Lahore Murder Mystery
By ALI SETHI, New York Times, March 4, 2009
YESTERDAY afternoon, Ali Raza went to the hospital. A 25-year-old constable in the Punjab police department, Ali Raza was accompanying an old man who needed an M.R.I. scan. In the reception area, he noticed that the waiting patients had abandoned their chairs and were standing around the television. They had been watching the same images all day: a dozen unidentified gunmen, two wearing backpacks, firing at a van near the Liberty Market roundabout. The intended victims, the TV stations had reported, were members of the Sri Lankan national cricket team, in town here to play Pakistan. The dead: eight Pakistanis, including six of Ali Raza’s fellow police officers.
“Everyone at the hospital was saying the same thing,” Ali Raza told me later that night, as we stood in line at a brightly lighted stall selling paan — a mild stimulant made with betel nuts — near the Main Market roundabout, just a short walk away from the site of the attack. “They were saying that this was done to show the Indians that we in Pakistan are also the victims of terrorism.”
“You think our own government did it?” I asked.
“No one else could get away with this kind of thing,” he insisted.
He described the attackers’ feat: they appeared out of nowhere at one of the city’s busiest intersections and fired for more than 20 minutes at the van carrying the players to Qaddafi Stadium, and then fled in rickshaws.
“I know the kind of precautions we have to take when we are in a V.I.P. motorcade,” the young officer told me. “And this was a ‘V.V.I.P.’ motorcade. Every house in that neighborhood was surrounded by the police. My friend was there and he told me the attackers didn’t receive a single wound.”
A young man in a T-shirt who was standing next to us at the paan stall asked, “Was your friend hurt?”
Ali Raza said, “He is fine, by the grace of God.”
This kind of talk was not limited to paan stalls. There had been all sorts of opinions expressed on the privately owned TV channels, which now bring live video and commentary from the sites of terrorist attacks to much of Pakistan’s urban population. The governor of Punjab Province, who last week ousted the elected provincial government on the orders of President Asif Ali Zardari, was on camera immediately after the attack, and compared it to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, last November.
Others were more specific: a member of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League said he “had no doubt” that this was the work of the Indian intelligence agencies. A former head of Pakistan’s security service, the I.S.I., agreed with him. An analyst from Islamabad, discussing the attack later in the day on a popular chat show, said that “from every angle” it was evident that India, by attacking a foreign cricket team in Pakistan, had gained. “Who benefits?” she said. “You have to ask who benefits.”
Another guest on the show, an elderly sage in a dark blue suit and a bright blue tie, wearing spectacles and speaking with slow, slotting movements of his hand, said that the blaming of one country by another was always counterproductive because, in the end, it took the focus away from domestic troubles. He gave the example of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, which had immediately led to conspiracy theories but was still awaiting a proper inquiry. “When there is confusion,” he said, “the only people who benefit are the miscreants.”
A former intelligence official I know had a different theory. He said he had seen a report some weeks ago warning of exactly this kind of attack in Lahore, possibly against a cricket team. He said it came from the rumor mill that “leads back to Waziristan” in Pakistan’s tribal areas. “So this is a security failure,” he said. “But it’s not an intelligence failure.”
Later at night it was reported that the government had found bags that held guns, hand grenades and almonds. This was followed by the televised funeral of one of the slain policemen. His female relatives were sitting around his corpse, wailing and beating their chests. His father, surrounded by cameras, was looking at the floor and saying that he was proud of his son for serving his country.
Again at the paan stall, now surrounded by listeners, I asked Ali Raza if he thought there was a chance that the attack was the work of terrorists or criminals. “There is a chance,” he admitted. “But it could be the agencies. It could be the government. It could be India also.”
I asked, “What about other people?”
“Which other people?”
I said, “The people who kidnap journalists and bomb the homes of politicians and slit the throats of government spies.”
He was thinking about it.
The man operating the paan stall was lining moistened betel leaves with spices and condiments. He had on a tattered apron, which is worn by men like him to keep the notoriously messy paan juice from staining their clothes. He smiled at us and said, “Whoever has done this has a lot of intelligence.” He paused. As he did, I looked over the crowd, and thought that for all our various theories, it was a point we could agree on. And then he finished, “For poor people, everything is the same.”
Ali Sethi is the author of the forthcoming novel “The Wish Maker.”
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