Pawns in a fatal game

Pakistan’s people are trapped between their own leaders and radicals in a bloody civil war
Adnan R. Khan

Pawns in a fatal gameThe eerie silence along the narrow laneway of Karim Pura Bazaar, in Peshawar’s old city, is deafening. Something is missing, and the absence weighs on the few shopkeepers brave enough to open for business. On any other Friday, after the obligatory afternoon prayers, the rows of tailor shops here would be doing a brisk business. But not today. A few laneways over, in Kabari Bazaar, one of dozens of electronics districts in the capital of Pakistan’s restive North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the charred and mangled remains of shops offer a glimpse into what has happened: a day earlier, two bombs hidden in motorcycles exploded there, killing five and injuring dozens more. In the aftermath, much of the old city’s famous bazaar district has remained closed.

A few hundred kilometres to the north in Swat, the Pakistani army is proving to the world that it has what it takes to defeat the Taliban threat. They have retaken Mingora, Swat’s formerly picturesque main city, after a massive offensive lasting more than a week. The few reports coming out of there, even through the filters of military-guided media tours, show a city in ruins, virtually cleared of its residents and lacking any of the basic necessities: food, water, electricity, medical facilities. For the millions of people displaced by the fighting, there is nothing to return to—like the Kabari Bazaar, their world is in ruins.

ALSO AT MACLEANS.CA On the front line in Pakistan: Foreign correspondent Adnan Khan on stability in Pakistan, Western misconceptions, and the challenges of covering a civil war

The fighting in Swat is not over. A new offensive has begun in Charbagh, just north of Mingora, and once that is over—sometime this week, according to military officials—Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has promised to shift the focus to another front in the war against Islamic militancy: the Waziristan region of the Tribal Areas. There, a June 1 kidnapping of around 80 college students and teachers by Taliban fighters has shaken Pakistanis. (Initial, erroneous reports said more than 500 were abducted. Though the military claimed to have freed all but one student by the next day, other reports said that some students were still being held.) Civilians have become targets, pawns in the battle between secular government forces and radical Islamists for control of their country.

There is no doubting that Pakistan is in the midst of a civil war, with all of the fear that breeds. Under massive international pressure to end the Taliban scourge on their soil, the government seems committed to finishing this battle. But the Taliban cannot be counted out. On May 27, a major blast in Lahore, targeting the offices of Pakistan’s security services, killed 24 and injured another 200. Peshawar is particularly vulnerable. Since May 22, at least four bombs have ripped through the city, killed some 22 people and injuring hundreds more. Like Baghdad during the height of its sectarian violence, Peshawar now features a deadly mix of criminals, extremists and agents provocateurs. The U.S. government has warned its citizens to stay away, and Pakistani authorities have banned the foreign press from coming to the city for fear of having to deal with a Daniel Pearl-like incident.

“There is no security in Peshawar,” says Syed Aqil Shah, a senior member of the NWFP provincial parliament. “We have too little police, who are under-trained and under-equipped. They can barely handle criminal activities, let alone trained militants.” Security services in the city are now preparing for an assault by militants: streets have been blocked off and numerous checkpoints set up at vulnerable locations. Still, for Pakistan’s political elite, there is the comfort of armed security guards and fortified offices. For civilians, there is only confusion. “Everyone is living in fear for their lives,” says Khan Bahadur, a 50-year-old electronics shop owner in Peshawar’s Kabari Bazaar.

For Bahadur, the consequences of the recent violence have been all too tragic. At 6 p.m. on May 28, he received a call from a friend at his home in a village near the Kyber Tribal Agency, on the outskirts of Peshawar, telling him there had been a bomb blast near his shop. When he phoned his brother, who was at the scene, he was told that his 17-year-old son was dead, a second son, 18, was injured, and a third, Izzatullah, 21, was missing.

At the blast site, Bahadur’s shop, which he’d inherited from his father, had been reduced to rubble in the narrow alleyway where a bomb had been left in one of the two motorcycles. When this reporter arrived on the scene, Bahadur’s fellow businessmen and friends were frantically digging through the debris, searching for the body of the missing son. Bahadur’s brother, Fazli Rabi, only slightly injured, looked on in a state of shock. The conversation among terrified onlookers revolved around a single question: who could have carried out such a crime? There were no police or any other security services in the area. The dead were all civilians.

When the search turned up nothing except a shoe belonging to the missing Izzatullah, Fazli Rabi, accompanied by a few of his friends, went to the Lady Reading Hospital, a 10-minute walk from the blast site. There, the scene was chaotic: distraught family members searching for their own missing loved ones, ambulances struggling to make their way through the crowd as they brought in the wounded and the dead. A group of men had gathered at the gate leading to the underground morgue. Fazli Rabi pushed past them.

Inside the morgue, four bodies lay on gurneys, covered with bloodied sheets. One by one, Fazli Rabi uncovered the faces of the dead. Izzatullah was not among them. After another two hours of searching through the hospital, he finally located Izzatullah—alive. The young man had been lying in the head injury ward, with an injured jaw and multiple lacerations to his head and face. Doctors, overwhelmed by the crisis and lacking staff to help transport patients, asked Fazli Rabi to take his nephew to the X-ray department, located in a separate building. With the help of his friends, he took Izzatullah there, where doctors confirmed there were no broken bones. With the danger of internal bleeding in the head, though, a CT scan was needed.

But as Fazli Rabi carted his nephew out of the X-ray department, crowds of people began running for the hospital’s exits as gunfire sounded near the emergency ward. One screamed, “Get out! The Taliban have taken over the hospital.” Fazli Rabi pulled the gurney behind a brick pillar. The CT building was a mere 50 m from where he had taken cover, but some of the fleeing people had gathered in front of it, trying to force their way in for a safe place to hide. Fazli Rabi, though, was determined, and pushed through the throng. One man tried to grab him, shouting that suicide bombers were coming, but he shook him off and continued toward the building, forcing the gurney through the door. The scan was performed immediately. Over the next 15 minutes, the crowds thinned and the panic subsided as quickly as it had appeared. Izzatullah was wheeled back to the patients’ ward without any incident. His tests came back clean; he would make a full recovery.

Fazli Rabi later learned that the chaos had been the result of hospital security guards firing in the air to disperse the crowds so ambulances could get through. The plan worked—although not exactly in the way they had intended.

The next day, under the shade of a hastily constructed tent in a dusty clearing in his village, Bahadur pours tea for the dozen or so men who have come for the traditional condolence gathering following the burial of his youngest son. “This is God’s will,” he says. “We cannot name the time of our deaths. It is written for us in God’s ledger.” The gathering murmurs a prayer for the dead. The bomb blast is still fresh on their minds; 24 hours ago some of them were clawing through the burnt remains of Bahadur’s shop, lifting collapsed walls and looking for Izzatullah’s body. Fazli Rabi still seems overcome by the memory. As the men bow their heads in prayer, he stands up and walks into the family home.

While his brother was looking for Izzatullah in the Lady Reading Hospital, Bahadur returned to Peshawar to take his dead son home in an ambulance. In Islamic tradition, a body must be buried as quickly as possible, so even as the search for life was still going on, the interment of the dead was being planned. By the time he reached home, Bahadur’s wife had made all of the preparations. “She was strong,” he says, “stronger than me. My thoughts were only for Izzatullah, but she gave all her energy to the boy she was burying.”

Bahadur doesn’t blame the government for the tragedy that has befallen his family, though he is too fearful to blame the Taliban as well. Instead, he judiciously praises the quick response of the emergency services, without which he might have buried two sons. Some have done exactly that, and worse. In Peshawar, everyone seems to know someone who has lost a family member or friend to the violence plaguing their part of Pakistan.

But while Bahadur seems resigned to what happened, among others anger and frustration are the dominant themes. On the streets of Peshawar people assign blame to a full spectrum of culprits, from the Taliban to the Pakistani government itself, whose members, many claim, are maintaining instability in Pakistan to ensure Washington continues to pour money into the country. “This is all a big game,” says Noorzali, a car parts dealer in Shuba Bazaar, also in Peshawar’s old city. “It doesn’t matter who they kill as long as the money keeps coming in. Here we are, poor and suffering, afraid to walk in our own streets, and there they are in Islamabad pretending to care when we all know that the only thing that matters to them is the size of their bank accounts.”

In times of conflict, of course, conspiracy theories are always prevalent. They add to the crippling atmosphere of dread—one that Fazli Rabi admits he has fallen victim to. “I don’t think I can walk Peshawar’s streets again without fearing that a bomb is going to go off at any moment,” he says after re-emerging from the house. “Whenever I see a motorcycle parked on the side of the road now, I will not just see a motorcycle. I think what I will see is death.”