among the most privileged children in the world.

 And our friends’ kids?  Pakistani life expectancy is 65 years, its literacy rate 57%.  Quality healthcare is available here, at a cost.  If you can’t pay for it, you can’t have it.  The average salary is around $3,000 a year, less than a tenth of that in the Western countries whose passports my children possess.  We went to visit our friend recently.  His new daughter, a month older than ours, weighs less now than our daughter did at birth, and she’s growing a lot more slowly.  This is partly due to the fact that she is being fed cow’s milk, since that is what the doctor recommended.  A better doctor would not recommend cow’s milk, but they can’t afford a better doctor, so their daughter’s development is suffering.

 So, to summarise, our daughters were born within a month of each other.  One is statistically likely to live 20% longer, be healthier, earn ten times more money, and is twice as likely to receive an education.

 May God have mercy on a world in which, even at birth, the paths of childrens’ lives are so unjustly laid out.