‘It felt like doomsday’: life in Pakistan’s ‘death square’
A tentative peace is returning to Bacha Khan Chowk, named for the father of the nation's non-violence movement but which had become a place of death
Bacha Khan is remembered by many as a symbol of peace for his advocacy of non-violence in Pashtun society, and sometimes called “the Frontier Gandhi” by non-Pashtuns. But the square in Quetta that bears his name has, with tragic irony, become known by residents as “the square of death” – because more blood has been spilled here during the past decade than in any other part of Baluchistan’s provincial capital.
Bacha Khan belonged to an ethnic group for whom revenge and conflict are almost a way of life. He tried to do things differently, to change the condition of his people through mobilizing them as a non-violent force. His army of non-violent “soldiers,” opposed to British rule of the subcontinent but also striving for a peaceful transformation of Pashtun society, were known as Khudai Khidmatgar (“servants of God”).
Bacha Khan spent one in three days of his life in jail for his beliefs. Almost three decades after his death in 1988, the legacy from that struggle is in tatters. In recent years, his followers have been targeted in terrorist attacks and the places that bear his name – Bacha Khan Chowk and Bacha Khan University – have become centers of suffering and violence.
The biggest attack on Bacha Khan Chowk came during a student procession on September 4, 2010. It left 56 dead and 160 injured. Another attack, in January 2013, killed 12, leaving 50 injured.
There are no official figures, but Waqar Ahmed, a trader at the square, says it has been the site of almost 20 attacks over the past decade and that nearly 200 people have been killed and hundreds more injured. “There are more than 150 shops around the square and every third shopkeeper has been the victim of terrorism,” he says.
Business has been affected as people shunned the city’s biggest square out of fear. “Due to years of insecurity, a huge number of traders have left the square,” Waqar said.
A 48-year-old shopkeeper named Wasey Shah was injured and lost his brother in the 2010 blast. In the January 2013 attack, he lost his son. He suffers health problems and uses tranquilizers to deal with lingering mental issues.
Describing the 2010 attack, Shah says: “I heard the blast and I thought the world had ended and doomsday had started, [that] all had died and their mutilated bodies were on the land. Some had lost legs and some hands; others’ bodies were burned.”
He says he will never be able to forget that horrific day for the rest of his life. When the pictures flood his mind and he remembers his brother and son dying, he loses consciousness. Since the attacks, he has often been filled with aggression and a feeling that he is going to die. “I feel like my heart and head are exploding,” he says.
In December 2014, the government launched a National Action Plan in response to the Taliban’s slaughter of 133 children at a school in Peshawar. Two and a half years later, terrorist activity has gradually been reduced. In Baluchistan alone, authorities claimed last summer that 13,575 terrorists had been arrested and 337 killed in 2015-16.
In Bacha Khan Chowk, a tentative peace has returned. The violence has finally subsided – and, after years of flight, businessmen, shopkeepers and shoppers have started to return.
Farman Hamdard says that after his cousin was killed in a blast five years ago, his family prohibited him from going to the square. Today, he feels it is safe to return.
“The victims feel the need for non-violence. We are now hoping the ‘square of despair’ will soon be called the ‘square of peace'”
“Everybody working around the square suffers from violence-related psychological issues,” he says. “The victims feel the need for non-violence. We are now hoping the ‘square of despair’ will soon be called the ‘square of peace’ and that the Bacha Khan philosophy will change the minds of the people and they will adopt the ideology of non-violence.”
The political party that carries Bacha Khan’s legacy, the Awami National Party, has lost hundreds of its workers and a number of its leaders and members of parliament over the last decade in the war against terror. Besides Bacha Khan Chowk, terrorists have also targeted Bacha Khan University Charsada, with 21 students and teachers losing their lives in an attack in January 2016.
Karim Khan, an ANP activist and expert in non-violence says: “Terrorists are targeting the ANP and the followers of Bacha Khan’s non-violence philosophy as these are an ideological threat to them. More than 1,011 Bacha Khan followers have been killed in terrorist attacks during party gatherings and assassinations in the country.”
Khan says that terrorists are the enemies of peace and have deliberately targeted Bacha Khan Chowk because of what it symbolizes. “Through this way, they want to defeat peace-loving people and impose their ideology on the people.”