Pakistan’s Terror Capital: Inside Peshawar, a City Under Siege

In one week alone, the frontier city has seen nearly 150 killed in three separate bombings, and yet somehow its residents muster the will to carry on.

Religion Fellows 2013

By Omar Waraich

October 02, 2013

Also published at Time

A man carries an injured child at the blast site in northwest Pakistan's Peshawar on Sept. 29, 2013.

Umar Qayyum / Xinhua / Corbis

On Sept. 29, Naveed Qureshi was sitting in his shoe store in Peshawar’s historic Qissa Khawani market when it was shaken by a huge explosion outside. “All we could see was fire,” he says. “And there were piles of bodies, and body parts, everywhere.” A car bomb, packed with over 200 kg of explosives, phosphorus and artillery shells, had blown up, killing 43 and badly damaging a mosque. “In just one family,” says a stunned Qureshi, “17 people were killed, only a few days before the son was to get married.”

The ancient Qissa Khawani Bazaar, or the Storyteller’s Market, derives its name from a time centuries ago, when troubadours regaled itinerant traders and warriors here with tales of heroism and love. Much later, some of its denizens later crossed into India to become famous fablemakers in the world’s largest film industry. In the narrow streets, speckled by what little sunlight falls between the old, densely packed buildings, are the former homes of Bollywood legends Dilip Kumar and Prithviraj Kapoor, patriarch of the famous acting clan. Now, shopkeepers sit on the empty streets, in the shade of the bazaar’s elegant decrepitude, to sip tea and trade tales of anguish.

Zafar Yab, another shoe-store owner, hasn’t even surveyed the damage to his business yet. “I haven’t had the time,” he says. “Since Sunday’s bombing, I’ve been doing the rounds at hospitals and graveyards. We forget about it, we forget and brace ourselves for the next one. That’s how we cope.”

The atrocity at Qissa Khawani was the third major attack on Peshawar in a week, leading to the loss of nearly 150 lives and over twice as many wounded. On Sept. 22, two suicide bombers attacked the nearby All Saints Church, killing over 80 parishioners. On Sept. 27, a bus carrying government employees on its way to the city was bombed, killing 20. Then it was Qissa Khawani’s turn — again. “It is the fifth time in recent years this market has been attacked,” Yab says. “And there have been nearly a dozen attacks within the gates of the old city.” He has no faith in the police. “Two days before the bombing, they came and told us that a car was wandering around,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Protect yourselves.’ Can you believe it?”

(PHOTOS: Pakistanis Mourn Church-Bombing Victims)

Since a new government came to power in Pakistan in June, there has been, on average, one terrorist attack a day. These have struck across the country, but have been mostly centered on the strife-torn northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, of which Peshawar is the capital. Last month, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the country’s other political leaders united behind a push to negotiate a settlement with the Pakistani Taliban and their affiliates. But as the near-daily violence shows, the militants aren’t willing to talk. In fact, they are taking advantage of the government’s overture — seizing the opportunity to lay siege to the storied and strategically located frontier city of Peshawar, on the edge of Pakistan’s tribal areas.

When the attack on Qissa Khawani took place, worshippers at the 19th century All Saints Church were having their first service since the massacre of over 80 of their number the week before. “Everyone screamed in panic,” says Farrukh Jalil, a nurse and a parishioner. “They thought it was happening all over again.”

The clock on the wall of the church still says 11:43 — the time the church was bombed. Remarkably, its elegant arches and vaulted ceiling remain well preserved. Outside, there is a shrine of remembrance, surrounded by photos of those killed in the attack on Sept. 22, the worst single tragedy to befall Pakistan’s tiny and beleaguered Christian community.

Jalil helped carry bodies to another 19th century landmark nearby, the Lady Reading Hospital. When the dead arrived, Dr. Shiraz Afridi, the director of emergency services, was there. “There was a big panic,” says Afridi, a U.S.- and U.K.-trained physician. “Ambulances were overflowing, and bodies were arriving even in rickshaws and on man-driven carts.” The hospital, a sprawling redbrick building with neatly manicured lawns, located next to a vast Mughal military fort, has been struggling to cope with the frequent bombings. “We’re the busiest emergency center in the world,” the burly doctor says. “We have seen up to 3,000 patients a day.”

With limited resources — there are only 100 beds — the doctor must weigh up life in an instant. Those who can walk aren’t a priority. Those close to death are put to one side. “Our focus is trying to save the lives of those in between,” Afridi says. He has overseen the emergency response to more than 120 terrorist attacks and is depressingly familiar with the havoc they cause. “By looking at the wounds,” he says, “I can now tell whether it was a suicide blast.” Like the shopkeepers of Qissa Khawani, he does what he needs to do, forgets for a while, and then braces for the next one.