It is five years since I last visited Peshawar. Concerns about security — or the lack of it — being the reason. Last autumn as I scanned the horizon there seemed to be a sense of change in the air. Peshawar was becoming a little more stable. Less likely to go bang at inopportune moments. Likewise Karachi, another place that I tended to avoid like the plague. There was, I thought, a lowering of tensions all around. Pretty much everywhere I made discreet inquiries towards the end of last year there were quiet nods of the head and fewer sharp intakes of breath. Pakistan, seemingly, was creeping up on peace, ambushing it almost imperceptibly, and it was time to consider a visit to Peshawar once again.
So it was that a team of people from the Abaseen Foundation (UK) got the green light for a monitoring visit, albeit closely supervised and no trotting off into the unknown doing a bit of shopping or unsupervised sightseeing. They chafed at the bit somewhat and am sure that they harboured some resentments that my limits on them were overly cautious — but no matter, better safe than sorry.
There had been a blizzard of paperwork to obtain the necessary ‘No Objection Certificates’ and the Peshawar police were aware of our arrival and duly looked after us as we travelled to the edge of Fata and the refugee camps. Police mobile units front-and-backed us all the way and then kept a watchful eye as we were met, greeted, showered with rose petals and generally made a fuss of — but in the nicest possible way. There were a couple of tense moments when we passed through choke points in crowded bazaars — a tension sensed by myself but probably not by those I was shepherding — but it all went swimmingly and the police were pleasantly surprised to get thanked and their hands shaken at the end.
Schools, health centres and hospitals all duly inspected and mostly found to be doing splendidly, it was time for a little quiet reflection over dinner. And yes, with very little encouragement there was a firm view that things had got better. Quite a lot better. And for everybody not just a few lucky folks here and there.
There was a uniformity of perception that spoke of something deeper than mere politics at work. Families felt safer. Nobody could exactly quantify this outbreak of relative serenity (and nobody was so naive as to imagine that all was well because all is not well, just less bad) — but many linked the change to an effective army operation against militants and, dare I say, the provincial government getting a grip across a range of issues. Which is about as close as I am ever going to get to giving any political party in Pakistan a discreet pat on the back.
Public transport is a good place to take the national temperature. You never know who you are going to be sitting next to on the bus, and pot-luck turned up trumps on the ride back to Bahawalpur. My travelling companion worked for an Islamabad NGO providing services to blind and partially sighted people. Yes, said he, better it is young Skywalker (…sorry, that was Yoda, he helps out with these columns sometimes) and he went on to talk about a lifting of what he called a national depression, a sense of negativity, of nothing ever going right or well.
Thus it was that I returned home weary but quietly satisfied. Something had changed in some very conservative parts of K-P. Hundreds of girls were in school. Five years ago, there was a handful of that. They had, some of them, aspirations beyond marriage and childbearing. The city of Peshawar was bustling, bright at night with a thriving retail sector. Flyovers being built over flyovers. Greenery being planted on road dividers. Businessmen talking cautiously of a return of inwards investment. There were still grumbles and why not, but the strata I sampled for most of the week were talking positively about both Peshawar and Pakistan in ways that I had not heard for many years. The trick now is going to be sustaining the uptick.
Fingers crossed. Tootle-pip!