Dubbed 'Little London' when still under British rule, Quetta, in Pakistan's Balochistan Province, was levelled to the ground by an earthquake in 1935. Yet, although the physical evidence of the city's colonial heritage was lost in the temblor, reminders remain of the British legacy–locals still add milk to their tea, for example, and when they take to the roads they drive (nominally at least) on the left.
But look closely at the motifs that adorn locals' rickshaws and motorised tricycle taxis and a very different image emerges–one of an ethnically mixed subcontinent city. For while the colourful flags of the Pashtun and Baloch political parties most frequently embellish these small vehicles, there's no shortage of black Shiite banners, or the Jamiat Ulama´e Islam's black and white horizontal stripes (which also serve as reminders that many in Quetta demand the strict enforcement of traditional Islamic law).
Against the backdrop of noisy rickshaws meandering around pedestrians, cars and trucks, rumours frequently circulate quietly around the bazaar. 'A truck full of explosives has entered the city,' went one whisper I heard, prompting the ever-versatile tricycles to change their routes in response to this latest rumour. Avenue Noordar, the city's main artery, which is lined with government offices, is sealed off by concrete roadblocks, forcing the tricycles to fan out along alternative routes.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The only distinguishing mark on Rehan's vehicle is a small image of the Virgin Mary, visible only when he lowers the sun visor. This unexpected apparition is a privilege reserved for members of Quetta's Christian community and the few Westerners who visit Quetta. The discretion of this skinny, raven-haired man is understandable in this border city, where ethnic tensions often explode into targeted killings and random bombings.
Quetta is just a one-hour drive from the Afghan border, and two from Kandahar. Yet although this is the capital of the part of Balochistan controlled by Pakistan, even here Balochs are a minority–outnumbered by the tens of thousands of refugees arriving from Afghanistan. Most of these incomers survive through smuggling Iranian underwear, Afghan opium or Russian weapons.
The influx of refugees adds to the remarkable variety of ethnicities here–women hidden under blue burkhas, Tajiks with their distinctive aquiline noses, beardless Uzbeks and almond-eyed Shia Hazaras. Locals also 'know' that Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar lives here, protected by his personal Baloch guards and, according to many, by the Pakistani Army. It's no surprise that Quetta means 'fortress' in Pashto, the language of the Pashtuns.
Educating tomorrow's Talibans
Much like Russian dolls, the great fortress of Quetta has a plethora of redoubts tucked away inside it. There are the houses of the different religious or tribal leaders, the secure government buildings and even a few Christian colleges. The St. Francis Grammar School is one of them.