“This is not the Peshawar I knew. I visited the Army Public School in the evening and the dark silence in the vicinity frightens me. Peshawar was once full of life, hospitality and welcoming smiles…” says social scientist Ammara Durrani, during her visit to Peshawar last week. “The Peshawar I remember was greener and cleaner. It looks brown now with all the sandbags and cement blocks to prevent an attack.”
Peshawar is a changed city today. Uncertainty, insecurity and mistrust prevail everywhere in this provincial capital that was once called the city of flowers. Tourists from all over the world used to visit Peshawar to enjoy the Pashtun hospitality and culture. It was fun to have tikkas and chapli kabab at the city restaurants before having qehwa in the historic Qissa Khwani bazaar. For tourists, a walk through the narrow streets behind Qissa Khwani, where top Bollywood stars like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and others once lived, was a rare treat. The village of Neway Kelay near Peshawar has produced all the seven Pakistani squash champions. This historic city belongs to the greatest Pashto poet Rahman Baba.
But gone are the good old days.
“Peshawar is a war zone. In my school days, we loved visiting the city; shopping, chilling out or enjoying its greenery. Today, I travel to the city when it is really needed because of the uncertainty and insecurity,” says Adnan Qayyum, a student of the Saidu Medical College in Swat.
Terrorists have struck everywhere in Peshawar over the last one decade. From remote Matani and Mathra towns to the well-protected cantonment, from mosques and imambargahs to churches, from suburban Pishtakhara and Qamardin Garhi to the crowded urban Qissa Khwani and Meena Bazaar — terrorists have bombed every place.
The city lost people from police chiefs Malik Saad and Safwat Ghayur to senior minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour, from schoolchildren and female teachers to foreign diplomats, and from tribal elders to polio workers and bomb disposal experts. Terrorists targeted the press club, hospitals, airports, moving buses, landing aircrafts, cinemas, police buildings, shops, vendors and whatever one can imagine.
Nothing is in its original shape in Peshawar since the outburst of violence in 2006.
This small city has over 100 checkposts to stop the entry of militants and terrorists that despite these checks still manage to carry out attacks. Only thousands of innocent civilians are inconvenienced at these points every day. Saddar is blocked from Sher Shah Suri Road to Khyber Road and from Governor’s House to Bara Gate. Commuters have to take a much longer route from the city centre to get to University Road or Hayatabad. Walls erected on many roads in Saddar cause regular traffic jams.
In the evenings, Sher Shah Suri Road is blocked to avoid an attack on the Central Prison, Governor House and other important buildings. The city remains shut for security reasons on occasions like Muharram, Eid and other important days. Cantonment area, police stations and other public offices are heavily guarded.
An operation has been launched against Afghans residing in the city illegally, and over 2000 have been deported.
Peshawar remains the prime target — for being surrounded by tribal areas. A former senior police officer of the country believes that Peshawar’s problems will end only once the government integrates Fata and frontier regions with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or make it an independent province, strengthen police force, bring back Frontier Constabulary (FC) to the boundaries with Fata and carry out targeted operations against those causing trouble for the city. “Yes, terrorism will not end till the root cause is diagnosed and treated,” says Masood Afridi, who headed the special branch as additional inspector general of police till last year.
Arif Shahbaz Wazir, a young police officer from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, thinks the most interesting thing about Peshawar is that a majority of its inhabitants will give you self-defeating reasons for the killings – “If you ask a Peshawarite why Mr so and so has been killed/kidnapped by militants; his reply will be ‘because he was Shia, a member of security forces, morally corrupt, employee of pro-western organization, he had amassed wealth through illegal means etc etc…’ Ostriches with head in sand,” he says.
According to the provincial information minister Mushtaq Ghani, the federal government has been asked time and again to return all the FC platoons to KP so they can be deployed at the boundaries between Fata and KP. “FC was set up for securing boundaries between Fata and KP but the force is deployed in Islamabad and other parts of the country. Despite our requests, FC is yet to be returned to the province,” Ghani told reporters after the recent attack on the imambargah in Hayatabad.
Khyber Pakhtunkwha inspector general of police (IGP) Nasir Khan Durrani has written to the federal government through KP governor to integrate Fata with KP or make it a separate province to help end militancy and terrorism. “We have also written to the government to regularise the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, deploy FC on boundaries with Fata, set up a joint force with Fata authorities for actions against extortionists. We have registered most of the houses in Peshawar to have complete data of those living in the city. Besides, Peshawarites have to register tenants with the local police under the law so the police knows who is living where,” he says.
Many of the well-off Peshawarites, prominent professionals and businessmen had to leave Peshawar for safer havens after receiving extortion calls and kidnappings. Over 200 cases of extortion are being currently investigated in the city. Houses of many who received such calls have been bombed. Most of the professionals move around with two or more bodyguards to avoid kidnapping or target killing.
The city is further militarised after deploying guards with automatic weapons inside and outside schools, colleges and universities in Peshawar and rest of the province. Many schoolteachers now prefer to carry weapons so they can protect themselves and their children in case of any Army Public School-like attack.
Poets and singers were attacked and harassed. Kala mi pairzo shi pa bamoono Pekhawara is listened more than any other romantic songs in Pashto. The famous Dabgari bazaar is no more a street of musicians. They left the area due to threats. The Sikh and Christian community members are finding it hard to roam freely in the city after a few recent attacks.
“The city never got a leader who could pull Peshawarites out of trouble,” says Imran Takkar, Program Manager Society for the Protection of the Rights of Child.
Waqar Ahmad, deputy commandant of the Campus Peace Corps, thinks things would improve once coordination between the state institutions and public improves. “National integration is the key to all sorts of problems,” he says.
Life still goes on in the city despite innumerable terror attacks. Amir of Jamaat-e-Islami Sirajul Haq and leaders of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement have demanded of the government to declare Peshawar the bravest city. The people of Peshawar think otherwise.
“We are now sick of this title. We want peace and peace of mind so our children can live a normal life like the rest of the world. We want the old Peshawar back,” remarks a schoolteacher Amina Hassan.