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PAKISTAN: Life At A Time Of Suicide Bombings

Zofeen Ebrahim

LAHORE, Pakistan, Jul 27 2010 (IPS) - Like any other Friday morning, hordes of people flocked at the shrine of 11th-century Sufi saint, Hazrat Ali Hajveri, that is near Bhaati Gate inside Lahore’s walled city on Jul. 2. By that afternoon, a much larger crowd had gathered at the site, this time for the usual Friday prayers.

This is the typical scene at the shrine of a saint who many Lahore folk consider as the protector of this northern Pakistani city, especially on a Friday. Then again, the night before, two suicide bombers had blown themselves up at the shrine, leaving at least 44 dead and more than 170 injured. The attack was the most serious on a Sufi shrine in Pakistan since 2001.

“I saw human body parts strewn all over the place, some even stuck to walls,” recalls Riaz Ahmed, a senior reporter for the private television network Aaj, who reached the place 10 minutes after the twin blasts. “It was like you were in a butchery. (And) the place had an acrid smell of burnt human flesh.”

He stayed until morning and witnessed how many came to offer prayers. Comments Ahmed: “It showed the people’s open defiance to militants.”

Ahmed himself says that he is “quite used to blood and gore now”, since he has covered many violent attacks in the last two years and was a crime reporter for almost two decades before he joined Aaj. But many ordinary Pakistanis seem to have become stoic about violence in their country, with several reasoning that “life has to go on”.

Artist Rabiya Mumtaz, for one, confesses that when she heard about the Jul.1 attack on the shrine, “I just ignored it and went back to attending the dinner party at my house that night.” She adds with some sadness, “Despite my best efforts to preserve my sensitivity, I have become used to it.”

Fashion reporter Hani Taha also says that she does not make it a point to avoid a location “just because it may not be safe.”

“We haven’t stopped living because, honestly, what other choice do we have?” she reasons. “If you want to avoid violence, you should seriously consider emigrating to Canada or Australia.”

Indeed, such a stance could be considered as one of the survival strategies for anyone living in a country that is being constantly shaken and ripped apart by violence. According to the Islamabad-based think tank Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), this mainly Muslim South Asian nation saw a total of 2,586 terrorist, insurgent, and sectarian-related incidents of violence in 2009.

These incidents left some 3,021 people dead and 7,334 injured, continues the Institute in its 2009 report. The highest number of attacks was reported from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (1,137), followed by Balochistan (792). There were 559 attacks reported from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

As many as 46 attacks took place in Punjab, 30 in Sindh, 12 in Islamabad, and five each in Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Of these, 87 were suicide attacks, a number that was 32 percent higher than 2008, says PIPS.

Experts have also said that while suicide attacks in 2008 primarily targeted security personnel, 2009 had militants brazenly attacking so-called “soft targets” like college campuses and places of worship. In fact, since January 2010, only two of the nine recorded attacks up until Jul. 9 across Pakistan involved military or political targets. One was even at a volleyball game while another was at a civilian hospital. Just days after the attack on the shrine here, 104 people were killed and at least 120 injured when two explosions ripped through a crowded marketplace in Mohammand Agency in FATA. Taha says she is trying her best to live as normally as possible to preserve her sanity. “Pakistan is for fighters, those who will defiantly surge ahead despite blasts, power failures, and strikes,” she says.

Still, there are those like 63-year-old businessman Rauf Engineer who insists “you can never get used to it (terrorist attacks).”

“Only zombies and lifeless can, not the living!” says the Karachi resident. He says he felt “sick in the stomach” and was consumed by a “raging anger” when he saw the news about attack on the Sufi shrine here on television.

Yasmeen A Ali, a 48-year-old mother of two, remarks, “How can one ever come to term with such tragic events? With each such incident we lose a part of ourselves, our humanity.”

Others want to see the government put a stop to the killings. Defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa wonders aloud: “What will it take to persuade our security agencies to see that continuing support to all such groups is deadly?” She says that the government “should first decide that it wants to get rid of the extremists”.

Former Intelligence Bureau director general Masood Sharif Khattak observes, “As things stand today, one cannot say that the present dispensation has the will or ability to bring the situation under control.” He adds: “Calling national conferences and jazzy fanfare meetings do not help in the combat stage.”

In 2009, government security forces launched a major military offensive against militant strongholds in South Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan. Pakistan military leaders have since said that they have “cleansed” the area. Judging from the way and frequency militants keep on striking, however, the war seems far from over.

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