Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Gratitude and Grief

Imtiaz Gul relays the harrowing account of his brother-in-law's brush with death during the suicide blasts that rocked Kabul and Peshawar on Oct. 28 and explains why Pakistan has yet to curb the growing alarm of its people.

Paula Bronstein /Getty Images
Paula Bronstein /Getty Images
Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

As Ahmed, my brother-in-law, limped out of the Islamabad Airport Thursday evening, his appearance alone was enough to relay the ordeal he had endured just one day earlier in Kabul. His ears and hands were burned, his cheeks bruised. The usually care-free Ahmed had escaped death twice during the two-hour gun-battle between the three Taliban suicide bombers and security forces early Wednesday morning. From a nearby window, Ahmed watched as the attackers mowed down no fewer than eight people including five foreign U.N. staff. Then, as he made his escape from the building, Ahmed found himself caught in a rain of deadly shrapnel after one of the attackers blew himself up.

Only minutes earlier, Ahmed had locked himself in his room, despite pleas from two other residents to run for his life. But within minutes, the room caught fire, and he exited the rear of the house for safety, with no way of knowing that he was jumping from the pan into the fire. Mistaking him for a militant accomplice, Afghan police began to chase him, shooting their guns at him. He survived the gunfire but officers managed to catch up, pouncing upon him like starving dogs, and bundled him off to one of the intelligence facilities.

As Ahmed, my brother-in-law, limped out of the Islamabad Airport Thursday evening, his appearance alone was enough to relay the ordeal he had endured just one day earlier in Kabul. His ears and hands were burned, his cheeks bruised. The usually care-free Ahmed had escaped death twice during the two-hour gun-battle between the three Taliban suicide bombers and security forces early Wednesday morning. From a nearby window, Ahmed watched as the attackers mowed down no fewer than eight people including five foreign U.N. staff. Then, as he made his escape from the building, Ahmed found himself caught in a rain of deadly shrapnel after one of the attackers blew himself up.

Only minutes earlier, Ahmed had locked himself in his room, despite pleas from two other residents to run for his life. But within minutes, the room caught fire, and he exited the rear of the house for safety, with no way of knowing that he was jumping from the pan into the fire. Mistaking him for a militant accomplice, Afghan police began to chase him, shooting their guns at him. He survived the gunfire but officers managed to catch up, pouncing upon him like starving dogs, and bundled him off to one of the intelligence facilities.

Ahmed, distraught, has been rendered nearly mute from this traumatic experience. For now, he refuses to divulge what happened to him during the few hours he spent under interrogation, but his bruised and swollen face says it all. Luckily for our family, one of Ahmed’s colleagues saw him being grabbed by Afghan security officials. This eyewitness account helped his employers locate and win him freedom by verifying his identity after hours of being held. Sensing imminent death, Ahmed had made frantic calls while he was locked in that room to my sister telling her that he was trapped and that she should take care of their three kids. He also phoned his brothers in Peshawar, telling them that his time was up and asked for forgiveness "If I ever offended you." But soon after his cell phone connection was lost and the entire family here in Pakistan had almost given up hope until his employers called to say that they had retrieved him from interrogation and he was OK. This information came roughly five hours after he made his last call. He is now resting at home.  

October 28 turned out to be an equally gory day for hundreds of people of my birth place — Peshawar. Only about two weeks after killing approximately 50 innocent citizens at the city center, terrorists targeted yet another market, crowded with women and children, with at least 150 kg of lethal explosives laden on a car; the carnage left over 100 dead, mostly women and children. Two of my close relatives barely survived the fatal attack and lost their shops and all the merchandise within. In another attack on a bus stop at the crowded Soekarno Square two weeks earlier, my cousin’s mother-in-law suffered injuries.  

It was a day both of great personal gratitude and of immense grief; gratitude because my brother-in-law returned from Kabul in one piece, albeit shaken and horror-struck. Grief because the ugly minds and hands behind his ordeal — and behind the two deadly Peshawar attacks on women and children — make no distinction between innocent civilians and the ones hunting them — military security forces.

It is very likely that the attacks in Kabul and Peshawar — occurring within three hours of each other — were timed with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the Pakistani capital.

In response to the attacks in Kabul, Clinton struck a defiant note, issuing a statement condemning the terrorists, calling them "cowardly."

Such defiant and rhetorical statements by U.S. and Pakistani leaders alike notwithstanding, the bitter reality stalking the roads in Peshawar and elsewhere in northwestern Pakistan, denotes the growing menace of ideologically-driven terrorists who use the name of Islam to wreak death and destruction.

So far this year, terrorists have carried out dozens of suicide attacks, and acts of terror that have killed and maimed hundreds of Pakistanis. In October alone, faceless terrorists have struck at least 10 different locations in northwestern Pakistan.

The pain and trauma these attacks are inflicting on people at large is immense. The socio-psychological impact of the terror campaign — ostensibly conducted by the al Qaeda-inspired Tehreeke Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and fuelled by speculation of other external factors gunning for Pakistan’s mighty military establishment — is one of insecurity and uncertainty, the underlying current which constitutes an essential part of the terrorists’ agenda; create panic thereby destabilizing the country.

While people at large feel helpless, Pakistan’s civilian state institutions have yet to match their response to the alarming level of threat. The army continues its push against terrorist stronghold in South Waziristan, but the government lacks trust and authority among the people. It has yet to devise a counter-terror strategy that reinstates public confidence in state institutions.   

Imtiaz Gul is the head of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad and the author of the forthcoming book The Al Qaeda Connection: Terror in Tribal Areas.

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