Last expatriates flee Pakistan as foreigners become direct target

As Pakistani and American investigators trawled through the gory debris of Friday's bomb attack outside the US Consulate in Karachi, which killed at least 10 and injured 43, the last foreigners left in Pakistan were planning their getaways.

No expatriates died in Friday's massive blast, but it was the fourth attack directed at foreigners or foreign property in Pakistan since January. The first was the kidnapping and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, followed by an attack on a Protestant church in Islamabad which killed five and a bomb outside the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi, a short distance from yesterday's blast, which killed 14 French submarine engineers. For the few expat families still in the country yesterday, enough was enough.

"Everyone's gone now," said Eileen Donovan (not her real name), an Irish mother of two, packing belongings at her comfortable suburban home in Islamabad. "We came back last August for our second year, happy to be in what everyone agreed was a great family posting. Then after 11 September, all families were evacuated. Most returned in January and February, and everything was just getting back to normal.

"That was until one Sunday in March. We were at the flea market sale organised by the American School when suddenly the news broke about the church attack." Militants had burst into the Protestant International Church in Islamabad's diplomatic enclave and strolled up the aisle, tossing hand grenades around, before escaping.

"One woman ran through the market screaming, 'My children, my children!'" Eileen remembered. "My nine-year-old's best friend was in the church, and the mother of a friend of my six-year-old had a punctured lung – a fragment of a grenade passed half an inch from her heart.

"The American Embassy was completely devastated – one woman employee and her teenage daughter were among the dead. The Americans didn't know how to react. It was left open to dependents to leave if they wanted, but many didn't want to. Then in April it was made mandatory."

The American School limped on, with vanishing teachers and ever-shrinking classes. "People became anxious about the school bus ride," remembers Eileen. "It was a smart, conspicuous, American-style bus that took the children on a 20-minute ride to school – a readily identifiable target."

Cars were banned from the school grounds, a truck patrolled the perimeter with a mounted machine gun, and there were armed guards at the gate. "The chairman of the board of governors said, 'We advise Americans to leave Pakistan, there are bad men out there trying to kill us.'"

Now the school is closed and only the stragglers like Eileen and her family remain to digest the latest horrible news. A handful of foreign families – Indian, Tunisian, Irish, Belgian – fraternise gloomily at the American embassy pool. "There's definitely a feeling of solidarity," says Eileen.

The Protestant International Church, target of March's attack, is now a crime site, and the few foreign worshippers left have shifted to St Thomas's Anglican church a few miles away: a modern brick structure, close to a main road beyond a low brick wall – a simple target for a terrorist assault, guarded on weekdays by one dozing, overweight policeman.

The pastor and acting vicar, Irshad John, a fourth-generation Pakistani Christian, is defiant about the menace. "We're not at all worried," he insisted. "I'm encouraging my people: the day that God has decided for us to die – it's not in our choice. It can be in the church, it can be in the road, it can be in the house – we must not be worried at all. We must trust God."

But faith may be weakening, because the church is still awaiting the arrival of a new foreign vicar. "The last one, an Englishman called Peter Greenwood, left when his tenure ended in 2000," says Mr John. "We're looking for a replacement, someone willing to come for five years. But due to the present situation, no-one wants to come." The lure of potential martyrdom is not what it used to be.

"You have to be bold enough to accept the challenge," Mr John says of the ideal candidate for the job. "If any mishap comes to you – you will be crowned with the crown of everlasting life."

It seems unlikely that the attacks on foreigners in Pakistan are going to cease any time soon. One of the suspects in the killing of Daniel Pearl, Fazal Karim, recently told his police interrogators, "There will be so many attacks against the Western targets that you will lose count. Our people are organised, motivated and ready to embrace martyrdom...

"There are scores of Arabs and their Pakistani loyalists who are desperate to blow themselves up to settle scores with Americans. Our Arab friends hosted us in Afghanistan when we were on the run. Now it's our turn to pay them back."

And as the latest Karachi attack demonstrates, Pakistan's military regime seems incapable of combating attacks that are destroying both its stability and international credibility. "Internal strife is eating us like termites," President Musharraf told his nation early this year. But though he identifies the problem, he has yet to find a way to solve it.