Pakistan's 'city of lights' wakes up to a brutal reality after a March filled with terror

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The Independent Online

Sundas Hurain shuddered when she woke to see gunmen rampaging around her city once again. At the beginning of the month, it was an attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in the heart of Lahore; yesterday it was an attack on a police training facility on the outskirts of town."It was absolutely horrifying," Ms Hurain, a law student, said. "I had tears in my eyes. When something happens so close to home, it hits you harder. It's difficult to feel safe right now.

Security is something that the residents of Lahore – Pakistan's cultural hub and second largest city, famed for its restaurants, colonial-era architecture, Mughal past and relatively relaxed social mores – used to take for granted. Until recently, terrorist attacks were considered a problem for different people, living near a different border.

But now as the militant threat advances across the country and into Punjab province, there are fears that the "city of lights" has become a principal target. "It's a feeling of bewilderment," said artist Salima Hashmi. "As a Lahori, you somehow associate events with being somewhere out there. Now it is becoming our own problem. It is a home-grown phenomenon, its patrons are right here."

Many Lahoris have been reluctant to face up to that reality. In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, the apportioning of blame to Lashkar-e-Toiba – a militant group headquartered not far from Lahore – was given short shrift. But with March's twin attacks there is a slow realisation that Pakistan's own militant groups have turned inward.

"They want to convert this democratic country into a terrorist state," Abdullah Malik, a lawyer, noted with indignation. He wants the west to help Pakistan fight terrorism, but like many people, feels that there isn't enough recognition of the price that his country has paid. "We are the people who are suffering the most," he says.

Lahore's first suicide bombing was relatively late in coming: January 2008 when two dozen policeman were killed outside the High Court. However, in the 14 months since then, there have been large suicide bombings striking the headquarters of the Federal Investigation Agency and the Navy College. Smaller groups have targeted juice shops and a theatre, trying to scare off young couples and the city's liberals.

Many ruefully concede that Lahore is no longer Pakistan's safest city. "Today, no place is safe," said Yusuf Salahuddin, a leading socialite and the grandson of Pakistan's national poet, Muhammad Iqbal. "New York isn't safe. London isn't safe. Mumbai isn't safe. How can Lahore be safe?"

But after each terrorist attack, Lahoris bounce back with characteristic resilience. When the Marriott Hotelwas bombed in Islamabad, the sleepy capital seemed to slip into a coma. By contrast, the noisy, fume-choked streets of Lahore refuse to fall silent, even yesterday when terror struck right at its front door. "No matter what happens," said Sundad Hurain, "the city never dies."