The war on terror in Pakistan as killed tens of thousands, and it has also changed the face of many of its major cities. Peshawar, especially, will likely never look the same as it did before 2001. Hop into a rickshaw and drive around, and you will be presented with what often seems like a maze of walls topped with barbed wire, rings of giant sand bags, and scores of security checkpoints. Some of the most iconic buildings in the city are now hidden from the passerby.
In most Pakistani cities, British colonial authorities erected cantonments where troops were garrisoned. Inside they set up major commercial centers, called saddars, and most government offices were located there. Pakistan kept this system in place, and even before 2001, each “cantt,” as the locals call them, had a few checkpoints manned by soldiers around sensitive installations and special areas for housing families of military personnel. The guards at the checkpoints asked visitors for a reason to enter. Now, one can be stopped at any of dozens of checkpoints in Peshawar, and asked to give a reason and a destination before being allowed through.
When checkpoints go up, they rarely come down again. At several in Peshawar, a kind of tollbooth has been erected, with lanes marked for motorcycles, rickshaws, trucks, and one marked “express”—though I have yet to figure out what qualifies one to pass through that lane.
Traffic in Peshawar is a kind of controlled chaos to begin with. Although I notice more traffic police—and forklifts to tow away improperly parked cars—at many intersections it’s a sea of motorcycles, rickshaws, cars, buses, and trucks that somehow manage to avoid each other.
Each lane at a checkpoint has a soldier in camouflage, flak jacket, helmet, holding a machine gun. He usually wears a face mask—to protect against the smog. Directly behind that soldier, facing the driver, is another soldier in a small fortified room. He's seated behind a large caliber machine gun, pointed directly at newly arrived vehicle.
Taxi and rickshaw drivers seem to have a running conversation with the soldiers, asking about the weather or what they ate yesterday. Posted at each lane is a sign asking drivers to turn off their headlights. When I drove around Peshawar a few years ago, this rule did not seem to be strictly adhered to. One taxi driver I was with on this trip, however, makes a point to turn off his headlights and turn on the interior light, and at one checkpoint a soldier asks him why. “I just want you to be able to do your job, so you don't get blinded,” my driver answers.
Interactions at the checkpoints are not always so cordial. In Peshawar, soldiers and police have been attacked by suicide bombers on motorcycles or driving explosives-laden cars or trucks, or even by groups of dozens of gunmen storming their positions, flanked by sharpshooters. Drivers who have failed to slow down or stop have been killed too.
For those Pakistanis who are from the nearby Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), checkpoints are a constant source of worry. “I don’t have a visa to go there,” is a common phrase one hears from residents in cities like Peshawar trying to check on their homes in FATA.
The culture of Pakistani cities has changed, too. Women are less likely to go out late at night alone, and if they go out with a single man, there’s the constant specter of a soldier asking you to prove how you are related.
One afternoon a friend and I took a rickshaw to the FATA Secretariat for a meeting, and about a hundred yards away the street was suddenly blocked. Cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, and pedestrians stacked up like a game of tetris. We got out of the rickshaw and started walking, only to be told by police and soldiers there was a “threat” and I should go away. A suicide bomber was in the area, likely looking to target the Secretariat. Hundreds of people visit the compound daily, many from far-flung parts of the tribal areas, likely spending a small fortune to make the journey to Peshawar. “I don’t care who you are going to meet, get out of here!” yelled one plainclothes officer, carrying a walkie-talkie, his face creased with worry.
We made a few phone calls, and were eventually let inside, even as the entire compound was being emptied.
In Pakistan, people often ask why the checkpoints don’t stop an attack. Stopping all attacks would entail stopping the movement of millions of people—in effect stopping life altogether in a city like Peshawar.