Rumour-mongering harasses Peshawarites

Residents have almost restricted themselves to the indoors and have altered their daily routines because of hyped-up security and rumours about expected sabotage

By Abdullah Jan

2009-12-18

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Once a bustling trade centre, the historical Qis’sa Khani Bazaar in Peshawar, Pakistan’s northwestern city bordering the volatile tribal areas, appears deserted today.

It’s part of the strategy of residents of the town, who are trying to keep away from busy places.

Rumours about expected bomb blasts and suicide attacks in public places are forcing people to avoid commercial centres and parks in most of Pakistan, but the senses are heightened even more in Peshawar.

“They might hit Qis’sa Khani. That’s why I haven’t gone there for about three weeks”, said Salma Khan, 38, a housewife, whose husband had learned about a possible suicide attack in Qis’sa Khani from his friend. The bazaar has already been rocked by two consecutive blasts on May 29, killing nine.

Salma used to visit the historic bazaar twice a month to buy groceries. Now she fetches household items from a neighbourhood store, where prices are higher.

While she spends extra on necessities, Salma finds it difficult to explain to her youngest son why they have stopped visiting the nearby children’s recreational area, once a weekly ritual for the family.

“I had to change my routine due to these rumours”, said Salma, who stopped taking her three children to the park after her neighbour received an anonymous message on her cell phone in November about likely suicide assaults on public places.

“They are really changing our lifestyle”, said Asif Mian, 35, a Peshawar-based journalist who received an SMS from an unknown “friend” in late October. It described precautions to take to avoid suicide attackers while driving a car.

“Now I never forget to drive with locked doors and turn a blind eye to the strangers asking for pick up”, said Asif, who doesn’t remember having turned down lift requests by people he didn’t know before.

Since May, when the latest series of attacks in Peshawar started, residents seem to have started paying heed to rumours.

“People do take rumours seriously and avoid going outdoors”, explained a traders’ leader Sharafat Ali Mubarak, who runs a shop in Peshawar’s Cantonment area.

“Any insignificant news about an expected blast in the city on TV screens causes havoc to our business”, said Sharafat, adding that the rumours have affected most businesses in Peshawar.

Rumours about attacks come through different means. An unknown message on cell phones is the most common method.

Recipients of text messages forward it to all his/her contacts and the news spreads. Most of these messages are precautionary in nature, while some warn about the presence of suicide attackers in the town.

“This is not credible information and might be the handiwork of rumour- mongers”, was what the Peshawar Police chief Liaqat Ali said about text messages, adding that he questions the authenticity of anonymous SMS messages. The strategy persists because “we lack a system to keep a vigil on such activities”, he explained.

Hand-written letters and pamphlets from militant organizations are another source of creating rumours. Several educational institutions in Peshawar received written threats in mid-October, creating havoc. Many parents even stopped sending their children to schools.

“We had no other option but to call it a day”, said Samina Anjum, principal of a private school in Peshawar’s Defence Area. Schools in Peshawar and many other major towns of Pakistan were closed for about two weeks.

The Taliban and other militant organizations have been sending threatening letters to individuals and institutions in the southern district of northwestern Pakistan-Hangu, which also borders the volatile Kurram Tribal Agency.

“Almost every government and private organization was sent threats”, recalled a Hangu-based journalist, Saif-ul-Islam.

At times even the security and law-enforcement agencies leak information about probable suicide blasts to the media.

A senior police officer called TV channels’ offices in Peshawar on October 27, requesting to air information about the presence of two women bombers thought to be in the city.

The next morning a car blast in a crowded commercial-residential area in Peshawar killed more than 100 people, including women and children.

“I think police give away information to make people more vigilant”, said Brig. [retired] Mehmood Shah, a security expert, who has served in different Pakistani intelligence agencies.

However, he criticized this procedure, saying it frightens residents. “Instead, [police] should concentrate on security arrangements to thwart the possible sabotage attempts”, Mehmood said.

Qis’sa Khani Bazaar is not an exception in Peshawar, where almost every major shopping mall is desolate after being cordoned off by barbed wire and barricades to avoid possible bomb blasts or suicide attacks.

“Even the sight of these things is enough to frighten me”, said Anis Iqbal, 34, a resident of Peshawar, pointing to concrete barriers erected at two ends of Saddar Road.

High security also causes anxiety for the residents, who pass along their fears and ultimately that information becomes a rumour. “This security build-up is itself proof that something is going to happen here”, Anis said. But police have their reasons to go to high alert in areas suspected of being hit.

“In some of the cases our information also proved a deception”, admitted Liaqat, who said even unconfirmed information is taken seriously by Peshawar police.

But he said, “We cannot take the risk of ignoring information received through different means”, adding that security agencies and police most of the times receive credible information and have foiled many sabotage attempts.

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