Living in the shadow of Pakistan's suicide bombers 5

Living in the shadow of Pakistan’s suicide bombers

Zahid Kishgan knew nothing of the bomb until he regained consciousness in hospital a few days later.

The explosion happened in a bustling market, a blast that set fire to the 32-year-old, causing horrendous injuries to his face, hands and body.

He lost his left hand and three fingers on his right but Zahid considers himself lucky as 137 innocent people were killed that day.

He is at home with his mother, Khaista, and younger brother, Kamran, talking about an unfathomable act that devastated their lives.

“I don’t actually remember what happened as I was hit with shrapnel from the bomb. I later learned my clothes were on fire and burned off. I lost my sight – I am blind in both eyes now,” says Zahid, who spent three months seriously ill in hospital.

The attack took place around midday in Peshawar on October 9, 2009, when a suicide bomber drove into the city’s famous Meena Bazaar and blew himself up.

The car was packed with 330lb of explosives, wreaking carnage in a place popular with women and children who shopped for toys, clothes and jewellery.

Besides the grotesque death toll, at least 200 people were injured and as medics desperately sought survivors they were hampered for hours by raging fires.

Most of the dead were charred and mutilated beyond recognition.

The victims included Zahid’s brother, Zakir, who was 25 years old. “He worked in an electrician’s shop at the bazaar,” says Zahid, explaining that he was employed in a clothes shop nearby with Kamran.

“There was a lot of destruction with many shops destroyed and many people killed and injured,” says Kamran, who miraculously survived unscathed, at least physically.

As the men talk their mother sits in silence.

Her husband is dead and she cares for Zahid full time, washing and feeding her eldest son as he struggles to look after himself.

With neither men earning, the family lives in dire poverty while facing the bleakest of futures.

Zahid has never been back to Meena Bazaar, which is just a few miles away from his home here in Peshawar, a sprawling dusty city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the north-west province of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan where an estimated 4,000 people have been killed by terrorists since 2010.

The security situation is desperate and our visit comes in the wake of a massacre last December when the Pakistan Taliban entered a school and slaughtered 132 children and 18 adults; mass murder that appalled the world.

There has been a wave of suicide incidents since, including the killing of 20 people in a Shia mosque in Peshawar and another bomb in Sindh province when more than 60 people, including children, were murdered during Friday prayers.

It seems that everyone we meet is affected by terrorism, including the young woman who arranged for us to interview Zahid.

Saba Ismail, who is 27, runs Aware Girls, a human rights organisation she founded in 2003 with her sister Gulalai when they were teenagers.

Saba is used to death threats from Islamist extremists.

She’s also been falsely denounced on television as a “CIA spy” and her family have been in hiding since last spring when armed men turned up at their home in Peshawar, firing guns into the air and making threats.

“Each day, we never know when we leave our homes if we will be killed or come back to our home,” Saba says. “It is so common and it’s causing so much fear in the minds and hearts of the people.”

In this land of Pashtuns where she was born and raised, Saba and colleagues try to combat extremism by opposing the 90 or so militant groups who bedevil Pakistan.

These peace activists operate at grassroots, often in the face of dreadful violence , not just in this province but also in Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Areas and other Taliban strongholds.

Saba’s initial aim was to advance women’s rights but the remit of Aware Girls has since broadened and they’ve recruited around 300 people for a Youth Peace Network that stretches from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa into rural parts of South Waziristan and Afghanistan, among other places.

The activists encourage inter-faith harmony and try to stop youngsters being radicalised by religious extremists but this perilous work often comes at a high cost.

In December 2011, for example, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai attended an Aware Girls programme but her efforts to promote girls’ education in Swat Valley were later rewarded by the Taliban with a bullet to the head.

Saba smiles and says her friend is now a symbol of honour, adding: “Violent attacks are happening to many women in Pakistan so I was happy Malala was able to highlight the issue.”

The psychological impact of terrorism is immense and Aware Girls has researched the trauma faced by thousands of people in Peshawar.

According to one study, 84 per cent of survivors of bombings said they were too frightened to leave their homes while 66 per cent of families reported psychological problems.

Children were too scared to attend school due to constant suicide attacks and domestic violence was rising because men who’d lost their homes, businesses and jobs were assaulting their wives and daughters.

The economy has suffered greatly and many women – who often suffer disproportionately due to their second-class status in society – said they were living hand to mouth due to soaring prices and high unemployment.

“Terrorism has destroyed houses, properties, businesses and livelihoods. Children are frightened and weep. Women have lost hope,” says Saba.

She is fearful for Pakistan’s future amid what she views as the Talibanisation of her homeland.

In particular, Saba opposes changes to the school curriculum that reintroduced violent jihadist content to children’s textbooks.

In 2008, education officials took steps to curb the spread of Islamic extremism by introducing new books for public school pupils in one to 12 grades.

Koranic verses preaching jihad were removed, as were illustrations depicting weapons or violence, to be replaced with chapters about philosophers, poets and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Pashtun identity.

However, the province’s government – led by former cricket star Imran Khan’s Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI) and its coalition partner, the Jamaat-e Islami (JI) party – reversed these progressive measures to pacify their conservative Islamist supporters, much to the horror of liberal educators who warned this move could radicalise more young people.

Saba shows me a current textbook and translates the Urdu text. “The book is taught to children in ninth grade,” she says. “Page nine focuses on what the Koran says about beheading non-believers in verse 12 of Surah Al Anfal.

It says, ‘I am with you, so strengthen those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.’ This is the type of thing 10-years-olds are being taught at school.”

Saba’s concerns are shared by Professor Khadim Hussain, of the Baccha Khan Trust Educational Foundation and author of The Militant Discourse – Religious Militancy In Pakistan, published in 2013.

This is a time bomb

At his office in Peshawar, he tells me extremism pervades every level of society. “It is almost everywhere and in every mind, in fact. If I am a teacher and I ask what an infidel is, pupils say, ‘Everybody who is not a Muslim is an infidel.’ So, a 12-year-old is motivated to kill a person who commits blasphemy because he’ll be glorified … and war is glorified … your enemy is everyone who is not a Muslim so virtually the whole of the world is your enemy.

This is a time bomb. We live here assuming that anyone, anywhere, at any time, could explode . This is the way we live.”

Both Professor Hussein and Aware Girls say education is key to countering jihadist propaganda, the former having started 14 schools that teach pluralism and democracy since 2007, the latter hosting regular meetings of Aware Girls’ Youth Peace Network.

The following day I am invited to attend an event in Peshawar involving 30 people from as far afield as Chitraal in the north of Pakistan, South Waziristan and Afghanistan.

The meeting discusses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is hosted by Saba’s elder sister, Gulalai, a fearless and rebellious 29-year-old who often eschews a veil for a black leather jacket.

She talks about freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial while the attendees speak about witnessing the wickedness of Islamist extremists, stories of mob justice and lynchings and of people disappearing and of Hindus and Christians being forced to convert to Islam under pain of death.

They also share ideas for promoting peace: a campaign to ban the sale of toy guns to children in bazaars; an initiative working with bankers and money changers to stop the flow of foreign money to militants; counselling children who witness suicide attacks; a campaign at the University of Malakand for female students to be allowed to wear colourful headscarves instead of black.

One of the delegates is Jawad Ullahkhan, who’s been involved with Aware Girls for two years. Ullahkan, 21, is from Mingora, the largest city in Swat district, and since attending meetings he’s recruited 15 people to help him.

They try to prevent radicalisation through theatre and by engaging with students from extremist madrassas to challenge stereotypes and bigotry.

However, Jawad says that at least one peace activist or journalist is killed every month in Mingora, not just by militants but also the Pakistan Army.

He tells me about the first time he saw a decapitated corpse.

“The Taliban would bring their victims to a place we called Blood Choke and behead them. They would leave them there for days.

“The first time I saw a body strung up I could not believe it. I remember I was walking towards Blood Choke listening to music. I had my hood up so nobody would see my earphones, as the Taliban had banned music.

“I was in shock for days as I had never seen such things. It was so cruel. I can still smell the blood.”

As he relates the story, Jawad’s eyes widen as if he’s back in that moment, his fear almost tangible.

He seems deeply affected by the experience as does a policeman I meet the following day when he talks about being kidnapped by the Taliban.

Tilal Mohammad is a head constable in Mardan district but in 2007 he was seconded to a prison in Swat Valley. He was abducted along with a colleague as he returned from a market one afternoon.

“Four people attacked us. They covered our faces with bags and grabbed us, hit us and captured us. They took us to a house and discussed what they should do with us.

“The Taliban told us we were apostates and non-Muslims who had arrested their friends. They said they would slaughter us.”

As Tilal sat with his hands tied behind his back and a sack over his head, he was sure they’d cut off his head.

To compound his terror, Tilal’s mind cast up visions of headless corpses he’d seen in local streets. But the next day both men were stunned to hear they could leave unharmed.

“In the morning many villagers came and they negotiated with the Taliban for our release,” Tilal explains.

“The Taliban agreed and said they would do so only because local people had requested this. The Taliban told us we should resign and never be seen in the district again.”

Tilal spent two months at home recovering from his ordeal and although traumatised he eventually returned to policing.

Other Pakistanis we meet are equally stoic, including Sadiq Khan from South Waziristan, whose wife and two sons – one aged 17, the other 10 – were blown up by the Taliban last November.

They died along with 50 other people when a suicide bomber struck at a border crossing with India.

A huge bear of a man, Sadiq lifts up his shirt and shows me a 14-inch scar on his stomach, caused by shrapnel from the blast.

He explains that his family were on a day trip after he returned from a spell working in Dubai.

The man exploded the bomb as spectators were leaving a flag-lowering ceremony that takes places each day at dusk.

“After hearing this terrible news my 80-year-old father, Hamid, died of a heart attack three days later,” Sadiq says.

Meanwhile, across the city, Zahid Kishgan has to cope with nightmares and the constant pain from fragments of metal from the Meena Bazaar bomb still lodged in his face and body.

What does he think of the people who did this?

“I become very afraid. I would like counselling and help. If that person had been arrested by the government then I would have shown the world. I would have given him punishment as revenge. I would have taught him a lesson. But I cannot do anything.”

Photography by Angie Catlin –

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