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.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times