Terrorism in Peshawar creates big business for coffin sales

Coffin-makers say business is at an all-time high, but at a high cost for the nation

By Abdullah Jan

2009-12-30

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Coffins, once considered a luxury here, are now more of a necessity.

The reason: terrorism is resulting in damaged corpses that have to be boxed before they can be buried.

“Had the city administration not provided a coffin box, we would have bought one”, said Sajid Ahmad, whose young cousin was killed in a bomb explosion at a crowded shopping mall in Peshawar October 28. “It was not a one-piece body. We buried many pieces”.

An older suicide attack victim was buried without his face being visible to relatives and friends, going against tradition in most parts of Pakistan. The deceased’s eldest son, Majid Khan, said, “The body was charred; I couldn’t leave it open for others to see”.

Terrorist attacks in northwestern Pakistan have proved an unfortunate blessing in disguise for coffin manufacturers and traders, who have made more money this year than ever before.

Bomb explosions have resulted in hundreds of mutilated corpses, requiring the use of caskets to hold body parts together and conceal disfigurement. Before, burial in a coffin was more of a status symbol.

“It doesn’t sound good, but my business has flourished due to more terrorist attacks during the current year”, said Jehanzeb Khan, 52, who runs a coffin manufacturing factory and an outlet in old Peshawar. Besides the coffins, Jehanzeb also sells other necessities for burial, including white sheets, known as Kafan, used to wrap the dead body, body bags and flowers for the graves.

Speaking to a Central Asia Online correspondent at his roadside shop in Peshawar, Jehanzeb claimed to have sold almost 800 wooden caskets this year, with November his most profitable month.

“This reminds me of the Afghan war time when boxes were exported across the border”, Jehanzeb said, referring to the 1980s war in neighbouring Afghanistan.

“After the Afghan war my business prospered for the first time in 2009,”said Jehanzeb, who, nonetheless, laments the bomb blasts in his native city of Peshawar.

Terrorist attacks increased in Peshawar and elsewhere in Pakistan after Pakistani security forces launched massive operations against militant groups, beginning in the northern Swat Valley May 5. Peshawar, which shares borders with the vulnerable tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, has witnessed 23 bomb blasts and suicide attacks since May 2009. More than 300 people have died.

Most of the bodies recovered from the blast sites are charred or disfigured. In the more powerful explosions, bodies are blown apart, making burial impossible without coffins.

“A coffin used to be a rich man’s commodity. But now the situation is different”, said another coffin trader, Laiq Ahmad, who said that every blast victim is packed in a coffin for burial.

“Bomb blasts and military operations have increased sale of burial items”, said Laiq, who claims to have sold more than 20 caskets a day since May this year compared to four to five during times without terror attacks.

The boost in the casket trade can be judged from the number of coffins lying outside the shops in Peshawar’s residential/commercial area of Munda Beri, where a half-dozen coffin traders have been doing business for two decades.

The finished product is on display along the road, at times causing traffic jams and even creating a nuisance for onlookers and people living in the vicinity, where a girls’ school is located.

“It’s not a very pleasant sight, especially for children”, said Najib Ullah, a resident of Munda Beri. “My kids come across coffins and often ask me bizarre questions”.

“I have asked my kids to lower the gaze while passing by the casket shops”, said Shamim Akhtar, a mother of three who lives in Munda Beri.

Medical officials agree on the need for coffins.

Abdul Hameed of the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar said the hospital bought more than 300 coffins out of its own budget during 2009.

“Charity organizations also make contributions in the form of burial materials, including the wooden boxes”, he added.

The Al-Khidmat Foundation, a social work agency of the religious/political party Jamaat-e-Islami, donated more than 100 coffins to different hospitals in Peshawar in October and November.

“Hospitals used them to bury the unidentified and unclaimed bodies recovered from different blasts sites,” Al-Khidmat Regional Chief Iqbal Khalil told Central Asia Online.

Coffin traders seem not to care much about public concerns, especially when they are making money due to more deaths from bombings and activities against terrorists.

“I do understand their anxieties but don’t have an option to shift my business”, said Jehanzeb, who argued that burial necessities should be available closer to residential neighbourhoods, to make them accessible to those in need.

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