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Pakistan reminds America of its sacrifices

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15 September 2011 10:48

Alicia Mollaun is a PhD candidate at the Crawford School at ANU and is based in Islamabad.

'Which country can do more for your peace?'. Pakistan!

At least, that is the message Pakistan wants Americans to swallow. The Pakistani Government placed a half-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 extolling Pakistan's sacrifices in fighting what many Pakistanis believe to be America's 'war on terror'.

The statistics are stark: 21,672 civilian deaths; 3486 bomb blasts; and a $68 billion cost to the economy.

What is Pakistan like, ten years on from 9/11? And what have ordinary Pakistanis sacrificed? The thing that struck me when first arriving in Islamabad last year (aside from the oppressive heat, the light plane that crashed into the Margalla hills, and the catastrophic floods) was the police presence.

On the corner of my street there is a sandbag bunker where someone sits, 24 hours a day, with a rifle aimed at the street. Turn the corner to get out of my suburb onto the main road, and there is a bigger sandbag bunker, also armed, with three to four guards and a boom-gate.

On the ten-minute drive to Pakistan's parliament, high court, presidential residence and the diplomatic enclave, I swerve through five concrete checkpoints of various levels of security. Some have the bunkers, others search your car boot, some just wave you through  — I look innocuous (read Caucasian female) enough, don't I?

When looking at the most obvious change on the ground in Pakistan since 9/11, most would say security.

The threat of suicide bombings is very real. Headlines leading up to this year's anniversary of 9/11 reported stories like 'Peshawar, where every day is 9/11'. Cities like Peshawar and Quetta endure regular suicide attacks. Sadly, the frequency of attacks is not reported much in the Western media unless there are mass casualties or someone 'important' is killed (twenty deaths or fewer does not seem to create much of a stir).

The South Asia Terrorism Portal keeps track of the attacks, using local media reports. Last month (the holy month of Ramadan), there were 46 bombs detonated in Pakistan; the month before there were 62 blasts. That is enough to make everyone think twice about staying too long in a market place, wonder if the person next to them in a mosque is wearing a suicide vest, or if the woman in a burqa could be the next suicide bomber.

Before 9/11, according to Western diplomats, Pakistan was a sought-after posting for families, where vacations to lively Peshawar and the postcard perfect Swat Valley were commonplace. Today, for some Western missions it is an unaccompanied posting, for others, spouses are allowed, but no children. Most sane foreigners (and Pakistanis) would not risk travel to the Swat Valley and minimise travel to Peshawar for fear of kidnap or worse.

To live in Pakistan ten years on from 9/11 is to live without the freedom to feel secure in public spaces. I am sure most Islooites (vernacular for those who call Islamabad home) can only vaguely recall life ten years ago — without checkpoints and guns patrolling the streets, without assassinations occurring outside popular marketplaces, and without cafes needing to advertise on their menus 'shatter proof glass, for your comfort and peace of mind'.

Pakistani friends recall Islamabad as a city un-barricaded by police, where you could go to the crowded Jumma (Friday) Bazaars without fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The situation in Islamabad is not all dire — it is home to great restaurants, beautiful scenery, clean air and manicured median strips. I have found Pakistanis to be warm, friendly people who go out of their way to help a visitor to their country. Living here today, and imagining life ten years ago, makes clear to me what many Pakistanis have sacrificed in the war on terror; that innate feeling of personal security. Most may not have valued this freedom until it was gone.

This is a sacrifice that Americans and others should be reminded of. Living in Australia most of my life, the difference is sometimes overwhelming.

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