South Asia Features
Pakistani police fight suicide bombers with fanaticism (Feature)
By Nadeem Sarwar Mar 9, 2010, 3:36 GMT
Peshawar, Pakistan - Riazuddin Khan used to assure the journalists at a press club in Pakistan's north-western city of Peshawar that he would give his life to protect them.
The 45-year-old police constable kept his pledge when an assailant approached the main gate of the Peshawar Press Club on December 22.
Suspecting him as a suicide bomber, Khan told the young boy he would not allow him to enter the premises without a search.
'You want to search, okay, search,' the boy reportedly said, and then detonated his explosives.
Khan died, but saved the lives of dozens of journalists assembled in the building. The accountant of the club also died.
A few days later, another policeman caught a bomber in the city and absorbed much of the impact of the blast, dying immediately. No one else was killed but a few other people were injured.
'The police in Peshawar are fighting the Taliban's fanaticism with their own sort of fanaticism,' said Behroz Khan, a Peshawar-based journalist. 'Had the police not shown courage, Peshawar would have fallen to the militants.'
When the military launched a major assault against the Taliban in South Waziristan in mid-October, the Islamist insurgents focused their attention on the country's urban centres, striking government and civilian targets to create a sense of panic and fear among the population.
But Peshawar remained their prime target, due to its proximity to the tribal region along the Afghan border where al-Qaeda and the Taliban have safe havens.
More than 300 deaths from several bombings in Peshawar over eight weeks since the South Waziristan operation paralysed the city of more than 13 million people by December.
As soldiers moved to clear the militant hideouts from Peshawar's adjoining tribal districts and lawless outskirts, the police shouldered the burden of securing the city.
A 6,500-strong police force searched vehicles and individuals for explosives day and night at dozens of checkpoints, to prevent the bombers from penetrating the town's defences and forcing some to detonate prematurely, killing only the police.
Due to the self-sacrificing acts of the police, Peshawar is now limping back to normalcy, with no major bombing over the last month and the once-deserted parks and restaurants receiving more visitors. But the city remains tense.
'I know I am playing with death, but we have made a difference,' police constable Orangzeb Afridi said proudly, as he guarded a checkpoint in Pushta Khara area.
'You don't know which car, especially those with only a driver, has a bomb,' he said. 'One colleague died here in a car bombing on November 14.'
It is far from clear how long the achievements of the Peshawar police can last, but even a brief halt in the bombings is a laudable effort by an underpaid and ill-equipped force.
The constables work up to 16 hours a day for around 118 dollars a month, money hardly sufficient to feed their families. Few of them have body-armour when they search the vehicles for bombs.
'We are trying to improve the situation,' Malik Naveed, the police chief for North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), of which Peshawar is the capital, said.
'We have recently provided more vehicles, sophisticated weapons, bullet-proof jackets and explosive detectors at some sensitive checkpoints, but we still need more,' he said.
Since 2006, when the Islamic militancy started to gain strength in Pakistan, 552 policemen have been killed and 950 injured in militant attacks in the province, Naveed said. Eighteen of these were senior officers, while around a dozen officers were beheaded by Taliban militants.
'Despite lack of resources, the NWFP police force is known for its courage and bravery,' Naveed said. A police van parked outside his office bore the message: Time for Martyrdom.
Call it bravery or fanaticism. It comes partly from the NWFP's dominant ethnic Pashtun culture, which despises cowardice; and partly from the Islamic religious belief that life and death are only in God's hands.
To be a brave man, however, does not eliminate the fear of losses that can follow from death in a suicide bombing.
'I am not afraid of death, but I don't know how my family will survive when I die,' Afridi said. 'Whenever I talk to my son over the phone he says baba (papa), may Allah give you long life.'
'He is just 5 years old. Is that an age to talk about life and death?' Afridi said, his voice cracking with emotion as tears rolled down his cheeks.