“Nukes =/= Human Rights” flashed in the afternoon sunlight, as our banner fluttered gently in the breeze. Over a hundred bright red helium balloons floated in our corner of Racecourse Park, Lahore, both witness and testament to our grassroots-powered struggle against nuclear weapons.
Global Zero Volunteers combed the park, speaking to picnicking families, children on the prowl for a red balloon, athletes out for a run - anyone who crossed our path. We were delighted and surprised to see nobody turned us down. My heart fluttered a little with the banner as I watched the gathering crowd, registering, grabbing a chocolate bar, and settling down to wait for us to start talking. Settling down to wait for us to convince them that global zero is not only possible, but also our only real option. It was a tall order.
“What do you mean by nukes?” came a curious question. “Atom bombs?”
“Yes sir,” I replied, turning to see an elderly gentleman clutching a bag and peering at us. “Atom bombs. Their destructive potential is enough to lay the entire world to waste many times over. We’re gathered here to talk about how they threaten all life on this planet- and negate the very concept of human rights.”
My volunteer leaders and I watched, and listened, and listened some more as he took a deep breath and told us his story. He was angry, betrayed, shocked. He was angry that we could stand there and so blatantly disregard the war torn history of the Indo-Pak subcontinent. How we could stand there and with one banner, and a couple of balloons, negate the bloody trail that led to the development of nuclear bombs in India and Pakistan - and all over the world. He was betrayed because he had fought, right there in the battlefield, in the 1971 war that resulted in the fracturing of a region and the creation of Bangladesh.
“I was a prisoner of war in an Indian camp,” he said. His eyes were haunted.
“Let me get you a bottle of water sir,” I said. He refused. We wheedled and begged- and he accepted a bar of chocolate instead. And then he dug into his little bag and pulled out two buns, insisting that we munch them right down. We did.
“Sir - the young people of Pakistan and India- well young people all over the globe- need to really think about where they want to see their world in the next couple of decades,” I said. “Are we on a path to progress or a path to self-destruction? If we don’t diagnose and address our issues, nobody will. What you see here today is a small attempt to do just that. Will you stay and hear us out?”
He agreed to a selfie with us, with a smile, and wandered off. I didn’t expect to see him again.
Until I did.
My throat was just at the end of its tether as I worked to be audible to a spread-out audience without a sound system. My eyes moved from face to face as my words painted pictures of the two choices open to us- to eliminate nuclear weapons or to live under their shadow. I nodded along with sharp questions from the audience, sent silent love and support to our speakers line-up, to the volunteers running around to make sure things worked smoothly, and watched our guests and participants for signs of discomfort or disengagement. They listened with rapt attention.
Just as I completed my sweep, I spotted our veteran friend right in the back - silent, smiling, listening, nodding. He caught my eye, inclined his head, and raised two fingers in salute, nodding, nodding, nodding to every word my hoarse throat churned out.
And in that moment, I understood that victory is not the storming of fortresses and fluttering of flags. Victory is the human connection and the humility that comes with it. And that is our path to uniting against nuclear weapons.