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Peshawar: does anyone care?

May 28, 2013

THE apparently ceaseless debate sparked by the Boston marathon bomb blasts in the American media has only just been partially eclipsed by the Oklahoma tornado. While President Obama vowed to go to the ends of the earth to nab the culprits, he found the media and the American people surpassing him in their resolve to get to the root of the crime.

Very quickly, they not only got to the root of the crime in the impoverished Russian-controlled Dagestan they also found out a lot more about the two accused brothers and their family’s history.

In stark contrast, ‘unidentified’ militants have ravaged Peshawar and have killed both civilians and security personnel indiscriminately on a large scale, while destroying our infrastructure with impunity.

The news of a deadly terrorist incident in Peshawar stays in the headlines for no more than a few hours; thereafter it is consigned to the back-burner. Hardly anyone is heard talking about the identity of the attackers; their parentage or their domiciles or their past and present places of residence. The attackers move and act like predators, pillaging and disappearing with ease, instilling fear in the areas under their control and even beyond.

Peshawar has a rough and inexorably hostile neighbourhood. To its north lie the tribal agencies of Mohmand and Bajaur where a semblance of calm has been restored after years of seemingly uncontrollable turmoil. To its west lies the fabled Khyber Pass where the strong presence of the Pakistan Army’s Frontier Force units secure Peshawar from any major infiltration although terrorists from this side keep trickling into the city on all occasions.

It is the southwestern border of Peshawar with the restive Bara region of Khyber Agency that has meant devastation for Peshawar and the villages lying in close proximity to the border. The last week of 2012 saw militants attacking security checkposts in the said area killing nearly two dozen personnel at point-blank range and taking with them scores of others as hostages.

It was as if “they were on a shopping spree in a limitless departmental store, picking up hapless personnel from several posts, putting them in their double cabin vehicles and shooting them mercilessly,” recalls former Awami National Party MPA Saquibullah Khan Chamkani whose constituency includes a considerable part of the said area.

On May 11, 2013 when the rest of the candidates were attending to election-related duties, Mr Chamkani’s time was occupied in carrying the injured to hospitals and the dead to mortuaries. In one incident an eight-year-old boy standing near a polling station and engrossed in the proceedings taking place in Sheikh Mohammadi village fell to the dastardly machinations of the militants when a box he was handed over to carry to the ANP workers went off before he could take it to the targeted area.

Earlier, in late March the militants operating in the same area had destroyed a 500 KV grid station at Sheikh Mohammadi that supplies power to more than half of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and which is located on the main Kohat Road at a distance of six kilometres from Peshawar Cantonment. “They passed through our villages of Sheikh Mohammadi, Suleiman Khel and Shahab Khel after midnight and did not leave until they had completely ransacked the grid station,” a villager from the same area said while recalling the events of that deadly night.

The Sheikh Mohammadi grid station is the proverbial punching bag of the militants. Nothing seems to fascinate them more than targeting it, especially during peak summer. It has been targeted at least three times in as many years. The latest attack was the worst: eight people were killed and scores of others kidnapped while the grid station was rendered completely dysfunctional causing losses of at least Rs2 billion to the state.

The southwest of Peshawar is undoubtedly on fire, and nothing substantiates this more than the fact sheet of May 2013. Just as these lines were being penned another attack on the police convoy coming from Kohat claimed the lives of six policemen accompanying the DPO (district police officer) Kohat to Peshawar who sustained serious injuries in the incident. Initial accounts suggested the culprits did not suffer substantial losses.

Peshawar was not unaccustomed to violence especially from intruders from the tribal hinterland. The British during their long stay in the town were frequently attacked by hordes of tribesmen, but in no case did they let the marauders go unpunished. They also built a wall around the old city with 16 gates as a solid pre-emptive measure against continuous attacks. Peshawar has since expanded to its last extremities and borders the tribal areas.

The British knew their enemies down to their last ancestor; we don’t seem to know even their immediate parentage, and don’t appear to mind this fact at all. Peshawar must now be secured by erecting a wall along its entire length bordering the tribal lands. Unfortunately, no half measures like establishing dozens of checkposts in urban limits can stop Peshawar from being caught in the throes of the conflagration being witnessed to the south and southwest of the city.

The writer is a freelance contributor.