A week after protesters vandalised parts of it, Aabpara market — the oldest commercial area in the city — still seemed to be in recovery mode.
For three consecutive days last week, Aabpara Chowk became an assembly point for protesters — both violent and peaceful — trying to reach the US embassy to lodge their protest against an anti-Islam movie. Each day, protesters eventually turned to violence after reaching a police barricade near Serena Hotel.
The protests have struck fear into the psyche of the people, who have become cautious and avoid visiting Aabpara if they hear anything about a protest there, according to local shopkeepers and transporters.
Taimoor Saleem, a van driver who runs five roundtrips a day from Soan Bus Station in Rawalpindi to the Prime Minister’s Secretariat in Islamabad, pointed to his van, standing quiet sans passengers, and the equally empty Aabpara Bus Stop. He said, “People tend to stay at home when they hear reports, confirmed or unconfirmed, about protest rallies.”
He said he loses around Rs500 per round trip on days like these. On days with actual protests, there’s also the risk of damage to the vehicle.
“Some protesting students tried to stop my van forcibly near Aabpara Chowk last Friday,” he said. “I had to make a quick manoeuvre to save my van from them.”
Taxi drivers near the bus stop had a similar story to tell.
“We don’t even take our cars out on the road when there is a protest call,” Muhammad Waheed said. “If there is any indication of a rally coming this way, we immediately move our taxis to a safe place.”
Waheed said road closures in anticipation of protest rallies create more problems for cabdrivers. On Friday, the police had closed Murree Road from Faizabad Interchange to Kashmir Chowk near Serena Hotel.
He added that it’s already hard to make ends meet and situations such as the three consecutive days of protest last week make it especially difficult for the taxi drivers.
Even though Aabpara remained calm on Friday afternoon, the market remained deserted. Gulnaz Nasir was one of the few shoppers buying groceries in the market. “It’s a bother when the market is closed because of protests, but today was calm and the roads were open,” Nasir said.
Another shopper, Asiya Iqbal, said, “If there’s a protest rally going out, it’s really difficult to complete important and urgent errands.”
Iqbal said she was saddened by scenes of violent protests on TV last week and was apprehensive about coming to Aabpara on Friday, but she found things to be all right in the end.
However, some vendors sympathised with the protesters.
“These protests are our way of showing we are Muslims,” said Muhammad Yaqoob, who has been selling french-fries in the market for six years. “My livelihood is not affected by shutdowns as God is my provider.”
Across the footpath from Yaqoob, Khan Wazir from Bajaur Agency has sold leather wallets for the past five years. Khan estimated that he barely made Rs1,000-a-day since the protests started last week, compared to Rs1,500 before.
“There’s no rush in the market. People don’t come out because they are worried about rallies,” Wazir said.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 29th, 2012.