x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The city before the danger zone

Last word Ayesha Akram remembers Peshawar as a bustling trade centre, but fear and rubble obscure the city's past.

Ayesha Akram remembers Peshawar as a bustling trade centre, but fear and rubble obscure the city's past. I could see my husband tensing up as we drove past Attock and into Peshawar city. The early afternoon sunlight glinted off our windscreen and highlighted his knuckles, white from tightly grasping the steering wheel. My husband is a Pathan, born and bred in Peshawar. A number of his relatives still live there, though his immediate family moved away when he was about seven years old. This was the first time I was travelling with him to his native city, and he was noticeably worried.

I hadn't been to Peshawar for years, and was excited at the prospect of drinking kawa, a strong and traditional Peshawar green tea, eating Afghan tikkas - pieces of fatty meat barbecued with only a salt marinade - and shopping in the Barra markets, where goods smuggled from China and Afghanistan are sold at ridiculously low prices. My eagerness was tempered, however, by recent news of Peshawar's increasingly tottering stability. In 2008, the city was the victim of four suicide bomb blasts, which cumulatively killed 99 and wounded another 226. The North-West Frontier Province was struck 29 times by suicide bombers, and 16 others hit targets in the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Many of these blasts took place in crowded market places and near places of worship, where they took dozens of lives.

Though the Peshawar of today is hardly a tourist spot, not too long ago the city was constantly inundated by visitors from other parts of Pakistan. Even after they moved away, my husband's family would often make weekend trips here: the women spent days at the crowded marketplaces, and the men entertained themselves by chewing mutton tikkas and trying on Pashtun waistcoats, shawls and traditional headpieces called kullas.

Peshawar was established by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 16th century. For much of its history, the city was one of the main trading centres on the Silk Road, a meeting place of cultures from South and Central Asia and the Middle East. Today, though lorries can still be seen weaving their way through the city, getting around Peshawar has become incredibly dangerous. Last December, more than 200 lorries were torched in a single attack.

On our way to the house of a family friend - a retired Army brigadier - we had to cross the Ring Road, an infamously unsafe thoroughfare where a majority of the attacks on Nato lorries have taken place. My husband wanted to race our car across it, but a traffic jam slowed us to a tortoise's pace. As we edged forward, I caught sight of a couple of Humvees on the side of the road, burnt almost to a crisp.

Safely sipping kawa at our destination, we mentioned crossing the Ring Road. The brigadier almost dropped his tea cup. "What do you mean?" he asked. "Why did you travel on that road? Don't you know that no one, not even people like me who live in Peshawar, goes there?" He went on to explain that many more parts of the city were now no-go areas, where not even residents of the city would venture. "Previously, if one of my servants lost a family member or relative I would make it a point to attend the funeral. But now the situation is different," he said. "I make it clear to them that I can't leave, and they understand my predicament."

The brigadier insisted that we leave our car and have his driver take us back to our hotel. On the way, the driver regaled us with tales of Budaper, the part of the city where he was born. Today all of the area's residents own guns and only travel in groups. "It's survival of the fittest," he said, speaking in rapid-fire Pashto. "We have to save our skins, and the only way to do this is to become stronger by becoming armed."

Two hours later, a friend informed us that a sniper attack had taken place on the Ring road. Even the city centre felt different. Though crowds still thronged the streets, and vendors still screamed out their wares, there was a change in the way people were walking. The women had pulled their chadors lower down over their faces; in most cases only their eyes were uncovered. Instead of congregating in street corners for random chit chat, the men were mostly hurrying along their ways, avoiding idle gossip. Even the children seemed different - less likely to wander from their mother's sides.

We happened to be visiting one month after the Imam Bargah, a place of worship for Shiite Muslims located in the middle of a bustling marketplace, was attacked. Its ceiling and walls were destroyed, and eight people were injured. We were walking through the same marketplace when curiosity got the better of me. Grabbing my husband's arm, I pulled my chador further down my face and hurried into the side street leading toward the Imam Bargah. Rubble was still piling up outside the crumbled building; passers-by had to struggle to climb over mini-mountains of stone and cement.

An aged man was standing quietly in a corner, leaning on a stick with one of his legs bandaged up to his knee. I learnt he was the caretaker of the Iman Bargah and had been injured in the blast. "I heard the bomb blast," he said, speaking in a slightly raspy voice. "And then bricks came falling down toward us. A brick hit me on my head and I fainted." When he came to, he was lying on a hospital bed. I wondered why he still lived in the area - wasn't he afraid of another attack? "I am scared but this place is my home and I have to rebuild it," he said, becoming more animated as he talked on this subject. "I can't leave my home."

Ayesha Akram is a senior executive producer at Express News, a TV channel in Pakistan.