When the summer holidays end tomorrow, the parents of 1,400 pupils at the Badabher Government Girls’ School will face a difficult choice.
Should they let their daughters go back to lessons in the rubble of their school, blown up by the Taliban in the middle of the night, or should they keep them safe at home?
Hashim, the caretaker who was held at gunpoint by masked gunmen, was warned that they would be back if the school is rebuilt. He fears that next time they could blow it up with pupils inside.
Yet this is not Kandahar, the Taliban capital of southern Afghanistan, but Peshawar – a city of 1.4 million people in neighbouring Pakistan, once celebrated as a cultural haven for artists, musicians and intellectuals.
A year ago schools were considered safe in the city, the capital of North-West Frontier Province. But the Taliban insurgency that has been growing in the wild mountains that rise in the distance is spreading into urban Pakistan.
Clerics and political leaders critical of the Taliban have been kidnapped and shot dead, around 15 suicide bombers have attacked inside the city, and to escape kidnappers businessmen are giving up and moving to the capital Islamabad, two hours drive away, or overseas to Dubai if they can afford to.
Nobody has ever known the city so fearful.
Musli Khan, a clerk who lives near the remains of the school, was disconsolately picking through the mess. The main building collapsed from the force of the explosion and the walls that were left were riddled with giant cracks.
Some chairs and schoolbooks had been pulled from the rubble, he said, gesturing at a damaged Koran.
“And these people say they are Muslims,” Mr Khan muttered, shaking his head sadly before checking himself: it is dangerous now to be too critical of the Taliban, especially in suburbs on the outskirts of Peshawar. Here, at night, the police must lock themselves into fortified outposts for safety, and armed fighters prowl at will.
During a hasty and nervous drive to Badabher, only six miles from the city centre, The Sunday Telegraph passed three police stations which have been attacked with rockets in the past few weeks. “You must not stop for long at the school,” said our guide, a local reporter. “Out here the Taliban have their spies everywhere.”
On the same morning that the school was blown up last week, America’s chief diplomat in the province narrowly escaped assassination when her car was ambushed as she drove to work.
A day earlier four Pakistani employees of an international aid organisation were kidnapped.
The stuttering new government in Islamabad has promised a bold strategy to fight militants with new vigour, but their words were greeted with jaded sceptism by those who can’t afford to leave the besieged and fearful city.
A protective ring of security checkpoints is supposed to hold back the anarchy in the mountains, at the edge of a huge swathe of the nation that the Government has lost to bandits and rebels, but the checkpoints are slowly retreating nearer to the city and some police stations are now abandoned entirely at night.
Muhammad Asaf, president of the Sarhad Chamber of Commerce, said that for the first time ordinary people are really scared.
“The Taliban is getting stronger day by day,” he said. “They are more confident now – every time there is a suicide bomb they are on television claiming responsibility. They didn’t used to do that.”
Mr Asaf, whose daughter lives in Britain, counts himself as a friend of America but he blames the US for goading former president Pervez Musharraf into a bloody war with the Pushtun tribes around Peshawar, some of which support the Taliban and al-Queda. “The tribal people are peaceful but if you bomb their lands their families will want revenge,” he said.
Sultan Agha, the head of a moderate Sufi religious sect and a man of influence who is consulted before a chief minister is appointed for the province, said he now travels no more than six miles from Peshawar’s boundary.
“It is unsafe to say anything against the Taliban because they will come and kill you,” he said over a cup of green tea, before listing the moderate clerics who have been murdered for speaking out against suicide bombers – now known as “suiciders” in Pakistani English.
“The Taliban are growing in number and it is quite possible that they could take control of Peshawar,” he said. “The Government could stop them, certainly, but it is too preoccupied with political infighting.”
Since Pervez Musharraf was forced from office a fortnight ago, the ruling coalition has fallen apart amid bitter recriminations, leaving Pakistan hovering on the brink of violent political turmoil.
The former coalition partners, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, are now preparing to fight an electoral battle for control of the country – but their feuding has raised a disturbing question: can the eventual winner cope with the terrorism that threatens to destroy their troubled nation?
Britain and America, deeply alarmed at the deterioration, are throwing money at development projects in the almost lawless tribal areas, but in conditions of anarchy it is hard to know whether the cash is being well spent.
It is too dangerous for the influx of aid workers who have arrived in Peshawar’s safer suburbs to get out and visit the projects, so they have no idea whether their efforts to build schools or drainage systems are winning over tribesmen.
More lethal Westerners are also said to be at large. Crew-cut, Pushtun-speaking Americans have arrived again in the big hotels, keeping themselves to themselves and reminding people of the 1980s when CIA operatives haunted Peshawar as they armed the tribesmen against the Soviets.
As Pakistanis never tire of pointing out, those same tribesmen are now fighting jihad once again, but this time against American soldiers on the other side of the border.
Taliban influence has even crept into Qissa Kawani, the street of the storytellers, in the heart of Peshawar’s bazaars, where the mournful chanting of a Taliban CD was playing.
“I hate that noise,” said Insanullah, the owner of a shop selling Pushtun music DVDs which he is now too scared to play.
Music store owners have been killed in bombings and he receives threatening letters but said he will continue because he has invested all his money in his little shop and has no other livelihood. On the city outskirts most have closed down.
“People still like music, but they are afraid for their lives and business is terrible,” he said.
One of the city’s most famous singers, Baryali, moved to Kabul to be safe and another, Wazir Khan, was briefly kidnapped by the Taliban and has gone into hiding since his release.
The city’s cinemas are almost empty because customers fear bombs and even Peshawar’s poets are censoring themselves.
Taous Dilsouz used to write songs about the war against the Soviets, then about Pakistani politics, but these days he sticks to safe subjects. “No poets will write songs about what is happening to our city,” he said. “And even if they did they could not find singers who are brave enough to sing them.”
Outside Peshawar it is much worse. Assadullah Khan, a watchman from the town of Mardan which is still nominally under government control, said: “Out of five brothers in my town, one will support the Taliban. The people are poor and illiterate, and they listen to what the clerics say. Some of my friends have joined the Taliban – they pay them for fighting.”
In Bajaur Agency, a Taliban stronghold a few hours from Peshawar, the new government has launched a military offensive which it said has killed hundreds of militants.
According to the UN 260,000 have fled the fighting, and refugees interviewed by The Sunday Telegraph spoke of civilians killed in bombing raids. Dislike of the Taliban runs so deep that many want the government to continue the offensive nevertheless.
“We want to be part of Pakistan and we want the army to get rid of the Taliban,” said one 18-year-old, who described seeing dogs eating the bodies of bombing victims lying in his village before he fled.
However, with ordinary people suffering in the air raids, a new generation is turning its anger on the government. It is a sign that the blunt instrument of the Pakistani army may sometimes be counter-productive.
Mohammad Ali, a 20-year-old man who was squatting in the middle of a flyblown camp rolling a lump of hashish in the palm of his hand said he could still hear the sound of the planes and the bombing in his head.
“Why didn’t they just arrest those Taliban, why were they bombarding us?” he asked. He claimed that about a dozen civilians had died in his village but that the Taliban fighters had left long before the planes arrived.
“We want peace, but we can not have it because of this terrorist America which orders our government to attack its own people,” he said. “The Taliban are Godly people, they are Islamic, and we are happy that they send suicide bombers for revenge.
“If it is God’s Will, definitely I will join them now. We have to defend our villages and our religion.”
By Nick Meo in Peshawar
Last Updated: 7:22PM BST 30 Aug 2008
Source: The Telegraph