Nov 8, 2009

Under siege

By Chris Cork

Visiting Islamabad even as recently as a year ago was a treat. A break from the dust of Bahawalpur, a place were I could spend hours browsing bookshops, taking leisurely lunches with friends or visiting an art gallery. In the evening, window shopping in Jinnah and Super and Kohsar or a truly scrumptious ice-cream in an old railway carriage decorated with film posters from the 1950s. Despite the chaos and turmoil around it, Islamabad seemed a veritable haven of peace – but not any more.

The city has assumed an almost ghostly quality, both day and night, seeming depopulated and having the life drained from it to become pale and frail, lying on its bed at the foot of the Margallas and breathing shallow panting breaths. The arteries are clogged and blocked everywhere as the thrombosis of “security” constricts the flow of life, the day to day business of being a capital city.

Speaking to colleagues over a couple of days, there was agreement that the Islamic University bombing was the watershed, the point at which things became different. The schools’ closures quickly followed across the country, but it now appears that there is not, and has not been, any direct threat to schools anywhere outside of FATA. The terrorists have scored a significant victory in that they have exploited the latent fears of an already fearful population and administration and terrified them into frantic action – action designed to combat a threat that is more in the mind than writ large for real.

I was last in the city the weekend before the IIU bombing, and although there were plenty of check posts they had a slightly casual sense about them, with languid, bored policemen waving you through with hardly a glance either at driver or passenger. Not any more, they don’t. There has been a significant change in the mood music. Police are edgy, terse and commanding. Cars are stopped and rummaged and a white face is no protection either – “Can you prove your identity and where are you going?” Getting into the Marriott – which was a blackened shell a year ago, and today a fine example of grace under pressure – is an epic journey punctuated by almost painful politeness; the staff seeming apologetic for the inconveniences that they have to make you suffer. At night the feeling of ghostliness is accentuated by the lack of traffic on the streets and the shops that close hours before they used to. By 11 p.m. Islamabad is behind its doors and hoping that the bogeyman will pass by and not tap the window tonight.

The Siege of Islamabad is a metaphor, the acting out of the fears and insecurities of a wider populace. But wait a moment…isn’t a siege conducted with the population inside a fortified perimeter and the enemy without? The Siege of Islamabad has turned the model inside out – the enemy is within and the defenders looking at one another and wondering “friend or foe” of everybody. It is from that uncertainty that has sprung the fear that shut down an entire national education system – much of which remains shut today. The actual threat may not have materialised but the fear of the threat was enough to potentiate it, giving it an ersatz reality that translated into action – directives and requirements – the extension of The Siege to the minds of all of us.

I left The Siege behind and went home wondering at the capacity of all of us to “carry on regardless” – but even that capacity is finite, and, historically, sieges tend to end with the besieged defeated.

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