Going to Lahore on the same day that Hillary Clinton decided to pay a visit there was probably not the best idea of my life. Not that I had much choice – family members were arriving from the UK and had to be met at the airport and transported back to Bahawalpur. Travelling up through the night across Punjab, dodging the cotton wagons and the suicidal dogs, we were stopped at several points. One look inside the vehicle was enough for the police – “It’s a gora,” I heard one of them call to a colleague somewhere off in the gloom. “No problem,” came the shout back – and on we went. Turning into the airport in the misty dawn we were stopped and searched rather more rigorously than usual, and being gora made no difference at all. Everybody was getting searched. They looked at three forms of photo ID that I had with me and carefully scrutinised the drivers’ papers – all in order, thankfully.
The international arrivals concourse was thronged as it ever is, with pushing and shoving and craning of necks, and we waited for three hours before the family popped out of the end of the funnel; sweaty, tired and exhausted after having been searched several times before they got out of the terminal. They got searched again before we got out of the car park and then we sat and waited for two hours in a monster traffic jam caused by Mrs Clinton’s determination to go walkabout in a city where none of our leading politicians dare do so. As we crawled forwards there was an SMS to my phone – “Get out of the city fast, many threats.” It came from a friend who is resident in Lahore, who was herself unaware of the Clinton perambulations. “Is it always like this?” said my relatives. “Mostly,” I said.
Earlier in the week and a visit to a school to see long lines of solemn-faced children being rehearsed in the fine art of getting out if the school was attacked. Emergency evacuation was on the curriculum for most schools, and certainly all schools in the private sector. They had been issued with a directive that amounted to a security shopping list, and for every school that received it a future bill in the many hundreds of thousands of rupees. I learned that those security gates that you pass through, having given up your keys and mobile phone into a little basket, cost a minimum of 375,000 rupees. Then there is the cost of the extra guards – if you can find them. Guards are at a premium everywhere and demanding ever-spiralling wages. Anybody who can stand up straight and hold a shotgun in a determined manner gets a job. Builders are in for a bumper wage packet as well, as schools are required to raise their walls to eight feet – which only a few have at the moment. The principal looked at me across the desk and we discussed raising fees.
Adjusting to being a country which acknowledges at the highest level that it is at war came as something of a shock, despite not being unexpected. For months I had been putting off the shift in mental gears that would take me from coping with distant conflict that was a rumble on the horizon to a conflict that had come inside my own space. The bombing of the International Islamic University was the last straw. This is the space I live in…academia and education. This was the place I live and sometimes work. And the bomber got inside. Finally, it got personal.
bY Chris Cork