9/11 brings slow death to Peshawar

Published: September 7, 2011
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Security officials gather beside the destroyed building of the police Criminal Investigation Department following a suicide bomb attack in Peshawar on May 25, 2011. PHOTO: AFP/FILE

Security officials gather beside the destroyed building of the police Criminal Investigation Department following a suicide bomb attack in Peshawar on May 25, 2011. PHOTO: AFP/FILE

PESHAWAR: When the people of Peshawar watched the collapse of New York’s  Twin Towers on television, it seemed like a distant tragedy.

Few could have imagined that the events of September 11, 2001, thousands of miles away would touch their lives in the bustling frontier city near the Afghan border.

But over the decade since then, Peshawar has itself been targeted repeatedly by militants opposed to Pakistan’s cooperation in the US war on militancy.

These days the city is a magnet for suicide bombers rather than the tourists and traders who once made its economy vibrant.

“I come to my shop every morning but I don’t know if I am going to go home alive or in a body bag,” said Sheikh Arshad, who repaired his minivan after it was damaged in a bombing and then had to sell it to keep his herbal medicine shop afloat.

“When 9/11 happened I had no idea it would bring such destruction to my business, to my city. There is nothing anyone can do. The police come after every bombing, take down our names and promise compensation. But nothing happens.”

Rich history, uncertain future

For centuries Peshawar was a crossroads of culture and trade between Afghanistan, South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. It is also the gateway to the Khyber Pass, which sits on the ancient Silk Road and leads to the Afghan border.

The city fired imaginations in modern times too.

During the 1980s, Peshawar became a den of spies and jihadis when the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan covertly funded a guerrilla war to expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

At one point it was home to Osama bin Laden and other high-profile militants, long before he became the United States’ enemy number one.

But there is little magic left in Peshawar.

Destructive changes brought by 9/11 were subtle at first. Trade with neighbouring Afghanistan fell gradually after a US-led invasion toppled the Taliban there in 2001.

Remnants of the regime fled over the porous border to the northwest and established sanctuaries close to Peshawar.

But Peshawar really started feeling the heat after a full-scale war erupted between the state and homegrown Taliban when former President Pervez Musharraf’s forces launched an armed assault on militants in Islamabad’s Red Mosque in 2007.

Peshawar was soon swept up in government offensives and counter-attacks by militants. Suicide bombings rocked the city, killing hundreds of people over the years.

No one seems safe from the carnage.

Eight-year-old schoolboy Asghar Khan was walking with some friends last month when a bomb hidden in a fruit cart was detonated remotely, killing him. Five policemen, who appeared to be the target of the attack, also died.

“Really, if the 9/11 incident had not occurred, Asghar would have still been with us,” said his uncle, Ashfaq Khan. The boy’s 60-year-old father was still too shaken to speak. He just held up a photograph of Ashgar.

Once an easy-going centre of culture in a picturesque valley, today Peshawar feels like a city under siege.

Soldiers in machinegun nests are stationed across what was known long ago as the City of Flowers and many commercial buildings are protected by sandbags and barbed-wire fences.

Ijaz Ahmed, who heads police operations in Peshawar, stood in his office a few feet away from photographs of fallen comrades in the war against militants. He reflected on

Peshawar’s history since 9/11, and its uncertain future.

“Peshawar has become the frontline city,” he said. “And it has suffered the most from the violence.”

The psychological scars are deep. Post-traumatic stress disorder is on the rise.

“Before 9/11, I’d see maybe one in a hundred cases where a child was suffering from depression. Now it’s one in every seven,” said psychiatrist Khalid Mufti.

Economy, culture throttled

Peshawar’s economy has taken a battering too.

Half of the city’s industrial zone has shut down since 2007 and output in the remaining plants has dropped by 50 percent, says the provincial chamber of commerce and industry.

“Commercial banks are reluctant to extend loans because of insecurity and there has been no major financing in years,” said Osman Bashir Bilour, the chamber’s president.

Merchants at Peshawar’s famous Qissakhwani bazaar, which thrived for centuries, are barely surviving. All they can do is long for the city’s past glory.

“The Americans, the Canadians, the Japanese, the Germans, they always bought my merchandise,” said Bashir Ahmed, referring to traditional ethnic Pashtun caps, sitting near photographs of Western customers from over the years. “Now no one is coming. It’s close to lunchtime and I have not sold one cap today.”

The spread of militancy here was a reaction to the American presence in Afghanistan and the post-9/11 alliance between Washington and Islamabad. But it’s not just the violence that has reshaped Peshawar.

In 2002, a religious political coalition sympathetic to the Taliban came to power in Peshawar and banned what they deemed un-Islamic activities. Film, music, theatre and art, essential parts of Peshawar’s cultural identity, were suppressed.

“Artists have run away. I get thousands of threats. Artists have moved to other cities. All the productions are done there now. Here we can’t even breath,” said a theatre director, who can’t find work and was too scared to be named. “It went bad after 9/11. The violence is so intense now that no one remembers who started it.”

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Sep 7, 2011 - 1:34PM

    not peshawar i think to the whole pakistan it was like slow poison.

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  • Zalmay
    Sep 7, 2011 - 1:37PM

    My beloved city of flowers!

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  • Rizma
    Sep 7, 2011 - 1:48PM

    I have only ever visited the city a few times – mostly day trips from Islamabad, but my heart aches at the plight of Peshawers inhabitants who have seen their home crumble before their eyes

    Recommend

  • Ishrat Salim
    Sep 7, 2011 - 4:27PM

    Since 2002 a coaltion of religious – politico party headed by JI was in power for 4 years i,e upto 2006 & supported these same elements who are today creating havoc all over Pakistan including Peshawar…why they patronised the Taliban & other like-minded elements in those 4 years & today these same parties are criticising the govt & the Army of operation….why they did not take action to arrest the trend which has turned out to be a ” monster “…??Recommend

  • Sep 7, 2011 - 6:07PM

    When you burn your neighbours’ homes, the fire will ultimately catch yours. This is what has happened to Pakistan. Musharraf’s double game of strengthening mullahs in KhyberPakhtunkhwa on the one hand and on the other playing to the tunes of the Americans has brought all this destruction on Pakistanis in general and Peshawarites in particular.Recommend

  • Asif Ilyas
    Sep 7, 2011 - 11:50PM

    Well peshawar is frontline city and pakistan is frontline state but this frontlike brings a lot of destruction for us.Peshawar was peacefull city all over world before 9/11 but this double game makes a valley of deaths.

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  • Dr Khan
    Sep 8, 2011 - 12:35AM

    The correct solution would have been to allow the madrassahs to impart religious knowledge instead of clamping them shut on American orders, further widening the division amongst the religious sector of Pakistan. Why I emphasize on imparting religious knowledge is because if these suicide bombers are really Muslims, only true Islam can guide them, unfortunately the enemies of Pakistan (the terrorists in suits) are brainwashing the youth into hurting their own people, distorting religion, had these people known true Islam things wouldn’t have gone this ugly. However, lets not forget, the biggest mistake was to side with the NATO forces, thats when we lost the war. You can’t swing both ways and expect to survive. And im surprised at some comments regarding the mujahideen of the 1980s, these were true mujahideen who helped free Afghanistan of the Russians, if you don’t know history, than don’t drag every tom dick and harry to justify your attack on Islam and “Mullahs”.

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  • pakpinoy
    Sep 8, 2011 - 1:55AM

    Many foreigners, including myself, peacefully lived and worked in Peshawar for years, enjoying the renowned hospitality of the proud Pathans. All, more or less, have left now.

    It is simply remarkable the destructive effects denial and appeasement have had all over Pakistan, but especially in Peshawar. Very few ever acknowledged or were bold enough to admit who the real enemy was. By the time the majority did realize, it was simply too late. The city had been overrun.

    Peshawaris are now more honest and aware than those in the Punjab, which is likely one of the only regions left in the entire world where the majority of people don’t even believe 9/11 ever occurred.

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  • Palvasha von Hassell
    Sep 9, 2011 - 1:48PM

    @pakpinoy:

    Our beloved Peshawar has borne the brunt of cretinously short-sighted Western policy in Afghanistan since even before the Soviet invasion, which Brzezinski has famously admitted was provoked by the US. Correspondingly, extremism has been rising ever since. We were there, and went through it. It is heart-breaking to see what has happened to the city post the utterly inexcusable Western response to 9/11. So excuse us for thinking it presumptous of you to tell us how to think and what to believe! You are in denial!Recommend

  • Sep 10, 2011 - 1:36AM

    @Palvasha von Hassell:
    You are not excused. Too many Pakistanis make excuses. Wikileaks says Zardari told the U.S. that’s because Pakistani policemen have to worry about being murdered in their beds if they arrest extremists. So isn’t the least an anonymous Pakistani commenter can do is to support his countrymen verbally, if in no other way?

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  • goggi
    Sep 11, 2011 - 1:41PM

    Complete Original ’07 Zeitgeist With 2010 Updates by: Peter Joseph

    A film which gives a deep insight in the terrifying world of thoughts of these people. Since centuries they have, including the Arab imperialists, enslaved, poisoned and manipulated our souls and minds and created walls of hatred, fear, insanity and bloodshed between us.

    On this particular day, I embrace all humans of different faiths especially in my beloved country Pakistan. Only in unconditional Unity, love and trust we can thrive and blossom as individuals and as a nation.Recommend

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