“Kala May Perzo Shay Pa Bamono Pekhawara”
Rahimullah Yusufzai The News
Peshawar, or Pekhawar as it is called by Pakhtuns and Pishor by its old Hindko-speaking residents, has always been a city under attack. Past invaders coming from Central Asia, Persia, Afghanistan, India, and beyond have raided and plundered the place. Aryans, Greeks, Persians, Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs and the British occupied and lost Peshawar during their various campaigns of colonial conquest. And then there are the Pakhtun tribes living so close to the city in the Khyber and Mohmand tribal regions and the frontier regions of Darra Adamkhel and Hasankhel and threatening it whenever they are attacked.
Peshawar is, once again, under attack. It is one of those periodic attacks that test the resilience of its brave and proud inhabitants. There is no doubt among its residents that they will overcome the latest threat to their city. But this will require lot of sacrifices and patience because it is a different kind of warfare. Terrorist attacks through vehicle-borne suicide bombers using up to 200 kilos of explosives are something new, and far more dangerous than anything Peshawar has experienced in the past. No place is safe in Peshawar nowadays — not even the military, police and government installations that are supposed to protect the people and also public places and bazaars crowded by innocent commoners.
Lahoris are proud of their city and justifiably so. Terms like “Lahore, Lahore aie” and “Zindadalan-e-Lahore” are well-known and widely used because those born and brought up in Pakistan’s cultural capital are lively and, at times, boisterous.
Peshawar isn’t far behind even though this city of almost three million people is much smaller than Lahore. “Pekhawar kho Pekhawar dhay kana” (Peshawar is Peshawar) is how the city is described by those living in the NWFP. To say that is ‘Peshawar is Peshawar’ means that the city is one of its kind quite like the way that Lahoris feel about the city. It is also true because where else will you find the warmth and hospitality that one experiences in Peshawar?
Peshawar is among the most ancient cities in Central, West and South Asia. The Kushan king Kanishka is believed to have founded it in second century AD. The Kanishka stupa on the outskirts of present-day Peshawar at almost 700 feet was said to be the tallest in the world at the time. Old Peshawar was known as Purushapura (city of men), a Sanskrit word in keeping with its Hindu and Buddhist past. If this is what it meant, those who gave the name excluded from their equation the entire female population of the town. Though times have changed and women are now active in many walks of life in Peshawar and the rest of the province, the conservative ethos of the place shows that the men here are still reluctant to allow the females some of the freedoms that they deserve. Or it is possible the term “city of men” meant a place inhabited by strong people ready to fight for their honour and independence?
In the Mughal period, Peshawar was referred to as the “city of flowers.” Babar, upon reaching Peshawar on his onward march to Delhi, wrote that he could see flowers as far as the eye could see. Those were still glorious days for the city. It was strategically located near the entry point of the Khyber Pass, which served as the gateway to Central and South Asia. The Afghan king of India, Sher Shah Suri, had made Peshawar commercially important by ensuring that his Delhi-Kabul Shahi Road, now the Grand Trunk (GT) Road, passed through this great city.
Peshawar was the main trading centre on the Silk Road at the crossroads of various civilisations. It was west of the river Indus, or Abasin as the local people called it and the life-line of agriculture and prosperity for the plains of Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh. It functioned as a frontier city for both South Asia and Central Asia. It was the capital of the glorious Gandhara civilisation, basking in the glory of its Buddhist past and proud to be the home of an array of people from different faiths and races. Bukharan Jews, Zorastrians, Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, Mongols and Afghans at different periods of time called it their home. The widely different features of the people one comes across in Peshawar is testimony to the fact that so many races came to live here, inter-married and co-existed in harmony.
All that and much more is now under threat. The once well-defended city with its ancient walls and 16 gates is vulnerable to attacks. Peshawar has spread haphazardly on all sides and could be easily infiltrated. The “city of flowers” has been gradually losing its greenery, parks and flowers to encroachments, bad planning and greed. It is now known as an over-crowded and polluted city. Western journalists writing about Peshawar often refer to it as a dusty place. It has been abandoned and forgotten by its most famous sons and daughters, many moving out in search of greener pastures never to return. Those still remaining are thinking of shifting to safer places, Islamabad being the preferred destination for those who are able to afford the move to a new place.
Peshawar’s recent misfortunes started in the 70s when Sardar Mohammad Daud became Afghanistan’s president after overthrowing his cousin and king Zahir Shah in 1973, and took up the cause of Pakhtunistan with renewed vigour. Pakhtun and Baloch nationalists from the NWFP and Balochistan were now more than welcome to visit Afghanistan and were assisted with arms and money to destabilise Pakistan. The government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto began harbouring and backing Afghan dissidents like Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Ahmad Shah Masood and Maulvi Yunis Khalis in a tit-for-tat response. All of them were accommodated in Peshawar and their fighters were trained and infiltrated into Afghanistan. The Afghan government assisted Pakistanis who were exploding bombs in Peshawar and rest of the NWFP.
The bombing campaign intensified when Afghan communists staged a coup d’etat in Kabul in April 1978 and triggered a series of events that led to the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979. Pakistan, along with the US, was now the biggest supporter of the Afghan mujahideen, and NWFP and Balochistan became the front-line provinces for waging jihad against the Red Army occupying forces across the Durand Line. Peshawar suffered the most as it was the headquarters of the Afghan mujahideen, the nerve centre of international jihad and the world’s biggest spy capital. In the 80s and early 90s, Peshawar experienced so many acts of sabotage and terrorism that on an average there was a bombing a week. The recent bombings in public places appear familiar if one recalls the period when bus stands, cinema houses, restaurants and schools were bombed, apparently by the KGB and Khad agents retaliating against Pakistan’s support for Afghan mujahideen.
The present wave of bombings in Peshawar is retaliation by militant groups now under attack in their tribal strongholds in Waziristan, Orakzai, Kurram, Darra Adamkhel, Khyber Agency, Mohmand, Bajaur and Swat. As the provincial capital of the NWFP and its business and commercial hub, any attack in the city makes a huge political impact, damages the economy and creates international news. Peshawar, as was the case throughout history, is close to the hide-outs of the militants in the adjacent tribal areas and is, therefore, accessible and vulnerable to attacks.
However, Peshawar’s residents and its countless fans have become attached even more to their beloved city. Pashto folk songs have always celebrated the city with songs like “Larsha Pekhawar ta” (Lets go to Peshawar!). It was the only “khar” or city for the people of the Frontier and beyond in the past. Folk songs are still being written to show love for the city. But they are now mostly melancholic due to the bombings and suffering that Peshawar has endured in the recent years. So now there are Pashto songs that say “I don’t want my Peshawar to suffer bomb explosions” and “Let Kabul heal first before Peshawar starts suffering injuries and pain.”