In almost any other city in the world, last year would have sounded like a nightmare—25 bombings, including one at a marketplace in April that claimed more than two dozen lives. But this is Peshawar in Pakistan, and 2010 was a good year compared with 2009, when the city was hit by 154 incidents involving suicide bombers or improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Al-Qaeda and aligned Taliban militants in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan claim to have an arsenal of thousands of young men and boys trained to undertake these deadly attacks. So it’s no great surprise that of all of Pakistan’s cities, this frontier capital has often suffered most.
This suffering is typically most intense around ‘Ashura,’ the tenth day of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar, which marks the anniversary of the murder of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. It’s around this day that the vehemently anti-Shia Pakistan Taliban has often chosen to strike the minority Shia community over the past few decades. So it seemed as good a time as any to embed with Peshawar’s police bomb squad and see up close how this largely unsung group of law enforcers operates.
Brave and Risky
The lead up to Ashura is one of the most dangerous periods for the Shia community as it mourns Imam Husayn’s death in large, passionate, public gatherings that are always a magnet for bombings. Complicating matters for police, this Ashura—held on and around December 16—Peshawar’s Shia community decided to hold several high-profile processions in a brave if risky display of their determination not to be intimidated by extremists.
‘We’ve received a few threats,’ says Shafqat Malik, head of the federal police bomb squad. ‘But we’ve done everything in our power to protect the community.’
It isn’t long after I join the squad of ordinary constables and elite commando police that they are called out to respond to an incident. An IED on the outskirts of Peshawar has reportedly ripped through a school bus. Remarkably, none of the children on board are killed or even badly injured (although a young worker caught in the blast radius is badly wounded and dies soon after).
TV camera crews are quick on the scene, as are a plethora of police officials and the bomb squad I’m travelling with. The mother of one of the children, who has rushed to the scene, is mobbed by cameramen. In a kind of blind fury she lashes out at the cameras filming her grief. Behind her is the large and unmistakable impact crater left by the explosion—a visible marker of this latest in a long line of deadly attacks on the city. The blood-smeared door of an adjacent mud brick house offers a troubling reminder of the blood that was spilled today. Yet despite the disturbing nature of the image, the response of both the police and the gathered crowds suggest the scene isn’t an unfamiliar one. The city’s police chief and provincial home secretary are also quickly on the scene to respond to questions from journalists.
‘This isn’t a major blast,’ says Abdul Haq, a veteran member of the police bomb squad who is one of a handful of men in the city who physically disarms retrieved explosives. ‘It’s terrible to see anyone killed. But compared to what we face, this wasn’t a major incident.’
As he’s talking, the twisted, burnt remnants of what was once a school bus are dragged away. Haq leaves after answering my questions, and within an hour the other police, officials and TV crews have all departed too. It’s as if everything is back to normal.
At Lady Reading Hospital, the largest in the province and the one forced to deal with more terrorism victims than any in the country, head of the emergency room Dr Shiraz Afridi receives the corpse of the young worker who has just died.
‘He was walking past the bus as the bomb exploded,’ Afridi says. A piece of shrapnel from the blast apparently entered the boy’s heart. It would have been a quick death, Afridi adds.
I ask him if he ever gets used to seeing such carnage. ‘You don’t ever get used to it. But you do grow stronger,’ he says. But he suggests that the aftermath of the Meena Bazaar bombing in 2009, in which more than 100 people—mostly women and children—were killed by a suicide bomber, was particularly harrowing, even for him. ‘We received so many dead and dying people.’
Outside the hospital, police continue setting up checkpoints in the neighbouring Storyteller’s Market of the old city in preparation for the Ashura events that are to commence over the next three days.
As I walk outside, mourners are preparing themselves for one of the first big processions in Peshawar Cantonment. On the loud speaker, the cleric at the local Imambargah wails as he describes in detail the murder of Imam Husayn and his family in the city of Karbala, in modern day Iraq. I notice Haq ordering his men to fan out across the wide boulevards that will shortly be filled with mourners. Bombs could literally be anywhere, he says—‘hidden under rubbish bins, in parked vehicles, even inside drains.’ I suddenly become a little paranoid as I notice I’m surrounded by rubbish bins and drains.
As the cleric’s sermon ends, the mourners filter purposefully out of the Imambargah and onto the boulevard. The vibrant flags of Imam Husayn flutter in the breeze as men and boys of all ages begin flagellating themselves with small, ritual blades, the bright red of their own blood matching the colours of the flags. ‘Try to finish your work early,’ Haq says to me in a fatherly way. ‘The most dangerous time is after 5 pm.’
Although today’s procession ends without any disturbance, that evening a girl is killed in a grenade attack outside a mosque in the old city of Peshawar. As I rush to the scene of the blast, police are already scattering across the narrow streets and lanes, pushing bystanders away from the area. I slip through the commotion to the spot where the grenade went off, now marked by a small crater surrounded by debris and faint splashes of blood. But again, just as with the earlier IED attack, there are signs that life is already returning to normal despite this latest disturbance.
Haq and the police bomb squad leave almost as soon as they arrive, and the makeshift barbwire barricades set up by security forces while investigators inspected the scene are slowly being dismantled. The victims of this latest blast, I’m told, have been taken to hospital.
This time, Lady Reading feels more chaotic. The parents of children injured in the latest blast pour into the emergency ward, crying out for someone to help. In the corner, the mother of the murdered girl screams uncontrollably, shaking her arms in distress. Doctors and medical staff swing calmly into action, despite the disturbances around them. They’ve apparently seen all of this before.
There’s a lockdown in Peshawar’s old city as Ashura commences. Narrow streets and dusty ancient bazaars that are normally brimming with the sights and sounds of a vibrant city are eerily quiet. The shops have all been shuttered. Police barricades have closed off every entry point into the old city, which is home to thousands of Shia Muslims.
Processions continue from morning to night as Shia Muslims drift out of the old city’s Imambargahs and onto the otherwise empty streets. Along with the regular police, there are voluntary security guards manning makeshift checkpoints with metal detectors. Most are Shia, but many are not—including Malik, a Sunni Muslim who guards the entrance to the local Imambargah of a childhood friend.
‘We’re all brothers here,’ Malik says proudly, ‘We need to look out for one another.’ I walk past him inside the Imambargah, which is now crowded with worshippers, chanting hymns and dancing rhythmically while a few sing songs venerating the fallen Imam Husayn. The smell of incense fills the room. It’s an emotional and intense experience. ‘For us it is as though Imam Husayn died yesterday,’ one worshiper tells me as he passes around a bowl of sweets.
A Quiet Year
This year, at least, Ashura has passed with relatively few disturbances, a testament to the tight police security and the community’s own precautions. Yet residents of Peshawar tell me they feel that it’s actually much more about providence. ‘All of us thank Allah for a peaceful Ashura,’ a taxi driver named Anwar tells me. ‘He who will kill himself to hurt others can’t be stopped. We’re just lucky there were no major explosions this year.’
This last comment is a view shared by Haq, who I meet for the last time as he rests in his barracks. It’s a Spartan room, lined with a few bare mattresses, blankets and personal belongings. As I greet him, the lights suddenly go off, a symptom of the routine power outages that have gripped Pakistan for some years now.
‘Thank Allah we had a peaceful Ashura this time, to him we are grateful,’ he says. I add that it probably also had something to do with the precautions taken by him and his men. He smiles and clasps my hand.
‘Unlike some, I’m not a wealthy man,’ he says. ‘What I do, I do for Pakistan and my family, and because after I’ve passed I will be answerable to Allah.’
It’s a humbling display of patriotism by a brave old police officer. And a reminder that while some claim to kill in God’s name in Pakistan, others see the task of protecting lives as God’s work.
Mustafa Qadri is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan.