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Pain of the dispossessed

It may not be possible to submit this as an impersonal narrative. Most of my visits to Qissa Khwani Bazaar, located at a distance of two kilometres from my house, in recent days have invariably been compelled by the spate of bomb blasts occurring there with unexplained frequency. The latest attack, on Sunday, claimed over 40 lives.

I always ensure that I reach the centre of the age-old bazaar of storytellers from its southern side through one of its busiest openings — the Kohati Gate. The bazaar lies within the parameters of the old walled city and is reachable through many gates built in olden times to protect the city against the brazen attacks of tribal marauders.

As one gets past the entrance, the white structure of the late 19th-century All Saints Church — the landmark’s view partly obscured by an ageless banyan tree — comes in sight and then refuses to disappear for a considerable distance.

The church has two gates, the main, bigger gate facing south and the smaller one facing west.

The two suicide bombers blew themselves up close to the main gate on Sept 22, causing the kind of carnage not witnessed since the 2009 Meena Bazaar car bombing, not far from the present site that had killed around 120 men, women and children.

Until just a few days before the recent church bombing, a sentry could be seen guarding the premises languidly at the smaller gate. A white marble tablet with the name of the church and the date of its construction could be seen affixed to the thick boundary wall.

I would almost always stop in front of the tablet to contemplate not just its association with our past but also plan my tentative guided tour of the church. I had considered contacting Albert Godin of Godin Pianos for a reference, but he had to leave Pakistan, not without great pain, to join his family in Canada.

The diminutive Albert is a virtual ecclesiastical encyclopaedia of the erstwhile Northwest Frontier. On his recently concluded last visit, Albert handed me some booklets containing information of all Christian cemeteries in the province with complete details of the tombs of all English civil and military officers and their families, together with the individual inscription on each tombstone.

It was quite a touching and evocative experience, reading all those pages about our past. I learnt about the memorial plaque erected in memory of Sir Herbert Edwardes, the founder of my alma mater, the Edwardes College Peshawar, in the All Saints Church.

It reinforced my resolve to see the church from inside and inform my friends and teachers about it since hardly anybody seemed to know that.

As dusk descended on Peshawar on Sept 22, and as I stood witnessing the dead bodies of the most dispossessed segment of our society being taken out of the Saint John High School opposite the All Saints Church for burial, I was overcome by a feeling of irrepressible pain and fear — fear for what lay in store for us.

My grandfather and my uncles had all studied in the celebrated Saint John High School alongside Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Parsis in exemplary amity before the pangs of partition separated them.

There are more than a dozen imambargahs inside the Kohati Gate in close proximity to the All Saints Church. Until my early adulthood, I never missed watching Muharram processions pass through the congested bazaars where Sunnis would always outnumber the Shia mourners. Militancy has put a stop to this as Peshawar now experiences a curfew-like situation during Muharram. As I struggled through the gloom that evening, I wondered if an agonising time will come when curfew will be declared in Peshawar on all religious days.

The heart-wrenching evening of Sept 22 brought to mind a similar evening in 2009 after a car bomb had ripped through the Meena Bazaar, frequented mostly by women. Both times, I saw walls covered with scores of posters announcing the funeral timings of those martyred in the bomb blasts, the little difference being in the Muslim and Christian surnames.

During the last few years militants have proved time and again that the Qissa Khwani Bazaar and its adjoining narrow alleys and bazaars within a one-kilometre radius are soft targets for them. They move about in these areas with the ease of hunters in a game reserve.

Mostly lower-middle class people and villagers frequent these areas. The All Saints Church is also where lowly placed Christians go to pray when they get time off the ‘menial’ jobs that they perform for us — in turn, we accost them and call them disparaging names.

After returning home that fateful evening, I found self-important, loquacious politicians and anchors on all television channels still pressing for talks with the militants.

Helplessly, I wondered if these people were just trying to appease an unappeasable enemy that has an insatiable thirst for blood.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Nasser Yousaf, "Pain of the dispossessed," Dawn. 2013-10-01.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social rights , Social needs , Society-Pakistan , Target killing , Human rights , Church-Peshawar , Women , Children , Christians , Albert Godin , Peshawar , Pakistan , Canada