In Pakistan, surviving suicide bombings is part of a political family’s life

Courtesy of Aftab Sherpao - A suicide bomber detonated himself about six feet away from the front of this Toyota Land Cruiser carrying Pakistani parliamentarian Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao and his son Sikander Sherpao, a provincial legislator, after a party rally near Shabqadar, a town 30 miles from Peshawar, Pakistan.

In the crime-scene photographs, the grill of the SUV is awash in blood and the suicide bomber’s leg lies severed on the road. These are not the kind of images you’d expect to see in a politician’s scrapbook.

But for the Sherpaos of Pakistan, such attacks have become part of political life, at a staggering cost.

“I actually saw the bomber blow himself up,” said Sikander Sherpao, whose influential family has been repeatedly targeted in attacks that the authorities blame on Taliban and other insurgents. The latest, early this month, was aimed at his father, Aftab Khan Sherpao, a member of the National Assembly.

As they met with a visitor one afternoon last week, the white-haired father stared impassively ahead as the son, a provincial legislator, scrolled through the grisly photos on his iPad. The attack this month marked the third time in five years that they had narrowly escaped death in a suicide bombing. The bomber struck near Peshawar, in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the elder Sherpao has been a pro-
democracy force for decades.

“One can’t imagine a person coming in front of you and then seeing him blow himself up,” Sikander Sherpao said.

Scores of Sherpao kin, party workers and friends have been killed or wounded in the attacks, which occurred in retaliation for the family’s support of military and law enforcement operations to rout Islamist extremists in the region. Sikander Sherpao and his father also have been targeted separately 14 other times, police have told them, in plots that were foiled.

The Sherpaos say they expect extremist violence to escalate in the months ahead, in advance of general elections next year. After decades in which Pakistan has vacillated between military and civilian rule, the current civilian government has lasted longer than any other since the nation’s birth in 1947. But the Sherpaos say the militants’ goal is to intimidate politicians — whether they are religiously aligned, moderate or liberal — as they campaign to control Parliament and capture the offices of prime minister and president.

“There are a lot of people who suggest that you curtail your activities or you try to stay away from the public,” said Sikander Sherpao, 36. “But the thing is, whether they physically eliminate you or whether they curtail you, a vacuum is created, and that is what these extremists want.”

“One has to resist it,” his 67-year-old father said.

For the Sherpaos, resistance has come at a price paid in a currency of corpses and guilt.

Family with deep roots

The Sherpaos hail from a landed family with deep roots in the Pashtun-dominated region once known as the North-West Frontier Province. Aftab’s older brother, Hayat, co-founded the leftist Pakistan People’s Party with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the late 1960s. It is the party in power today.

In 1975, Hayat Sherpao became one of its first martyrs. He had just delivered a speech at Peshawar University when a bomb-rigged reel-to-reel tape recorder on the dais exploded, instantly killing him.

Aftab Sherpao says he had warned his brother — a provincial leader who had escaped three or four other bombings during the spate of political terrorism then roiling the province — to be more careful about his public appearances. But he didn’t listen.

“When my brother was assassinated, I resisted joining politics,” Aftab Sherpao said, sitting in his quiet, ornately furnished home in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. “I thought that it’s not my due: Just because he’s lost his life, then I should take over from him?”

But Bhutto, by then prime minister, persuaded him in 1976 to take up the PPP banner, at no mean personal cost. During the military rule of Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, Aftab Sherpao spent stints in jail that totaled five years.

“My two daughters were born when I was in jail,” he said.

As a politician, Aftab Sherpao was a tireless patronage boss and advocate for his home province, where the United Nations Development Program sets the poverty rate at 39 percent and where illiteracy is rampant. He served as chief provincial minister and later became federal interior minister, involved with peace-brokering efforts between the Taliban and the government of neighboring Afghanistan.

“I have never seen him without political activity,” said colleague Anisa Zeb Tahirkheli, who met Sherpao when she was a student leader more than three decades ago.

As in the case of many leading Pakistani politicians, his career has included years-long prosecutions on corruption charges (he was acquitted) and a stint in exile (two years spent in Britain).

Attacks become familiar

Sikander Sherpao — soft-featured but hard-willed like his father — also followed his political path, and father and son first endured a suicide bombing together in April 2007, at a gathering in their home district of Charsadda. Twenty-eight people died, many of them party faithful and officials.

The father was about 15 feet from the explosion, and his son was somewhat farther away. Both were thrown to the ground, but neither was seriously hurt.

“I got a pellet in my calf, which is still there,” the son said, adding, with a chuckle, “I am keeping it, as memorabilia.”

Then came a far more devastating suicide bombing inside a mosque in their district that bears the family name (taken from the town’s). It was Dec. 2, 2007, the celebration of Eid al-Adha.

In the front row, Aftab Sherpao, along with Sikander and some nephews, was among those offering prayers. Younger son Mustafa Sherpao was a row behind, along with Aftab Sherpao’s grandnephews.

“The sound of the explosion. The smell of the explosive. One gets familiar with that,” Aftab Sherpao said. “Human flesh littered all around.”

Mustafa Sherpao suffered severe internal injuries that took years to heal. Fifty-three people died, including many of the community’s poor, who were neighbors of Sherpao, and servants.

“It was agonizing,” Aftab said, his voice lowering at the memory. “There was anger amongst the people. I felt it was because of me that this has happened. . . . They didn’t say it, but I felt that it’s because of me, and I felt responsible for that.”

Although they increased security, the only way the Sherpaos could have substantially reduced the risk was to not hold gatherings with constituents. But neither Sikander Sherpao nor his father saw that as an option — even after police foiled a 2009 attack on the son by killing a would-be suicide bomber near a political rally.

“It is not for personal aggrandizement,” Aftab Sherpao said. “We have a message, and we want to carry that message and give the people some sort of hope.”

‘Oh, God! Not again’

The March 3 public gathering was relatively small, drawing 100 to 200 people. It was uneventful until Aftab and Sikander Sherpao left in their Toyota Land Cruiser — the younger man in the passenger seat and the father in the back with another lawmaker.

The suicide bomber emerged from the side of the road and put himself between the Sherpaos’ vehicle and their escort car. He had a light beard, wore a black shawl and sported a traditional circular woolen cap. He detonated his explosives about six feet from the Land Cruiser.

The elder politician didn’t see it happen. But when he heard the blast, he said, he thought to himself: “Oh, God! Not again.”

One police officer was killed at the scene; another died at a hospital. A 5-year-old girl also perished.

Since that blast, everyone tells the Sherpaos to be more careful.

“Like I tell him,” Aftab Sherpao said, pointing to Sikander, “and he doesn’t listen.”

“Like they tell me, and I don’t listen.”

 
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