All quiet in Islamabad, for now

As the bombs fall, even protesters in Rawalpindi are outnumbered by riot police, but the crowds will grow as the day goes on.

Published October 7, 2001 10:38PM (EDT)

Islamabad's U.N. Club could be any anonymous bar anywhere in the world. Assorted professionals are engaged in subdued chatter around candlelit tables. For the last couple of evenings the conversation of the journalists, aid workers and diplomatic staff has revolved around one subject. When will the strikes happen?

Three days ago I was in Peshawar, Pakistan's epicenter of religious extremism, and the question had a deadly urgency. The group of journalists staying at Greens Hotel in the center of town made contingency plans, checked the hotel for exits, swapped mobile numbers. We all knew that Greens had been bombed during the Salman Rushdie affair, and that was just a book, not a huge air attack. Late night conversations left us each lying in bed, anxious and unable to sleep. Arriving at the hotel late one night a group of youths on a street corner held out their forefingers and fired their pretend pistol at us. Was it a joke or a threat?

I didn't want to find out. I left the increasingly heavy atmosphere of Peshawar for the manicured sanity of Islamabad, Pakistan's distinctly un-Asian capital. As soon as the car left Peshawar I got the feeling of being a spectator, not a participant. Whereas Peshawar is full of tiny winding streets where a mob can be compressed and brought to boiling point, Islamabad is a city of American-style boulevards which could swallow all but the largest crowd.

Instead of worrying about being caught out in the streets by a chanting mob, we sat in the U.N. Club and entertained light-hearted thoughts of sweepstakes. "Seven to one on Monday night?" someone suggested at around 8:30 Sunday evening. An hour later Nick, a fellow English journalist, went to make a phone call and came back saying quite calmly, "Looks like it's started." In the background the stereo played a cocktail bar, Muzak version of "Fool on the Hill."

We crowded around the TV to hear the news: air strikes on Kandahar, Jalalabad and Kabul. Just a month ago I had sat by the river in Jalalabad and watched the local gymnastics team practice in the setting sun. Now the same boys who I'd seen doing back flips and forward rolls were probably cowering in their cellars as cruise missiles tore into their shabby little town.

Leaving the BBC pundits to their endless discussion, we headed out onto the streets. Islamabad was almost completely quiet, which didn't surprise our taxi driver Iqbal.

"Everyone goes to bed at 9 or 10 so they won't know about the attack. Tomorrow you will see something."

Security around the presidential palace and parliament building was tight, but no tighter than usual. In the center of Rawalpindi, Islamabad's ugly sister city, a crowd of around 200 protestors had started fires and were chanting "America, America, terrorists, terrorists" but they were outnumbered by riot police and soldiers.

"I think this attack is totally baseless and unjustified. There is not even any single piece of proof against Osama bin Laden. No Muslim was involved in the attacks on America," declared protestor Ahmad.

Bashir, a night watchman, said: "When people listen to the news everyone is in shock. The airplanes are getting not just Osama but all the nation of Afghanistan. Their response is to kill the whole country. Osama is simply one man. He is not the president, the prime minister, the foreign minister."

He said he thought that Monday will see many demonstrations but dismissed the possibility of civil war in Pakistan.

Shakir Ali spoke for Pakistan's moderates: "I am a Muslim but I am not in favor of Osama bin Laden. I believe these attacks are against terrorism, not Islam. Most of the people in the Taliban are terrorists."

"The question of a peaceful resolution is over but most of the people will stay quiet," said Tariq, a shop owner. "After these attacks Pakistan will receive big grants from America."

Despite the chants of "God is great" and the calls for jihad, the mood was relatively lighthearted. Protesters held hastily scribbled placards still while the TV cameras focused in on them. A teenage boy pointed up to the sky, shouted something in Urdu and looked shocked. I quickly looked over my shoulder but there was nothing except the laughter of the boy and his friends. I was back to being a participant, not a spectator.

By Sean Kenny

Sean Kenny is a British freelance writer.

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Osama Bin Laden Pakistan