Monday, October 26, 2009

Pakistanis too scared to leave home, many want to flee country

Pakistani's in Fear
ISLAMABAD: Peshawar-based Mustafa Kamal has had enough: he has just got his12-year-old son freed from a band of criminals in the lawless tribal area of Khyber agency by paying a ransom. He has left a lucrative job with Pakistan's telecommunication department and now has the immigartion papers for Canada ready for his entire family.

``I'm lucky to have found my son alive. But I won't take any more risk. Life has become extremely dangerous — it's not worth living here. Enough'senough,'' says Kamal.

For a country badly bloodied by a wave of suicide attacks (at least eight this month alone), the next tragedy appears to be collapse of governance. The Pakistani state is pitted against a wide array of militant groups across the country in a situation teetering on the brink of a civil war. And the chasm between the government and the people seems to be growing by the day.

The popular perception is that Pakistan is fighting the US war against terror. Many people in the lawless North West Frontier Province say Pakistan has been sold to the US piece by piece. Under coercion, they argue, Pakistan has started a war that has consumed its economy, national security, and has torn apart its social fabric.

``Our national integrity is at risk. I wish not to see the end of Pakistan in my lifetime. It is not yet too late for Pakistan to return from the precipice of national suicide. Pakistan must take a u-turn and preempt the civil war. Pakistan must say an emphatic no to the US,'' says Rabnawaz Khan, a former Pakistani diplomat, stressing that an internally torn Pakistan does not weaken but strengthens militants.

The civil unrest has spilled into many parts, giving rise to fear psychosis among citizens. So much so that when twin blasts rocked Islamabad's Islamic University on October 20, many did not believe that it was militants' handiwork. Instead, they blamed ``indistinct forces out to discredit Islam or weaken Pakistan''.

That attack led the authorities to take an unprecedented step of closing down all schools, colleges and other training institutions in the country. ``The law and order situation has only worsened since the military operations against the Taliban started. How can we believe that things will normalize by carrying out a big operation in Waziristan? I think the repercussions are going to be more blasts and suicide attacks,'' said Palwasha Zia, a third year student of Home Economics in Peshawar.

``People are very scared. Every time I go to market, I worry about blasts. We are being targeted and our life has become very difficult. We are hoping the situation will get better. What else can we do?'' says Shaheen Akhtar, a deputy provost of Peshawar University.

October has been the cruelest month. Militants have struck UN offices, police buildings, army headquarters in Rawalpindi and ambushed security forces. The government response has been on expected lines: it swiftly sent troops to battle the entrenched militants in trouble-torn South Waziristan and beefed up security in all major cities. Reportedly, there were at least 72 check posts at entry and exit points around sensitive installations in Islamabad before these attacks. Now, the check points have been increased up to 300 in the federal capital.

Has it helped? Margalla Road, the most expensive and posh area of Islamabad, has almost been turned into a fortress, with concrete barricades, security pickets and barbed wires installed in most of the places. The residents say driving inside the capital has become extremely difficult as they are checked several times a day during routine work. ``Establishing security pickets in residential areas and check points have not resolved the issue of law and order; rather the situation has further deteriorated,'' said a traffic police official in Islamabad's Blue area, wishing not to be named.

Just two days after the attack on Islamic university that killed seven people, suspected militants shot dead a senior Pakistani army officer of brigadier rank and a soldier in Islamabad on Wednesday, suggesting militants are shifting tactics in the face of a sweeping army drive in their South Waziristan stronghold.

``First, it was Peshawar. Then Islamabad and Karachi, and now Lahore and Rawalpindi. When you live in a place which is under threat of continuous attacks, you'll have to think twice before you step out of your house. The scare among people is visible — there are fewer people out on streets,'' says Mujeeb-ur Rehman, a news anchor in Islamabad-based TV station.

The frequent terror attacks have greatly damaged the business climate. Nasir Dawood, who ran a boutique shop in Rawalpindi's Raja Bazaar till last week has finally shut shop. ``My business was badly damaged in the last one year. Scared customers don't come for shopping. To avoid any further losses, I had no option,'' Nasir said.

Habibullah Zahid, another businessman who owns four restaurants in Peshawar, has shifted his family to Islamabad to escape the constant threats of militants. ``Though my business was affected, I left Peshawar due to threats to my life. A group of militants or criminals in the Khyber tribal area has made it a habit to make threatening calls, demanding money in millions. I could no more give in to their demands,'' says Zahid.


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