Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has pledged to crack down on terrorism after the Easter Sunday attack that killed 72 people. But the tragedy has raised serious questions about the country's strategy and the political factors at play.
LAHORE — Seven-year-old Shina Ahmed lies in a bed at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center in Lahore. Her uncles had taken her to the park to play on Easter Sunday, when all of sudden there was a loud explosion. She doesn't remember much more after that.
The blast at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park killed 72 people, including Danish Masih's sister. "We were sitting at the canteen," he recalls. "I had just gone outside the park to find my other relatives, who were also coming to join us. There I heard a big bang. When I turned back, there was big spark of fire and many dead bodies on the ground."
Masih's family had come to the park after attending mass on Easter Sunday. His older sister died on the spot, while another sister is fighting for her life in intensive care.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack. The group recently pledged allegiance to ISIS, which is working to deepen its roots in South Asia. The militant group said it was targeting Christians, but most of the victims were Muslim, like Zulekha Yaqoob, a housewife.
"We didn't know that it was Easter," she says. "We were at the swings when the blast happened. My intestines came out of my stomach. I tied them myself with my veil as I took my young daughter to the hospital."
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took to the airwaves nationwide after the attack and vowed to continue an ongoing military offensive.
"The enemies of humanity have crossed geographical and ethical boundaries and limits," he said.
The army launched an offensive against Taliban militants in the mountainous region of North Waziristan, after they massacred 134 schoolchildren in Peshawar in December 2014. The government has also devised a 20-point National Action Plan, known as the NAP, to tackle terrorism and its financial backers, and to crack down on religious hate speech.
Too little, too late
But many say the plan is yet to be fully implemented. For Zehra Yousuf, chair of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, there are many aspects of the National Action Plan that haven't yet come into force.
"Particularly, the aspects that were the responsibility of the civilian government — we see that very little progress has been made," she says. "Whenever the organization of the madrasas Islamic seminaries protests, the government backs down. So we see a lack of political will there."
There are around 8,000 private madrasas, which are essentially Islamic boarding schools, in Pakistan, and most operate without any government monitoring. About half of them are found in the eastern province of Punjab, which is also the home state of the prime minister.
Sharif has been accused of inaction against hard-line teachings at religious schools, which critics say ensures his public support in the state.
Sharmila Farooqui, from the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, says her party has been demanding the action plan be implemented in Punjab for years.
"The government's spokesperson used to make fun of us, saying we were just trying to hide our own wrongdoings," she says. "But now, again, the same thing has happened: Children and women have been martyred."
Zehra Yousuf says there are also strong financial and personal links between extremists in Waziristan and Punjab. But that hasn't stopped some politicians, such as former Punjab Home Minister Rana Sanaullah, from courting extremists.
"There are certain instances — there was even footage at one time — of Rana Sanaullah going around with the representatives of the religious extremist groups in his campaign," Yousuf says.
Under the NAP, the army has created special military courts to conduct speedy trials in terrorism-related cases, and many people have been sentenced to death. Last year, more than 326 prisoners were hanged, according to Amnesty International.
But activists argue that executions won't solve the problem: The education system also needs reform.
"Even the textbooks you see contain a lot of discriminatory material — you know, Hindus and Christians are shown in a bad light and Muslims are glorified," Farooqui explains. "A woman not covering her head is depicted as a bad woman. So there's lot of material that can distort young minds."