I was in Peshawar last week. It is a vibrant city with a real energy to it. It is my favourite place to be in Pakistan.
You feel the energy as you drive around the city. I am in an armoured car, sometimes with an armed escort in front. Initially you feel nervous that this just brings additional attention to you, but after a while you realise that the locals just take it in their stride. They’ve seen it all before – you’re just someone taking up more space on the road. Yet another foreigner – privileged and arrogant, unaware of the real Pakistan. Of course, they are right. But, feeling more relaxed that I have taken this ride now so many times, last week I sat back in the car to take in the city around me – the vitality, the humanity, and the beauty of it all.
This bridge between South and Central Asia has seen so much over the years. Locals still talk of when Alexander the Great came through and point to people with blue/green eyes with a slight Macedonian tinge to the complexion. I played cricket at our office with a colleague called “Iskender” who even claimed direct lineage. He wasn’t that good at cricket, so I decided not to believe him.
Winter has just joined this region of the world and the style for Pashtun men here is to wear a blanket wrapped around the shoulders draped around the torso, sometimes up around the head. There is something strangely alluring about the look. Being wrapped up all tight in a blanket, like an infant. Secure. Confident. Maybe even unafraid.
Like that brash confidence, Peshawar’s striking symbol is a huge military fort. You cannot miss it on a visit to Peshawar. Driving along the main road through the town it rears up into dominance – a huge, overbearing monument to our specie’s incestuous relationship with violence. The building looks like how you imagine a fort to be, with strong brown walls infused with a reddish tinge, implying the blood spilled to defend or “liberate” this city (the victors get to choose the verb, sometimes as they stand on an aircraft carrier with a large banner behind).
The fort is called “Bala Hissar”. References to fortification being in this particular spot go back over a thousand years. Kings and emperors have used the fort to launch campaigns and defend territories. The British added their own flavour, building typically imperious huge outer walls. Today, the fort houses the Frontier Corps for the Pakistan army with large nationalistic flags waving in the wind surrounded by even larger anti-aircraft guns rooted to the ground.
The fort reminds me of two things. First, the constant presence of the military in this region and the accompanying feeling of a sense of insecurity that is always with you in Peshawar. Second, that the government really does see the area beyond Peshawar as a “frontier”. This is the wild west, where wild things happen.
Despite this area’s apparent inter-dependence with violence, the horrendous and vile attack this week in Peshawar does not sit comfortably with this city. It is not the way things are done here – children are the last to be condemned. As news of the attack spread, incomprehension turned to pure sorrow. Anger certainly was evident, but what I really saw and heard was pain. Colleagues and friends dumbfounded by how this can happen.
Today as I write this, a day after the attack, Pakistanis have united in their pain. Vigils are being held, marches in support of the families so unfairly bearing the brunt of this tragedy, and with a new army – an army of counsellors and volunteers – descending on Peshawar to offer only support, not retribution. The people are united in their grief. United in their sorrow. And united in calling for justice, not just for this attack, but for the people of Pakistan every day.
In one day I have heard and read many theories about why this attack happened. The news channels will speak to anyone willing to offer a theory with speculation being a new global pastime. From my friends here, it is clear that it has been a retaliation for the recent offensive in Waziristan, while some say it goes back to the offensive in Swat a few years back, and others talk about how you one day train freedom fighters and the next day call them terrorists.
It is not for me to pontificate on what Pakistan should do or why this happened. I have been here less than a year – I know nothing. To do so only serves to enforce my self-description of being privileged and arrogant meaning I join the ranks of speculators.
No, now is the time to just listen to my Pakistani friends and colleagues. To have empathy, and to try to understand their sorrow. This is their country.
So, I join in sharing the grief of the people of Pakistan. I grieve even more for the people of Peshawar – this city that I love and wish so much to explore. This incredible, energetic, and enthralling city. But, the division and egos of men make it too unsafe, sadly even now for the children.
I do not have much longer in Pakistan, but I will leave with the fondest of memories of Peshawar. The violence of the deranged cannot undermine my image of a fascinating city and its people. I look forward to the day I can return and celebrate the freedom the people there deserve, and that I tend to take for granted.