A to B: Cars like tanks

Travel through Pakistan is intimately segregated by class, writes Samira Shackle. If you're rich, you just keep driving.

We are driving along the highway, a big, multi-laned road that could be in any major European country, when we realise we’ve missed the turn for Attock. There is nowhere to turn off the highway for miles; by the time we finally manage to get off the road and drive back the way we came, it is getting dark. I tweet an inane joke about being lost in north-western Pakistan. A response comes back: “I’m not sure you want to be roaming around that area at this time of night.”

Now we are on the Grand Trunk (GT) Road, one of the oldest roads in South Asia, which stretches from Bangladesh across northern India and Pakistan, and up to Afghanistan. In Pakistan it spans the most populous province of Punjab, from Lahore in the south, through Islamabad and up to the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). It pre-dates the highway and you can tell; the road is more uneven, there are pedestrians walking on dusty pavements, and the motorbikes which are an ever-present feature of driving in Pakistan’s cities – thankfully absent from the highway – are back in force.

Not only are we lost, we are lost in a militarised zone, Kamra. The site of a large airbase, and cantonment, the town was attacked by militants a few years previously. Pakistan’s atomic assets are stored nearby. The authorities are jumpy about foreigners being in the area.

We pull up near the pavement, and in broken Urdu, I ask a man the way to Attock, where we are visiting friends. He gestures up ahead, and tells us to take the next left. “Isn’t that the airbase?” I ask. He nods. “You’ll need your ID cards.” “We’re foreigners,” I say, “we don’t have ID cards, but we have passports.” He shrugs. “You can try.”

In front of the airbase is a huge statue of an eagle, reminiscent of the Third Reich. We drive up to the toll booth. This was an error: the guard is unimpressed to say the least. “Who are you? What are you doing?” We’re trying to go to Attock, to visit a friend, I explain, thrusting our passports at him. He looks suspiciously into the car, taking in the box of cherries, the discarded sunglasses, the printed out Google maps. We can almost see him register that we are idiots rather than spies, and that this isn’t a fight worth fighting. Wearily, he tells us foreigners are not permitted to drive through the airbase, and sends us back on our way. Eventually, we get there. Our host’s first question: “Have you been followed?”

Travelling around Pakistan, one of the main priorities is to “keep a low profile”. You don’t want to attract the attention of the security services, terrorists, or, perhaps the highest risk, local criminals. In the face of poor law and order enforcement, foreigners and those with means – those most likely to face a threat – take steps to ensure their own security.

The road trip from Islamabad to Attock and nearby village Shadi Khan, on the border of Punjab and KPK, was one of many I took while living in Pakistan’s capital city. The network of highways allows easy travel around the province, and the relatively stable security situation – Punjab is one of the safer parts of Pakistan, and the National Highway Police well-respected – means it’s possible to travel around the province by road. This was a shock after living in the southern port city of Karachi, where the very idea of a road trip was unthinkable. The city, Pakistan’s economic hub, is volatile and dangerous, a melting pot of ethnic and sectarian tension, intense poverty and ostentatious wealth, and warring gangs and mafias vying for control. During the months I lived there, numerous work trips were cancelled due to law and order problems on the roads: a running gun battle here, an explosion there.

Across this intensely class-bound country, your means of transportation is a marker of status. One measure is that if you are rich, you have a car but do not drive it yourself (a driver does that), if you are middle class, you drive your own car, and if you are poor, you cannot afford a car at all. At the bottom end of the spectrum are the private minibuses which rocket around with passengers clinging to the sides and the roof, or the auto-rickshaws which buzz around the city. Those who can manage it may invest in a motorbike. It is hair-raising to see a family of five crammed onto a single motorbike, babies and all, the women riding side-saddle to preserve their modesty, weaving in and out of traffic.

Islamabad, the capital, is a planned city, built on grid system with greenery everywhere. As in many other countries, foreigners often break the norms, riding motorbikes or bicycles or even – gasp – walking. In Karachi, a sprawling megalopolis, this would be unthinkable. A functioning, business-like city, it has huge roads with five lanes of traffic, which fast descend into insane jams, particularly given the frequent road blocks and security alerts. Many of the wealthy always travel with a driver or even an armed guard, to give at least the semblance of extra security. An air-conditioned car feels like a small tank against the chaos outside, but in fact, you are not really protected at all. Muggings at gun point, which are so routine in the city that many people carry two phones so they can give one over to robbers without much inconvenience, mostly happen in queues of traffic: a man on a motorbike drives up to your window and points a gun at you. There is not much a driver can do in that situation. Kidnapping, the other main threat, can also happen while you are enclosed in the apparent safety of a car. A family friend was kidnapped by terrorists on his way to work; gunmen surrounded the car and knocked out the driver.

Like the highways across Punjab, the main roads in Karachi are wide, freshly tarmac-ed, and highly functional. But despite the self-contained bubbles, the cars which the wealthy always travel in, safety is still a concern. Driving to the beach on the outskirts of the city one day, we had to pass through Lyari, a particularly dangerous part of town. My friend, driving the car, explained: “It’s fine, but you don’t stop the car for anyone or anything. Even if someone smashes into the back, you just keep driving.”

There is something strange about never really walking on the street. I lived in Pakistan for the best part of a year but never got the smell of the place, the feel of it, except for walking between car and destination. But you can see plenty from behind the windows of a car. It is a beautiful country, with varied terrain and people with remarkable fortitude. You just keep driving.

This post is part of A to B, the New Statesman's themed week of posts on transport and travel.

Two men celebrate Pakistan's Independence Day in Karachi. 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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The investigation into Australia’s “Abu Ghraib” could neglect wider abuses in the Northern Territory

Footage from a youth detention centre in the Northern Territory capital, Darwin, may not be enough for authorities to finally address endemic discrimination in the region.

It isn’t Abu Ghraib, but you could be forgiven for making the mistake when you first see the picture of the hooded 17-year-old.

In shocking footage made available to the public for the first time on Monday night, guards at a juvenile detention centre in Darwin are seen apparently systematically abusing the teenager Dylan Voller in a horrific timelapse.

The Australian investigative series Four Corners aired CCTV footage showing guards body-slamming him to the ground, punching him in the head, violently stripping him naked, and pinning him to the ground in a hog-tie position.

It continues, piling atrocity on atrocity from when he was a 13-year-old detainee in 2010, until he is shown shackled to the chair in the already infamous photo from footage this year. It is understood that Voller has long been the object of special animosity from the guards.

Voller was not the only child suffering in the Don Dale facility over the years; tapes also showed six boys being tear-gassed in August of 2014. They had reportedly been kept in tiny isolation cells for 23 hours a day, some of them for weeks, though laws limited such confinement to 72 hours.

At the time, the press was told that there had been a riot at the prison in its maximum security cells but the newly-released footage shows a markedly different set of events. Guards had left one of the boy’s doors unlocked, and he slipped out of his cell and broke a window. Just as he appeared to be surrendering, guards took the decision to gas all six boys in the wing, five of whom were in their cells.

This situation would be shocking enough, but attitude shown by the guards – who laughed when the would-be escapee soiled himself, calling him unprintable names – has sent the whole country into an uproar.

Australia has a complicated justice system; it is technically governed by the Crown and it’s made up of both states and Territories. Policies shift wildly between them, and the Northern Territories are governed by what Australians call The Intervention, a series of paternalistic policies meant to cut back on crime and violence in Indigenous communities.

In 2007, then Prime Minister John Howard announced that pornography and alcohol would be banned for Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Territories, and welfare spending restricted by item.

Though only 3 per cent of the general population, Indigenous people make up 28 per cent of Australia’s incarcerated adult population, and 54 per cent of jailed youth nationwide. In the Northern Territories that youth number nearly doubles to 97 per cent

John Elferidge, who until yesterday was the NT Minister for Corrections, said that the trouble was due to a “lack of training”.  Adam Giles, the NT’s Chief Minister, has sacked Elferidge and personally taken over the portfolio, saying he was kept in the dark about these events Giles has pledged to appoint a permanent Inspector General for the Territory.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called for a Royal Commission into the allegations of abuse and torture by prison workers, to be completed by early next year.

This is in itself controversial, because Turnbull has taken the decision to limit the Commission’s scope to the Don Dale facility alone – in the interest of speed and efficiency, he says – instead of investigating the whole of the Territory. Given that some of these guards have since transferred to other facilities, many people are concerned that this narrow investigation will fail to remedy the horrific problems.

Dylan Voller remains in isolation in an adult prison. Peter O’Brien, solicitor for both Voller and another of the boys, has called for his immediate release, saying that three of the guards from Don Dale are still in charge of his welfare.

It is unclear how much of this abuse is actionable. In most of Australia the statute of limitations to allege abuse by staff is three-six years. In the Northern Territories, it is a mere 28 days.

Linda Tirado is an author and activist who works in America, Australia, and the UK.