Pakistan diary: Frontline Peshawar

Attacks on the provincial capital could turn Pakistanis against the war.

Peshawar bomb blast casualties

Peshawar has been hit by bombings as fighting has raged the Swat valley [EPA]

Imran Khan, Al Jazeera’s reporter in Pakistan, is filing regular dispatches from the country as the army battles Taliban fighters in the North West Frontier Province.

Islamabad, Saturday, May 23, 14.07GMT

After a night of terror in Peshawar, where another bomb claimed more lives when it exploded in a busy market place, the Pakistani army made good on their promise to enter the Swat valley town of Mingora.

The army were to present the manoeuvre as a success, saying they have captured a key bridge and interchange.

They say they have blown up an explosive laden vehicle and shot a suicide bomber.

So now Pakistan waits.

Pakistani troops have moved into Mingora, the main town in the Swat valley [EPA]

Awaits the outcome of the battle, awaits how it will play out, awaits news of civilian casualties, army deaths and political spin.

This war has united Pakistanis, but for how long?

Rahimullah is a friend of mine from Peshawar. He mourns for his town.

We meet in a television studio in Islamabad, the capital.

“Look at the security here. It’s immense but in my town it’s just not there. We feel exposed. These car bombs and suicide bombers are attacking us. ordinary people”

I ask him what he thinks will happen now fighting has intensified in Mingora.

“More bombs in Peshawar, the Taliban can reach there, They can mingle with the people.

My town is about to become a frontline if thats happens then in good nature we cannot support this fight against the Taliban.”

Frontline Peshawar is a scary thought.

Support for the war is holding but if Peshawar becomes a regular target, then Peshawaris and Pashtuns, the dominate ethnicity in the North West Frontier, may well drop their support for this operation and if that happens then  Pakistan’s war will come under immense pressure.

Islamabad, Friday, May 22, 13.20GMT

It looks like Pakistan’s battle with the Taliban is about to get worse, or to use military-speak, enter a new phase.

The army is making noises about entering the Swat valley’s main town of Mingora.

So far the main thrust of its tactics has been to use heavy artillery and air power to pound Taliban hideouts.

The army insists that it has had to use that kind of tactic to avoid heavy civilian casualties.

In fact, it says the civilian death toll so far in the upper Swat valley is just 10.

The army says the civilian toll in upper Swat valley is just 10, a figure impossible to verify 

That figure is impossible to independently verify.

In the fight for Mingora though the army will not use heavy artillery and air power.

It is sending in the infantry which will mean house-to-house, street-to-street fighting.

It’s going to be bloody and hard fought.

When I visited Mingora just after the Taliban signed a peace deal, the Taliban were still armed and highly visible as if to say “This is our town”.

Thier confidence is not idle boasting. They know this area well. They know the streets and the best places to hide. This is to be the Taliban’s last stand in the Swat valley.

They have always maintained they will fight to the last man.

The army will take over this town. No one expects the Taliban to fight Pakistan’s well- trained, well-equipped army into submission but the fighters are likely to claim some sort of victory.

We will know what both will say soon enough. Until then Pakistan awaits the outcome with anticipation and fear.

Islamabad, Thursday, May 21, 10.01GMT

Support for Pakistan’s war seems be to holding. Nightly, the county’s media shows salute its soldiers.

One newspaper headline is particularly striking: “The nation speaks with one voice: Crush ’em!”

Pakistan will have to deal decisively with the massive refugee crisis it faces as a result of the conflict [AFP]

In the markets and coffee shops people seem to want the crisis over, but welcome the fact that the army is tackling the Taliban.

“The thing is, Pakistanis have realised that the Taliban have gone back on their promises, have shown themselves incapable of sticking to peace deals so Pakistanis have become fed up,” Khadim Hussien, a university professor and analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“The Taliban are offering nothing – no new ideas, no way out.”

It’s an interesting thing to witness, this broad public and political support for the war.

Just a few months ago the government was under immense pressure because its military action against the Taliban in the Swat valley was being vocally criticised.

The army, fearful that their image would be tarnished, supported a landmark peace deal brokered by a pro-Taliban cleric between the provincial government of the North West Frontier Province and the Taliban.

In video

undefined Inside Swat’s conflict zoneundefined Pakistan’s displaced struggle to find shelter
undefined Swat residents make dash for safety
undefined UN warns of ‘disaster’ for Pakistan refugees

As we now know, that failed.
The Taliban moved into Buner and Dir districts and Islamabad was forced to act.

This latest operation is said to be a decisive action against the Taliban to finish them once and for all.

But beyond that task, challenging as it is, are others.

To maintain support for the war, Pakistan has to deal decisively with the massive refugee crisis it now faces.

It needs to show that the operation is Pakistani by design and that no foreign pressure has been put on the country.

If Pakistan’s politicians can keep all those plates spinning, then perhaps Pakistanis will keep supporting the war.

But as the refugee crisis mounts and more soldiers die, the odds are stacked against Islamabad.

Mirabadi Village, Wednesday, May 20, 07.40GMT

The vast majority of Pakistan’s almost 1.5 million refugees are living outside of the camps in private accommodation.

Mirabadi Village, which lies just outside of Islamabad, is a ‘slum village’

We visited some of these people to really see what their living conditions were like and to hear their stories.

The term “private accommodation” conjures up images of families helping each other out, living in nice conditions with a homely atmosphere.

Whilst that might be true for some, for others the living conditions are as challenging as those in the camps.

Mirabadi Village – just outside of Islamabad – is a slum village. It’s dusty, with narrow cobbled streets, open sewers and poor house workers. The type, although not Pakistan’s poorest, that have little.

But even here amongst the heat and barefoot children are stories of incredible generosity.

Nazimuddin is a labourer, working whenever he can find a job carrying bricks in one of the capital’s many construction sites.

If he earns a dollar a day he considers himself lucky.

His house is basic, two rooms and toilet, with an outdoor cooking area.

Crucially, however, he has a basic house next door in his village which was empty.

A Pakistani charity, FHRO, based in Swat asked him if he could house refugees.

He jumped at the chance to help.

“I have no television, radio, but the villagers her were talking about the fighting in Swat, I knew I had to help,” he says.

“It is my duty as a Muslim, as a Pakistani. I have very little.”

It has made a massive difference to Ahsanullah who lives in the house.

They have few facilities. Pakistan’s energy crisis means they are without electricity, they use gas to cook with, but even then the cost of gas means the have to use it sparingly.

Ahsanullah fled with his familiy and were placed here by the charity. 

“This man has very little, but what he does have he shares with us,” he tells me.

Ahsanullah and Nazimuddin are now firm friends.  As their children play together I can’t help but be struck by just how, in the face of a massive crisis, Pakistanis have united and continue to unite.

Islamabad, Tuesday, May 19, 13.13GMT

After careering around the North West Frontier Province for the past week or so, it feels good to be back in the relative calm of the capital Islamabad.

The government assault on pro-Taliban fighters has forced 1.5m to flee their homes [AFP]

I say relative calm because, despite the fact that I was here just a few weeks ago, I have noticed a few changes.

Huge concrete walls have gone up around some buildings. In other parts, black and yellow concrete safety barriers have turned open roads into go-kart courses.

The Marriott Hotel, subject to a massive bomb blast in September last year, is cocooned in a massive shell made out of blast walls and sandbags.

Armed guards, pump action shotguns draped casually over their shoulders, stand on every street.

This is Fortress Islamabad.

It’s been like this for a while now, but in last few months security the capital has gone into security overdrive.

Driving past the Parliament requires you to navigate several checkpoints and the route from one end of Islamabad to the other, which used to take 20 minutes, can now take an hour.

I contrast this with the Islamabad of my youth. My younger brother, sister and I used to come to the capital city on holiday as children.

In the 1980s it was nice place. Families would picnic in the hills that surround the city, you could go horse riding, every available space seemed to taken up by young men playing cricket and groups of girls would sit in cafes sharing ice cream and gossip. 

The only security you would see was on the outskirts of the city. You would have never seen Pakistani army soldiers ensconced in sand bag posts.

That peaceful Islamabad seems to have gone.

Don’t get me wrong, Islamabad still continues in it’s own way, but as city it has changed irrevocably.

Fashion shows still happen here, there is a thriving arts scene, the markets are packed with every kind of Pakistani buying every kind of cloth and the cafes are still doing a brisk trade.

But it’s not the carefree atmosphere of my youth. People tend not to hang around as much as they used to, most entertaining now happens at home and Islamabad’s vast array of restaurants, though packed by day, remain emptier than ever at night.

Islamabad – they call it the beautiful city here. Carved out of the hills it’s definitely that, but it’s also nervy and tense.

Mardan, Monday, May 18, 12.03 GMT
The streets are teeming, the noise is deafening.
At every corner, on every road, it seems someone is trying to raise money, ask for goods, or pray for Pakistan’s displaced.

The outpouring of charitable aid has been ‘extraordinary’, says Imran Khan [AFP]

Mixed in amongst it all is a small stall with a black and white flag gently fluttering away.
The flag is a surprise to me as it belongs to a group that was banned: Jamaat Ud Dawa.
The UN put them on a terrorist watch list after the Mumbai attacks last year.
The group then disappeared as it members were arrested. Now here they are, working alongside the UN.
The group seems to have risen from the ashes.
But there is a new name to describe it: Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation, which translates as the Humanitarian Welfare Organisation.

I asked the spokesman, a young bearded chap with and high visibility orange jacket on,  if the name change was simply cosmetic. He was non-committal. 
“We coordinate with Jamaat Ud Dawa, but we co-ordinate with several charities,” he said.
Inside the tent sat Yayha Mujahadin, a key member of Jamaat Ud Dawa. I asked him for an interview but he declined.
It seems whoever this particular group is, they are keeping a low profile.
For the people in the camp, though, it matters little who is supporting them, whether it’s groups with alleged links to jihadist organisations, the UN, or student organisations – the aid is important.
The vast majority of Pakistans estimated 1.5 million refugees live with family or friends but a significant chunk live in camps which are supplied by Pakistanis of every political hue.
It is extraordinary, the outpouring of generosity I have witnessed over the last week.
But what will stick with me is the sight of a member of a group the UN has put on terrorist watch list work alongside the UN when it comes to helping refugees.

Peshawar, Sunday, May 17, 14:09 GMT

It has been a very eerie day in Peshawar.

After Saturday’s bomb blasts – which killed at least 11 people and wounded several others – Pakistan has had time to digest the events.

Pakistani politicians seem to have taken a bullish stance. They want to get rid of the Taliban.

Pakistan is braced for what could be a decisive assault on the Swat town of Mingora [AFP]

The chief minister of the North West Frontier Province says he wants the army to go after the Taliban in other areas of the country.

He has some support for the idea, but others are fearful over any more military action.

With something like 1.5 million Pakistanis already displaced, any additional military action is likely to cause that figure to skyrocket. Pakistan is struggling to cope with the problem it has, never mind any more.

Also, ordinary Pakistanis are terrified of reprisal attacks. The Taliban are said to have several bases across Pakistan from which they can launch attacks.

It is a very tense situation.

The government, though, seems to be sensing victory.

Pakistan is braced for what could be a decisive assault on the main Swat town of Mingora.

The Taliban have said it’s victory or death. 

Whatever the outcome, what is clear is that Swat valley is only the beginning of Pakistan’s fight.

The Taliban are unlikely to just give up Swat without attacking major cities.

The government may be confident of victory, but Pakistanis are terrified of at what cost it will come.

Peshawar, Saturday, May 16, 12:44 GMT

Another shocking day for Pakistan.

This time it’s not in the Swat valley but here in the city of Peshawar.

The car bomb exploded outside an internet cafe in the city of Peshawar [EPA]

It was little after midday when a car bomb exploded outside of an internet cafe killing and wounding many, including several schoolchildren waiting in a nearby bus.

More innocent victims of Pakistan’s battle within.

I was on the phone with a Peshawari friend when the news came in.

His reaction was telling.

“Imran, I have to leave this country. I have to get out. What on earth is going on?”

My friend Yousef is the future of this country. Young, educated and articulate he is exactly the kind of person to drive things forward.

But he, and many others, no longer feel safe in Pakistan.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many young Pakistanis are leaving.

I was in Dubai in March and what struck me most was the amount of young Pakistani nationals who had settled there.

The situation is much the same in Britain and the US.

As news of the Peshawar car bomb continued to come in, I called Yousef back and asked him whether he would really leave.

“My uncle works in Washington as a political lobbyist. He says his firm needs people who understand the US and Pakistan. What would you do?”

I understand that Yousef is beginning to feel like he has little choice but to leave. I only hope Pakistan will one day tempt him back.

Peshawar, Friday, May 15, 13:47 GMT

One of the great things about Peshawar is its history. Behind its noisy, congested streets lie alleyways and markets that have stood for centuries. One such place is Storytellers Bazaar.

In days gone by, this was where artists, poets and thinkers would gather to sing, argue and swap stories late into the night.

Thousands of charities have sprung up in response to the crisis [GALLO/GETTY]

I have come here because another song is now being sung, a lament for Pakistan’s displaced – refugees in their own country.

Here one of thousands of charitable organisations has set up a stall gathering together vital food aid, money and supplies to ship to the camps where hundreds of thousands now live.

The stall is surrounded by electric fans. Stacks of rice are piled high and small denomination currency is strewn across a ramshackle wooden table.

The stall is run by Habibullah Zahid, a large, jolly, bearded man who runs restaurants by day and the charity by night.

I asked him what on earth refugees living in tents would do with electric fans.

“They need these desperately,” he said.

“Those camps will get electricity eventually. You have to remember that these people are used to the cooler climes of the Swat Valley. This is [a] hot place. You will see these will be most useful.”

Whatever Pakistanis feel about the military operation, the humanitarian crisis has united them.

Newspapers are full of advertisements urging readers to donate, television commercials run on loop showing heartbreaking images of children and the elderly.

As I talked to him, people drop money onto Habibullah’s table. Some of Pakistan’s poorest people, are donating as much money as they can to stalls such as these all over the country.

Their generosity is humbling.

As Habibullah and I talk, a small boy – he must be seven or so years old – begins to sing and a crowd quickly gathers.

His voice rises as more people watch; his words capture the crowd’s attention.

I later find out that he is singing the poetry of Sufi Rehman Baba, a 17th century mystic more commonly known around here as the “Nightingale of Peshawar”.

The boy’s choice of song is particularly poignant. A few months ago Sufi Rehman Baba’s shrine, which has stood since he died in the 17th century, was attacked by men claiming to be Taliban fighters.

They planted four devices to try to destroy the shrine, but it survived.

When this chapter in Pakistan’s history closes, perhaps it will be remembered and re-told by the storytellers in Peshawar.

Perhaps people will wonder how such a thing ever came to pass.

Swabi, North West Frontier Province, Thursday, May 14, 12:22 GMT

The first thing that hits you when you visit a refugee camp is the sheer scale.

“Camp” is too small a word to use- these are cities of canvas and rope.

Yar Hussein is home to 4,000 refugees, much smaller than the 48,000 strong Jallala camp

Yar Hussein camp has only been running for a few days. So far it houses 4000 refugees – a small town compared to say Jallala refugee encampment which has upwards of 48,000 people living there.

But nonetheless housing people is a mammoth task.

Getting these tents up, supplying water and food is a logistics nightmare.

I spoke to the cook at the camp. He told me: “We are doing the best we can, but look at what we have.”

He pointed to huge cauldrons bubbling away, cooking rice. The pots had definitely seen better days.

His whole open air kitchen reminded me of a wedding I had been to in Pakistan as a child – the fires roasting, the multi-coloured awning covering the kitchen area.

This, though, was far from a celebration. It is a “massive crisis” – according to Antonio Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

A soft-spoken man, he is visiting the crisis area for the first time and has passionately pleaded for the world to take notice.

“Pakistan has hosted the largest refugee population in the world – 5 million Afghans – Pakistan now needs help itself and the world must pay attention.”

The UN and other aid agencies have a big job on their hands.

This is the biggest movement of people in recent times. The figures are worth going over again.

At least 1.3 million people are on the move and more than 800,000 are registered with the UN alone as refugees.

But behind that figure lies another one. You could call them the forgotten refugees.

Since August 2008, people have been fleeing clashes across the North West Frontier Province. The army has been battling Taliban fighters and more than 500,000 refugees have been registered in camps by the UN since August last year.

They have been living makeshift accommodation since then. The Red Cross has registered another 400,000.

These figures are mind boggling.

I had a chance to reflect on the numbers while I was in the camp. Watching children roam freely, playing as they do, I found myself wondering how many of them would spend their formative years living in places like these.

When so many people live together disease also becomes a problem. Cases of diarrhoea and skin problems have already been registered.

I wonder how many of the children I saw will survive.

Peshawar, Wednesday, May 13, 06:43 GMT

The army is really selling its side of the story.

On Tuesday, it proudly told the media that it had managed to capture a key Taliban stronghold, Gatt Pachar.

The humanitarian crisis persists as thousands of families are displaced by fighting [AFP]

This mountain is the base of Mullah Fazlullah, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. 

It is said to house armed fighters, training camps and arms dumps.

Capturing it was key.

But has it made a difference?

Well, yes and no. Denying the Taliban any ground is crucial. But were key Taliban leaders there at the time?

It would appear not. That’s an issue.

The longer Mullah Fazlullah evades capture, the more of a totem he becomes, and a symbol for the Taliban fighters.

That gives him strength and power beyond his tactical skills. 

Speculation suggests that Fazlullah remains in the Swat valley. Sources close to the Taliban have told Al Jazeera that Fazlullah knew that the army would target his base and that, by leaving fighters there, he was able to escape along with the senior leadership. 

That’s important because the Taliban has plenty of fighters, but what the group lacks is men with military knowledge to guide them.

Experts say the Taliban’s senior leaders have that knowledge, which encompasses guerrilla warfare, bombmaking and other skills.

If Mullah Fazlullah and men such as his senior commander Ibn-e-Amin perish, then the army can say the Taliban has been defeated.

So far, the Taliban insists that its leaders are all still alive and battle goes on.

So, while the army sells its message of success, success, success others are less sure.

The humanitarian crisis continues; so far, the government says 1.3 million have been displaced. Ordinary Pakistanis are watching the pictures on their television screens nightly and wondering how on earth this spells peace. 

Peshawar, Tuesday, May 12, 2009, 09:22 GMT

Peshawar is a town with a past littered with the ghosts of war.

A palpable fear now hangs over the city after frequent deadly attacks [EPA]

Traditionally it has inhabited the crossroads between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It was here the British Empire headquartered its great game against Russia in the 19th century.

It is here that the Afghan mujahidin gathered logistics to fight their war against Russian occupation in the 1980s.

This dusty town with its cobbled alleyways was the place where CIA agents mingled with their Pakistani counterparts to conduct their war in Afghanistan after the twin towers in New York fell.

And now Peshawar is once again at the centre of conflict.

It’s already home to thousands of refugees fleeing those wars in Afghanistan.

But this time its war is raging within Pakistan’s borders and those refugees are Pakistani.

It’s had an incredible effect on Pakistan.

The media here have dubbed this the biggest movement of people since partition, when millions crossed the new border between Pakistan and India in 1947.

“The media here have dubbed this the biggest movement of people since partition… in 1947”

Ordinary Pakistanis have taken to the streets demanding the fighting stops.

One taxi driver told me he fears the break-up of Pakistan.

Another shop owner in one of Peshawar’s hotels says war will only make the situation worse, that the Taliban will hide in the mountains and fight until the bitter end.

The bitter end.

It’s worth thinking about how exactly Pakistan will end its military operation.

The government wants a swift operation that will allow them to claim victory.

Analysts say the army wants to be able to secure the area quickly and withdraw leaving the police in charge.

At the time of writing, the end is nowhere in sight.

The only thing we can say with any degree of certainty is that Pakistanis will flood into the camps and the battle still rages.

Source: Al Jazeera