National Public Radio’s The GT Road Blog
In an area of Pakistan that has become synonymous with Islamist militants, a mural on a wall speaks of the other side of ethnic Pashtun culture: “Welcome to the Northwest Frontier Province, the home of hospitality.”
The mural is out of date — the province was just renamed Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa. And while the snarl of traffic at the entrance of Peshawar gives the impression of life humming normally, this thousand-year-old city is under siege.
It is the capital of the restive province and gateway to Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt. Suicide bombers have attacked the city nearly 40 times in the past 14 months. The famous market of the Old City is a favorite target — and is considered too dangerous to visit.
Talk of terrorism now dominates conversations in the city.
At the University of Peshawar, Qassim Kahn, 23, says because of the violence, “we can only dream about our plans, but we can’t give them shape.”
Some of this region’s young people are pessimistic that their lives will improve anytime soon.
Annan Saeed, 21, is studying economics at the Institute of Management Sciences in Hayatabad, an affluent suburb of Peshawar. She doesn’t see things getting better.
“You might see that in Islamabad or Lahore,” she says, “but Peshawar, basically it’s not. It’s not getting better at all.”
Asked what effect the threat of violence has had on her daily life, Saeed says, “Totally ruined actually. … Because you’re fearful about your life the whole time. You’re going out, you’re not so sure you’re going to come back home or not.”
Music offers a means of expression for two young men in Peshawar who are rebelling against the claustrophobic atmosphere. They’ve formed a band that blends Western music with traditional Pashtun songs — a risky thing to do here.
One of the defiant musicians, Mohammad Ameer Khan, taught himself to play guitar over the Internet and by mimicking what he saw on MTV. The other, Dilawar Qazi, 21, is a rapper.
“I remember people saying, ‘Oh, Pashtun music and rock — Oh my God, are you sure you’re going to be taking that risk?’ So I was like, yeah, why not?” Khan says.
Kazi says he wants to get his college degree and get out of Pakistan.
But other young people manage to maintain their optimism. Instead of letting their situation make them depressed, they insist that their country can have a bright future.
“Good pictures are developed in dark,” says Fatima Khan, 20, a student at the Institute of Management Sciences. “Similarly, I’m optimistic about one day I’m going to get my prosperous country back.”
Another student, Jawad Zeb, says the turmoil has made his generation’s members strong enough to improve their lives.
“We are still carrying on our fight,” says Zeb, 22. “We know that we can come out of it as a strong nation.”
“We’re no different from the youth” anywhere in the world, Zeb says. “We’ve just evolved our lives according to the situation.”
[Transcript of the Programme] [See slideshow here]
STEVE INSKEEP, host: Throughout our 1,500-mile journey along the Grand Trunk Road, we’ve been moving from east to west. We’ve moved across India into Pakistan and all the time, we’ve been moving closer to a conflict zone. It’s the tribal region along the border with Afghanistan. Pakistan’s army fights insurgents there, as American drones fly overhead. That region’s cultural and economic center is the city of Peshawar, and that’s where NPR’s Julie McCarthy is heading this morning.
JULIE MCCARTHY: Our journey along the Grand Trunk Road that began under a banyan tree in the Indian city of Kolkata, is ending in the northwest corner of Pakistan. Life slows here. Bucolic fields that have been tilled for centuries unfold before us. We cross the wide Indus River that’s inspired Sufi poets and civilizations now past.
(Soundbite of horse galloping)
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)
MCCARTHY: The continuum of time you feel along the length of Pakistan’s Grand Trunk Road is especially palpable here, where Alexander’s army once marched. We now pass historic, stately forts and modern military bases. Conflict has shaped life here.
As we near Peshawar, we enter an area of Pakistan that today has become synonymous with Islamist militants. But a mural on the wall speaks of the other side of Pashtun culture: Welcome to the Northwest Frontier Province, the Home of Hospitality.
The mural is out of date. The province was just renamed Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa.
(Soundbite of traffic, bird chirping)
MCCARTHY: A snarl of traffic at the entrance of Peshawar gives the impression of life humming normally, but this thousand-year-old city is under siege.
It’s the capital of the restive province and gateway to Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt. Suicide bombers have attacked the city nearly 40 times in the past 14 months. The famous market of the old city is a favorite target, and considered too dangerous to visit.
We head, instead, to the University of Peshawar, an agreeing respite from all the violence – a cricket pitch.
(Soundbite of cheering)
MCCARTHY: Twenty-three-year-old Qassim Kahn sits on the grass, watching. He tells us: You are not only reaching the end of your journey. You’re now in another dimension: mayhem. Kahn recounts the time he was playing soccer at a city stadium when a suicide bomber walked in.
Mr. QASSIM KAHN: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: And I saw his body parts blown off. His legs, his head, his flesh was all over, he says. I’ve seen horrible things, and it’s left me with nightmares. I’m barely in my 20s, and even a younger generation has seen these incidents, he says. So you can imagine what a horrible state of mind they’re in.
Twenty-four year old Sundas Dost Mohammed(ph) is an alumna of the University of Peshawar and now teaches primary school. She tells us the accumulated attacks over the past year have desensitized the children.
Ms. SUNDAS DOST MOHAMMED (Teacher): They have changed. At first, they used to get alarmed, but now they – it doesn’t matter to them. They watch news channels all the time, and they get, oh, is it a bomb blast again? Well, how many people died? And it’s kind of normal to them now.
MCCARTHY: Qassim, who saw that suicide bombing, feels robbed of his youth.
Mr. KAHN: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: Yes, he says. We, the younger generation of the Northwest Frontier, have been badly robbed. We can only dream about our plans, he says, but we can’t give them shape.
Good morning, everybody. Thanks for coming. Just a quick introduction. We’re from National Public Radio.
We’ve come to the Institute of Management Sciences in Hayatabad, an affluent suburb on the fringe of Peshawar, to talk with students about how the war on their doorstep has changed them.
Waqar Ali, 27, is a medical doctor earning his master’s in public health. Ali says terrorism has profoundly altered life here.
Dr. WAQAR ALI (Medical Doctor): We used to discuss many funny things and many productive things but now, 90 percent of the time, we discuss terrorism. We discuss bombing. We discuss what’s the future of our children, what’s the future of our family. We are less secure over here. So definitely, it has changed our life, for sure.
MCCARTHY: Twenty-one-year-old Annan Saeed, who is studying economics, doesn’t see things getting better.
Ms. ANNAN SAEED (Economics Student): You might see it in Islamabad or Lahore, but Peshawar, basically, it’s not. It’s not getting better at all.
MCCARTHY: And what does that mean for your daily life?
Ms. SAEED: Totally ruined, actually, because, I mean…
MCCARTHY: Totally ruined?
Ms. SAEED: Totally ruined, because you’re fearful about your life the whole time. You’re going out, you – so you’re not so sure whether you’re going to come back home or not. Nobody in Peshawar nowadays is quite sure that – whether this is the last goodbye you might be saying to your parents.
MCCARTHY: Students stick closer to home, watch more movies, and text like mad to stay in touch.
(Soundbite of music)
MCCARTHY: And some rebel against the claustrophobic atmosphere the way young kids the world over rebel: with music.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. MOHAMMAD AMEER KHAN (Musician): (Singing in foreign language)
MCCARTHY: Mohammad Ameer Khan taught himself to play guitar over the Internet and by mimicking what he saw on MTV. Khan’s band blends Western music with traditional Pashtun songs, something of a taboo.
Mr. MOHAMMAD AMEER KHAN: I remember people saying, oh, Pashtun music and rock. Oh, my God. Are you sure you’re going to be taking that risk? I was like, yeah, why not?
MCCARTHY: Rock is one thing. Rap is another.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. DILAWAR QAZI (Rapper): (Rapping) I’m going to take you places, it’s so great seeing all the familiar faces.
MCCARTHY: Twenty-one-year-old Dilawar Qazi is the lead rapper in the band.
How many people understand what you’re saying?
Mr. QAZI: I don’t think so, none.
Mr. QAZI: Zero.
MCCARTHY: Yeah, So you’re OK here?
Mr. QAZI: Oh, yeah. I’m definitely fine.
MCCARTHY: Dilawar says he wants to get his bachelor’s degree and get out of Pakistan.
Twenty-year-old Fatima Khan shakes her head, impatient with the pessimism of some of her fellow students.
Ms. FATIMA KHAN (Student): No, I’m not depressed about the situation over here, because I’m ready to face it. Good pictures are developed in dark. Similarly, I’m optimistic about one day, I’m going to get my prosperous country back.
MCCARTHY: In this classroom in a war-torn city, our journey comes full circle. The optimism we found in so many young people in India can also be found here. Twenty-two-year-old Jawad Zeb says the conflict has only strengthened his generation, which will one day run the country.
Mr. JAWAD ZEB: As far as Pakistan is concerned, we are still carrying on our fight, and we are optimistic about that. We are still positive about it, and we know that we can come out of it as a strong nation.
MCCARTHY: Zeb says we’re no different from the youth anywhere in the world. We’ve just evolved our lives according to the situation.
Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Peshawar.
INSKEEP: We’ve collected all of our reports, along with maps and photos of the Grand Trunk Road, at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.