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Militant Violence Creates Climate of Fear In Peshawar

  • Abubakar Siddique

A volunteer carries a child injured in a car bomb blast in Peshawar on November 16.

A volunteer carries a child injured in a car bomb blast in Peshawar on November 16.

Riaz lives in a small village on the outskirts of Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar. The middle-aged man, who goes by one name, remembers happier days a few years ago when driving his rickety taxi around Peshawar's crowded bazaars and lush green suburbs was fun -- despite the noise, dust, and smog.

Riaz still drives the same taxi. But his job is now one of the most dangerous professions in a city where nearly 300 people have been killed by recent bomb attacks on markets, mosques, and military installations.

Attacks in Peshawar have intensified since mid-October, when the military began a large scale offensive against the Taliban in the tribal region of South Waziristan, nearly 300 kilometers south of Peshawar.

But Riaz says he has no option but to continue working. "How can I be afraid when I'm responsible for my children?” he asks. “Even if I am afraid, I'm responsible for my kids and I have to earn a living."

Peshawar is part of a fertile river valley perched on the edge of the historic Khyber Pass. The ancient city has seen centuries of bloodshed because of its central location on regional crossroads between South and Central Asia.

But its current problems are rooted in recent history. The Soviet invasion of neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979 placed then-sleepy Peshawar on the front lines. It was soon teeming with refugees, journalists, aid workers, and spies, as well as extremist militants from around the Muslim world.

The influx transformed the ancient city that extended into a British-built, leafy garrison surrounded by small mud-built villages into a big warren of clogged neighborhoods.

Among the young Arab zealots who came to Peshawar ostensibly to help the Afghan mujahedin were Osama Bin Laden, the son of wealthy Saudi billionaire, and a young Egyptian doctor named Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Both now command the respect and allegiance of most militants fighting the Pakistani government.

In The Crossfire

Peshawar's status as a frontline city was revived after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. But since then, Peshawar residents have been caught in the crossfire between the extremists and Pakistani security forces. Every new military operation against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban has triggered retaliation by militants who target Peshawar and other Pakistani cities.

Residents say the city has suffered an average of two attacks every week since early May when the military launched an offensive into Swat valley, where the Taliban established control after a botched peace deal with the government last spring.

Most landmarks in the beleaguered city have been hit.

Women shop in Peshawar, where markets have seen rapidly declining business.
At least 100 people, mostly women and children, died on October 28, when a huge car bomb ripped through the crowded Meena Bazaar. The market’s tiny jewelry, clothes, and toy shops often were frequented by women and children.

An earlier bomb attack on October 9 in the nearby Khyber Bazaar killed 50 people. In June, a suicide car bomber attacked the Pearl Continental Hotel -- destroying the city's lone five-star hotel and killing 17 people, including aid workers.

Kamran Arif, a 42-year-old lawyer who often visited the court complex where 20 people were killed by a suicide bomber on October 18, says the growing insecurity is changing the way people live in the city.

"The recent spate of bombings has left everybody very, very insecure,” Arif said. “People have at times stopped sending their children to school. Of course, people have stopped visiting public areas like markets and cinemas and people keep to themselves."

Conspiracy Theories

Arif says there are several conspiracy theories circulating in Peshawar that blame Pakistan's archrival India for the attacks. Some Pakistani media magnify these conspiracy theories by including Afghanistan and the United States on the list of "hidden hands" that are fomenting instability in the country.

"There are quite a lot of theories with no substantial evidence to any of them attached,” Arif said. “Unless people realize that there is a threat from within the country, we cannot do much about it."

Recent media reports suggest the dramatic increase in attacks upon civilians can be attributed to a new insurgent decision to declare civilians "apostate" -- a move that attempts to justify the killing of innocent civilians as a legitimate part of an Islamic extremist war strategy. Al-Qaeda and its affiliated Taliban groups have already declared the Pakistani army and government apostate.

Crime has risen in Peshawar in the wake of recent terrorist attacks. Arif says wealthy businessmen are leaving town as the number of kidnappings for ransom increases.

Anarchic century-old administrative arrangements stop Peshawar police from operating in the tribal regions on the western, southern, and northern outskirts of the city. Some Peshawar neighborhoods like the once-posh Hayatabad are now deemed so dangerous that few locals venture there even during daytime.

Pakistani forces claim to have killed 18 militants on November 25 in the Khyber tribal region that borders Hayatabad and other Peshawar neighborhoods west of the city center. Officials suggest the raid targeted a militant network that was orchestrating attacks on the logistical supply lines of Western forces in Afghanistan.

Afraid To Go Out

Peshawar businessman Qamar Farooq has seen a rapid decline of customers at his pharmacy. He speaks of an end to "all social life."

Like thousand of parents in the city, he worries about his three school-going children. Many Peshawar parents keep children at home on Thursdays and Fridays because the most recent militant attacks were staged on those days.

"Sometimes we keep them at home,” Farooq says. “If they go to school, we worry. The entire system is messed up."

Peshawar's historic 'Bazaar of the Storytellers' is now mostly deserted. Its tea houses -- where traders once concluded deals over endless cups of green tea and where much of the city's gossip was exchanged -- now await customers.

Farzand Ali owns a small grocery shop in a busy Peshawar market near the Bazaar of the Storytellers. He tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he fears for his life when he works at the shop where few customers dare to show up.

"Conditions are very bad and everybody is afraid,” he says. “People avoid coming out into the city and we can tell that from looking at the market. Now people avoid even visiting the hospitals. Who will go to the markets in these circumstances?"

Mussarat Hilali is a long-time human rights campaigner who now heads a court overseeing environmental issues. She says the terrorist attacks will eventually end, but for now, she says there’s no end in sight.

"When people leave their homes, they don't know whether they will return home,” Hilali says. “When traffic gathers around a square or there is a traffic jam, I see people paying taxis drivers and walking away. This situation is equally bad for men, women, and children."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent in Peshawar contributed to this report. The correspondent's name has been withheld due to security concerns