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CHALLENGES 2007-2008: Spate of Suicide Bombings Auger Ill for Pakistan

Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR, Dec 24 2007 (IPS) - As hundreds prostrated in prayer on one of Islam’s major festivals in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), last week, a powerful bomb exploded inside the mosque killing 48 worshippers and wounding close to 200.

The suicide bomb attack in Sherpao village on Dec. 21, at the start of festivities to mark the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, was a significant stepping up of violence in a border region wracked by violence since the U.S. launched a ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan in the wake of the World Trade Centre bombings in 2001.

Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda have found a safe haven across the porous frontier in Pakistan’s lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where many of the suicide bombers are believed to have been trained.

The bombing on Eid al Adha was the second assassination attempt in eight months on Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, who stepped down as Pakistan’s interior minister last month, and who is running for Parliament elections planned for on Jan. 8. Some 28 people were killed and the minister slightly wounded in the first suicide attack in April in the town of Charsadda in the NWFP.

Pakistan has suffered an unprecedented number of suicide bombings this year by pro-Taliban and foreign militants. The deadliest was in October this year during a procession celebrating the return of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The attack in the southern port city of Karachi killed some 130 people and wounded 500.

The ratcheting up of violence has had a troubling side-effect in Pakistan’s tribal areas and neighbouring Swat Valley, which till recently was a paradise for mountaineers.

“Everybody – children, men, women – at some level is shaken up and suffers from severe post traumatic disorders in the conflict zones due to soaring violence (by pro-Taliban groups) and counter operations by the military ever since 2002,” said Dr Amjad Ali Shah, a psychiatrist in Peshawar, capital of NWFP.

A scrutiny of records maintained by hospitals reveals that a total of 1,001 patients suffering from psychiatric ailments were registered from January to November 2007 compared to 706 in 2005.

With schools closed interminably, children roaming the streets are exposed to high levels of violence, observed Dr Khursheed Khan, a psychologist, at the Khyber Teaching Hospital here. The situation is similarly alarming in Afghanistan, he pointed out. Many of his patients are Afghans, he confided.

“Nobody knows who is doing what and to whom. People blame the army, the politicians, the Taliban and the U.S. Everybody is confused about who is a friend, and who a foe,” the doctor said in an interview.

Anxiety and mistrust have become common ailments among the once fearless people who live by rigid codes of honour and hierarchy.

It has infected Pakistan’s para-military forces deployed along the 2,400-km frontier. Soldiers battling pro-Taliban militants have reported to hospitals with psychological disorders. They are confused – who are the enemy, and are their officers on their side.

“I have examined several paramilitary soldiers who were suffering from psychological trauma,” confirmed Dr Iftikhar Hussain.

Pakistan’s military has claimed to have retaken the Swat Valley this month, killing 300 militants and forcing the rest into the surrounding hills.

Doctors in NWFP’s Bannu district said they were receiving patients from several villages in Mirali, a tehsil in FATA’s North Waziristan Agency with a 200-bed hospital, which came under air attack on Oct 7. About 400 civilians, mainly women and children, were reported to have perished.

According to Bannu-based Dr Aslam Khan, every second person in Waziristan suffers from depression. He said that many women and children brought to the main hospital complained of recurring nightmares of blood-splattered bodies and families living in destitution after losing their homes in the war between the government and militants.

A doctor in Mirali acknowledged that psychological trauma was common. However, most cases went unreported because people are reluctant to admit to mental health problems. Instead, stress has emerged as a new sociological phenomenon.

“The major dilemma is that people do not consider trauma a health concern,” said Naushad Khan, a psychologist at the University of Peshawar.

A 10-year-old girl who came to his clinic suffering from anxiety and fear was being called a “coward” by her mother, he pointed out. The girl had witnessed a suicide bomb blast and its immediate aftermath – headless torsos and army helicopters flying menacingly over the blast site.

“Here people believe in self-medication and purchase non-prescription drugs to counter depression,” said a pharmacist in Bannu.

The government has largely failed to restore law and order despite an emergency clamped by President Pervez Musharraf, a key ally of the United States, in what he said was an effort to curb terrorism. Democracy has been restored, but caught between the militants and the military, Pakistani civilians will pay the price for the ‘war on terror’.

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