Anatomy of first ever curfew in capital
13 July, 2007
By Wasim Shahzad
The final battle during the standoff continuing between the government forces and the so called Lal Masjid Brigade since July 3 was raging with full intensity when these lines were being written, claiming a huge death toll besides inflicting loss to business and property, and paralyzing normal life. Among the dead were armed forces personnel as well as journbalists, passersby and militants.
More than 1,220 male and female students have since then come out of the controversial Madressah complex and most of them have been sent home following a tight and agonizing screening process. Nawaz, 65, may not have imagined he would ever be stripped naked for being father of a student of a controversial Madressah. But he experience this humiliation after having retrieved his 16-year-old son Asad from the Madressah complex amid heavy shelling and exchange of fire between the law-enforcement agencies and Lal Masjid brigade.
He was not the only one to face such a humiliation for no crime of his own. Almost everybody who reached there from far-flung areas and went inside the militant-infected complex to secure protection of their dear ones had to suffer in the same manner. Mrs Shaukat Elahi and Qazi Zahid, who had come from Shinkiari to get back their son and cousin, were equally disturbed over ‘this shameful attitude’ of the authorities. From authorities’ point of view, this is quite understandable, but if the idea is to win them back, this may not be the right way to go about.
Nawaz, a poor farmer from Ichrian village of Mansehra district, arrived after learning about the ongoing standoff in the capital. He was encouraged by the Rangers deployed near the Covered Market to personally approach the Lal Masjid and try to secure the release of his son.
He said the Rangers kept his national identity card before allowing him to go inside the mosque and when he returned at about 10:30am, he was asked to strip to ensure he was not carrying any explosive material on his return. While Nawaz was allowed to leave the security post, his son was taken into custody immediately and handed over to an intelligence agency for interrogation. Even after the curfew relaxation was over in the afternoon, he was still waiting in the scorching heat for the release of his son.
Qazi Zahid, another resident of Shinkiari, said his 15-year- old cousin Umar Ali was very terrified when they met him inside the boundary wall of Lal Masjid complex. He said the clerics initially refused to release the students and then started convincing them not to take them when pressed. The clerics said all male students who had gone out of the complex were not allowed by the authorities to go home and were handed over to different intelligence agencies or sent to jail.
“As the clerics resisted the release of students, we rather forcefully climbed the walls and entered the complex. They held us at gunpoint and then said they would not stop the students from going, but they are staying back voluntarily. We kept on insisting and finally persuaded the clerics to let the students go.”
He said he did not personally come across Ghazi Abdul Rashid and he did not know how many students, women or children were inside because when they approached the front gate of Jamia Hafsa, their boys were kept between the boundary wall and the main building.
Zahid said he along with Mrs Elahi and Nawaz returned with the boys only to find out a hostile attitude from the security agencies. “We were frisked and then ordered to strip. We protested, but to no avail and had to doff our clothes. It was the most shameful attitude on part of the Rangers.” He said the authorities might have security concerns, but “we could have been dealt with in a civilized manner”. He said none of the parents had any anti-social and criminal record but still they were treated like criminals.
He said they were told by the authorities that the students would be released only after complete screening by the intelligence authorities, but it was not clear when they would be able to return homes. He said the parents had sent their children to the Madressah to get religious education because of limited resources for education, but this turned out to be a source of misery and mental tension for the entire families.
For the next two days, all these people have been hanging around central jail in Adiala, Rawalpindi and finally returned their village far way, disappointed. They have not been able to get the custody of their loved ones.
Tens of thousands of National Bank of Pakistan’s account holders, not only in Islamabad but also in Rawalpindi, Wah Cantt, Hasan Abdal, Gujar Khan and Chakwal besides Muzaffarabad in Azad Kashmir faced a lot of problems because the computer section of the regional branches was located in the curfew zone, unfortunately.
Thousands of salaried people, mostly government employees, have been facing financial difficulties since the start of this month as they had not got their salaries due to the government failure to keep functioning the online banking system of the state-owned National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) in the curfew held area.
Not only the cash transactions remained suspended in the 27 online branches of the NBP providing ATM facility, even some of the NBP branches in the federal capital have been sending away customers, who wanted to withdraw money through manual process on the pretext that no data was available regarding records of the clients. “I have been visiting the NBP foreign office branch since Friday last to get my cheque encashed, but they did not entertain me saying the bank’s main server is down,” said a government employee on condition of anonymity.
Salaried people, mostly the pensioners, were affected the most due to the closure of NBP branches in the federal capital. Some private banks branches were also located in the curfew area, but that could not have that much impact on the clients. Apart from them, more than 5,000 work charge employees of Capital Development Authority and Pakistan Works Department also remained unpaid.
The problem aggravated because of the fact that July 1st and 2nd happened to be bank holidays. The very next day on July 3, the trouble started that brought with it a long lasting curfew in G-6 sector of Islamabad.
All the retired government employees of the federal capital got their pensions from the main branch of the NBP, which is located in the curfew imposed area of Melody market. This means that maximum people could not get their pension for the month of June. Ironically, the area is cordoned off by the Rangers, but officials of the bank have so far failed to convince the law-enforcing agencies to allow running of the main computer section connecting the NBP branches in the twin cities.
The banks authorities said they had powered off the main computer section because of unavailability of electricity. The NBP branches in Rawalpindi displayed big placards outside, about their inability to process and entertain customs for banking transactions because of the computer problems, and regretted inconvenience. The total number of NBP branches stood around 94 including these 27 online branches. Of these, 23 branches are located in Islamabad and 64 in Rawalpindi and the other areas.
Even the relaxation in curfew did not do any better because most of the people did not have money to buy things. The prevailing tension has also crippled business activities, inflicting millions of rupees loss to the business community of the federal capital. Main markets and commercial hubs like Aabpara, Melody, Melody Food Park etc., remained closed since the start of this month.
The businesses in markets like Blue Area, Jinnah Super, Farooqia market F-6 area etc., were partially affected. The worst affected area is Aabpara market, said President of the Market Ajmal Balooch. He demanded of the government compensation for the loss incurred by shopkeepers in these markets. Businesses in and around in Melody market remained closed. The food street in Melody, that is normally flooded with people, also wore a deserted look. The business activities have also decreased by almost 25 percent during the last six months old stand off.
It is the most terrible period in the life of Muhammad Aslam, who has been living just across the Lal Masjid since 1964. He had to shift his family to a safer place in Islamabad’s I-10 sector. Locked from outside, he is alone in a government quarter where he lived peacefully for more than 42 years.
“There have been incidents of tear gas shelling on two occasions in the past,” recalls Aslam, “but this is for the first time that we have heard heavy firing like this. The area has been the centre of protests for long on variety of issues, but this time the two sides are heavily armed, issuing warnings against each other and giving an impression of a real battle field. And the real victims were the residents.
“My kids are in a bad condition psychologically and I cannot afford to keep them here,” he said. He is not the only one in a state of shock. The entire population in this small but the oldest locality in the capital is terrified. A visit to the area reveals that majority of the houses are locked from outside. The residents have either taken shelter with friends and relatives away from the area or have switched off their lights to camouflage their presence.
According to Aslam, 47, it was during Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) movement against Qadianis when a huge procession led by Maulana Abdullah, the father of two Lal Masjid clerics, was dispersed through tear gas. “But even then there was no incident of firing”. Again during the first tenure of Benazir Bhutto, the residents of G-6 sector had to face difficulties due to heavy shelling, but without even a single bullet fired.
The district administration had advised the residents in the close vicinity of Lal Masjid to move out. Even the public offices like Islamabad Electric Supply Company (IESCO), National Police Bureau, Estate Office and Environment Ministry were vacated by the police and security agencies. “Both the administration and the Lal Masjid people have put our lives in danger,” said Shamraiz, another resident. Finally, the majority decided to move out of the area for safety. No body knows when the traffic would be normal like before. One can only hope that sanity prevails and the oldest markets of Islamabad return to normal sooner the better.