Armed guards, metal detectors and no phone signal: The realities of living under a high terror alert

The threat of terror attacks in Pakistan make things difficult sometimes, but life goes on with good humour and pragmatism.

On Friday I woke up to find that I couldn’t use my phone. At first I assumed it was my BlackBerry playing up again, so I switched it off and on – but still, no signal. Over breakfast with my hosts, it transpired that no one’s phones were working. A look at the morning papers told me that all mobile networks in Karachi and Quetta were suspended until 7pm. The reason? A high risk of terror attacks, as it was the first day of Muharram, a holy month particularly sacred to Shia Muslims. Karachi and Quetta are both cities with a recent history of sectarian violence directed against Shias.

This was not the first time this has happened since I arrived in Pakistan two months ago. During Eid-ul-Azha several weeks ago, mobile phone networks across the country were suspended from the time of morning prayers until after lunch. Similar bans were imposed over Eid-ul-Fitr in August.

The thinking is simple. Not only does suspending mobile phone networks make it harder for terrorists to plan and co-ordinate attacks, but the vast majority of bombs are detonated using a mobile phone chip. It seems to be effective. On the first of Muharram, not only were there no bomb attacks, but in Karachi, there was just one targeted killing, compared with an average of 10-15 most days.

On first arriving here, I was struck by the apparent incongruity of this. The bomb threat comes from Islamic extremists – yet religious holidays and celebrations carry a significantly heightened risk of attack. Shouldn’t these fundamentalists be observing their religious duties rather than blowing up their co-religionists? Sadly, it appears that practicalities trump piety. Many people in upmarket areas of Karachi avoid going out on Fridays: it is the day of prayer, and as such, there is a higher risk of bombs or other violence, because that is the day that most people are out on the streets. Eid prayers see large numbers of young men attending mosques; therefore, a bomb detonated during these times will have maximum impact and cause a greater loss of life. A recent car bomb at the Rangers paramilitary base in an outer suburb of Karachi was set off as morning prayers ended.

If nothing else, the high risk of practising Islam in an Islamic country shows what a distorted version of religion these fundamentalists propagate. The notion of “Islam versus the west” as the two players in the war on terror totally overlooks the fact that Islamic countries are suffering a far greater loss of life than America or Europe.

Pakistan in particular has borne a heavy toll. It is estimated that up to 35,000 people have been killed in terrorist attacks since 2001. Compare that with 3,000 in 9/11 and 52 in the 7/7 bombings. The threat from militant groups is not just suicide bombs, but serious crime such as kidnap, robbery, and extortion, frequently – though not always – carried out by extremist actors as a way of funding their operations.

So what is it like living under a high terror alert? Of course, there are the inconveniences. The mobile phone suspension was more than just an irritant. Here as elsewhere, people are increasingly dependent on mobile phones, and it is difficult to function without one. I was unable to carry out a phone interview that afternoon, as I had only a mobile number to reach my interviewee. My host was running short on clean drinking water, and spent most of the morning trying to track down her distributor, who she normally communicates with by mobile phone. Such anti-terror measures have big economic implications too: the Eid-ul-Fitr ban alone cost the telecom sector around three billion rupees.

When I first arrived in Karachi, the city was tense, after two consecutive weeks of riots protesting against the “Innocence of Muslims” film. The atmosphere was one of fragile peace that could break at any minute and explode into more destruction. Newly arrived from London, the proliferation of security personnel on the streets made me jumpy, as did the warnings to stay inside the house. That Friday the city waited with bated breath to see if riots would break out again. They did not. But the ramifications are still being felt today. Only a handful of the six cinemas destroyed in the riots have reopened, while YouTube, which hosted the fateful clip, remains blocked.

In this acutely class divided society, the type of threat faced is largely determined by socio-economic status. By and large, it is the poorest in society who fall victim to suicide attacks. These are the people who cannot afford to avoid going out on Fridays, or going to crowded places like markets or mosques. But although the wealthy can largely insulate themselves from this threat, they face their own set of problems. Kidnapping is not a distant spectre; most people I speak to have a story about a friend or acquaintance who has been kidnapped for ransom, which can range from $150,000 to $1 million. I have met several people with a relative languishing in Waziristan while negotiations for their release drag on. For this reason – and the risk of robbery – people drive everywhere, barely setting foot on the pavement except to go from car to destination and vice versa.

By no means is there a state of constant fear. Karachi is a vibrant and active city, full of top quality restaurants, large malls, and a relatively buzzing nightlife, by Pakistani standards. But the partying and decadence is strictly fortified. Large gates and armed guards are the norm at most well off houses. You must go through a metal detector and bag search to enter many malls, nightclubs, or offices. Parties are protected by swathes of armed guards. A few weeks ago, I went out for dinner with an acquaintance. Travelling in the car with us was her armed guard, an amicable looking man with an extraordinary handlebar moustache and a large Kalashnikov. Leaving a Halloween party at 4am a few weeks previously, a friend gave me a lift home. Her bodyguard, too, sat in the front seat, looking out of the window as we gossiped about the evening. For many wealthy young people – particularly those whose parents are prominent in politics or business – this is the norm.

Safety is factored into people’s thinking: don’t take this route at that time, don’t drive to that place alone, don’t go there on that day. These considerations become routine, allowing life to continue with a semblance of normality. But the risks cannot be totally ignored. Weeks after my arrival, a 20 minute drive home from the office turned into a two hour ordeal due to a cross-party rally protesting against the new local government ordnance. As with any event that brings crowds out onto the street, security was high. Huge sections of the city were blocked off, particularly around the chief minister’s house and other government residences. At one point, my car, stuck in the middle of five chaotic, zig-zagging lanes of traffic, got caught up in the rally. Men clad in salwar kameez, bearing placards, wove in and out between the cars. Several had large guns slung across their shoulders. As it was, the march passed without incident and I eventually made it home, but in a city with such tension and deprivation bubbling beneath the surface – not to mention such a ready supply of weaponry – it takes just an instant for violence to erupt. I arrived home to find my relatives sick with anxiety after seeing breaking news reports about fatal shootings. It turned out these were elsewhere in the city, but with the high frequency of violence, it can be difficult to tell.

People talk about the country falling apart; of their desire to get out or send their children away. Yet there is also huge pride and patriotism. There are outings to the beach, flamboyant wedding celebrations, and a general refusal to be cowed. Suspensions of phone networks, last minute changes of plan due to terror threats, and frequent roadblocks and traffic jams make it increasingly difficult to forget that this is a dangerous place. But life goes on, with good humour and pragmatism; people here are anything but defeated.

Sea View Beach in Karachi, where Pakistanis gather to have a good time, in spite of the high terror alert. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Police in Tahrir Square. Image: Getty.
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The murder of my friend Giulio Regeni is an attack on academic freedom

We are grieving – but above all, we are furious about the manner of his death.

The body of Giulio Regeni was discovered in a ditch in Cairo on February 2, showing evidence of torture, and a slow and horrific death. Giulio was studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge, and was carrying out research on the formation of independent trade unions in post-Mubarak Egypt. There is little doubt that his work would have been extremely important in his field, and he had a career ahead of him as an important scholar of the region.

Giulio, originally from Fiumicello in north-east Italy, had a strong international background and outlook. As a teenager, he won a scholarship that allowed him to spend two formative years studying at the United World College in New Mexico. He was especially passionate about Egypt. Before beginning his doctoral research, he spent time in Cairo working for the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). At the age of 28, he stood out with his big hopes and dreams, and he was committed to pursuing a career that would allow him to make an impact on the world, which is a poorer place for his passing.

Those of us who worked and spent time with him are grieving – but above all, we are furious about the manner of his death. While murder and torture are inherently of concern, Giulio’s case also has much broader implications for higher education in the UK and beyond.

Giuli Regeni. Image: provided by the author.

British universities have long fostered an outward-looking and international perspective. This has been evident in the consistent strength of area studies since the middle of the 20th century. The fact that academics from British universities have produced cutting-edge research on so many areas of the world is an important factor in the impact and esteem that the higher education system there enjoys.

In order to carry out this research, generations of scholars have carried out fieldwork in other countries, often with authoritarian political systems or social unrest that made them dangerous places in which to study. I carried out such research in Peru in the 1990s, working there while the country was ruled by the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori.

Alongside this research tradition, universities are becoming increasingly international in their outlook and make up. Large numbers of international students attend the classes, and their presence is crucial for making campuses more vibrant and diverse.

Giulio’s murder is a clear and direct challenge to this culture, and it demands a response. If our scholars – especially our social scientists – are to continue producing research with an international perspective, they will need to carry out international fieldwork. By its nature, this will sometimes involve work on challenging issues in volatile and unstable countries.

Universities clearly have a duty of care to their students and staff. This is generally exercised through ethics committees, whose work means that much greater care is taken than in the past to ensure that risks are managed appropriately. However, there is the danger that overly zealous risk management could affect researchers’ ability to carry out their work, making some important and high-impact research simply impossible.

Time for action

We cannot protect against all risks, but no scholar should face the risk of extrajudicial violence from the authorities. If universities are to remain internationally focused and outward-looking, we must exercise our duty of care towards our students and colleagues when they are working in other countries.

But there are limits to what academic institutions can do on their own. It is vital that governments raise cases such as Giulio’s, and push strongly for full investigations and for those responsible to be held to account.

The Italian and Egyptian authorities have announced a joint investigation into what happened to Giulio, but the British government also has a responsibility to make representations to this effect. That would send the message that any abuse by authorities of students and researchers from British universities will not be tolerated.

A petition will be circulated to this effect, and Giulio’s friends and colleagues will be campaigning on the issue in the days and weeks ahead.

Giulio Regeni’s murder is a direct challenge to the academic freedom that is a pillar of our higher education system. He is only one of many scholars who have been arbitrarily detained, and often abused, in Egypt. As a scholarly community and as a society, we have a duty to strike to protect them and their colleagues who study in dangerous places the world over.

 

Neil Pyper is an Associate Head of School at Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.