Pakistani city of Peshawar could fall to Taliban as fear and attacks grow

by Kal El on August 31, 2008 · View Comments

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Bad news out of Pakistan.

When the summer holidays end tomorrow, the parents of 1,400 pupils at the Badabher Government Girls’ School will face a difficult choice.

Should they let their daughters go back to lessons in the rubble of their school, blown up by the Taliban in the middle of the night, or should they keep them safe at home?

Hashim, the caretaker who was held at gunpoint by masked gunmen, was warned that they would be back if the school is rebuilt. He fears that next time they could blow it up with pupils inside.

Yet this is not Kandahar, the Taliban capital of southern Afghanistan, but Peshawar – a city of 1.4 million people in neighbouring Pakistan, once celebrated as a cultural haven for artists, musicians and intellectuals.

A year ago schools were considered safe in the city, the capital of North-West Frontier Province. But the Taliban insurgency that has been growing in the wild mountains that rise in the distance is spreading into urban Pakistan.

Clerics and political leaders critical of the Taliban have been kidnapped and shot dead, around 15 suicide bombers have attacked inside the city, and to escape kidnappers businessmen are giving up and moving to the capital Islamabad, two hours drive away, or overseas to Dubai if they can afford to.

Nobody has ever known the city so fearful.

Musli Khan, a clerk who lives near the remains of the school, was disconsolately picking through the mess. The main building collapsed from the force of the explosion and the walls that were left were riddled with giant cracks.

Some chairs and schoolbooks had been pulled from the rubble, he said, gesturing at a damaged Koran.

“And these people say they are Muslims,” Mr Khan muttered, shaking his head sadly before checking himself: it is dangerous now to be too critical of the Taliban, especially in suburbs on the outskirts of Peshawar. Here, at night, the police must lock themselves into fortified outposts for safety, and armed fighters prowl at will.

During a hasty and nervous drive to Badabher, only six miles from the city centre, The Sunday Telegraph passed three police stations which have been attacked with rockets in the past few weeks. “You must not stop for long at the school,” said our guide, a local reporter. “Out here the Taliban have their spies everywhere.”

On the same morning that the school was blown up last week, America’s chief diplomat in the province narrowly escaped assassination when her car was ambushed as she drove to work.

A day earlier four Pakistani employees of an international aid organisation were kidnapped.

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