If I said that I now understand Pakistan because I’ve been working here for seven months, I’d be lying. And I’m no liar! What I do know about Pakistan is a far from perfect picture of this country. A bit like an Australian who’s only lived in Sydney or Melbourne without having visited Darwin or Perth. I’ve only seen Islamabad, Peshawar and Hangu! And when I say Hangu, I’m only really talking about the hospital because there, we’re not permitted to leave the MSF compound.
Cloistered between those walls, a little part of Pakistan comes to us. Unfortunately, it’s normally the ill or injured part, and communication goes about as far as a nod of the head, a few words mumbled in Pashtun, a shifty look from a woman or a confused grin from a child torn between the desire to communicate and the urge to flee from the strange outside world that I represent. So I take what Pakistan wants to give to me. I take in its smells, its sounds, its ambience.
I’ve come to know Islamabad as a city that’s organised and clean, secure and comforting. Certanly much more secure than Naples, Italy or Rio in Brazil; and in any case, much better maintained than Marseille, France! And none of its many green spaces resemble even slightly the country torn apart by terrorism that I had imagined in my ignorance. Among the numerous roads criss-crossing the capital are large strips of lawn manicured grass. Beautiful beds of flowers decorate each roundabout and there are splendid rose gardens sprinkled along the service roads. Pakistan loves flowers – a pleasant and visible fact. Wandering around in the commercial areas, I discover the same stores I’d find in France, but with much more affordable prices. Adidas, Nike, Bata, Ray-Ban blend in with traditional shops. Silk, cashmere, and leather trade at the same prices as wool.
Fancy an ice cream? For sixty rupees, I can have myself two scoops, two different flavours. I pass a group of young women dressed in western styles, couples holding hands, parents snapping photos of their children. I walk without fear but I can’t totally forget where I am. Islamabad gives me the impression that I’m in a bubble in a country in the grip of terrorism. Elsewhere, civilians are killed by violence; sucide attacks are all too common; foreigners are not welcome. In the shadows, an endless war rots the country while Islamabad resembles an oasis.
With more than 1.4 million inhabitants, Peshawar is a chaotic spot where each intersection is pretty much a huge traffic jam. With its innumerable vehicles, its ever-present clouds of dust, its open-air sewers and the garbage scattered here and there, the city has actually been classed the seventh most polluted in the world. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a certain charm about it. Maybe because, in my subconscious, it’s more what I had in mind when I came to Pakistan.
Peshawar is one of the oldest cities in the country but it’s above all the hub linking Afghanistan, India and Central Asia. Because of that fact, the city seems much more well-stocked than Islamabad, and the prices are surely more attractive than the capital. Unfortunately, the proximity of Peshawar to Afghanistan and the tribal zone means that it’s regularly the target of terrorist attacks. These incidents are frequent and often deadly. As an expatriate, daily life is more difficult and the restrictions on movements are normal.
These last months, MSF teams have been the only team of expatriates permanently present in the city. When earlier this year the situation became more threatening for foreigners following drone strikes we had a few sleepless nights. It would be dangerous to get used to that kind of fear; but to take stock of it puts you back into a state of vigilance that you could quickly drop out of in Islamabad.
There are advantages to working in Pakistan that you just don’t get in most African countries. I don’t want to give an idyllic picture of where I’m living – the context is still difficult and security is one of the biggest problems to deal with. But each day, the country shocks me with all its paradoxes. Hangu will be the subject of a blog entry to come – but I’m sure you could write entire book on it.
In the future (the near future, I hope), I’ll go to the tribal zones. There, I’m sure I’ll see yet another facet of this country – this country that’s so full of surprises.