Pakistanis Punctuate Their Fury With Fire

Protests and violence occurred throughout Pakistan in the wake of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Bhutto was leading the Pakistan People's Party as it campaigned for the Jan. 8 national elections.
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 31, 2007

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, Dec. 30 -- In the frenzied hours after Benazir Bhutto's assassination, teachers, bus drivers and fruit vendors quickly gathered their teenage sons and traveled through the twisting, narrow alleyways of this old city to collect one item: tires.

The burning tire is a symbol of protest, and rubber is cheap in Pakistan. Protesters have set tires ablaze in the streets, sending black ash into the air as a smoke signal of sorts, transmitting a message of anger.

In one crowded neighborhood just steps from where Bhutto was killed here Thursday, men looking for tires received more donations than they could count.

"Everyone wanted to help by giving a tire -- they were proud to do it," said Khurshid, 22, a bus conductor who spent Sunday near the public park where Bhutto was slain. He said he helped burn nearly 100 tires.

"Our hearts were in such grief. We couldn't sit easily with our anger," he said. "How else can we express ourselves and let the government know what anger is in our hearts?"

Men gathered around Khurshid and slapped his back in support. Jannat Gul, a 14-year-old with a mop of curly hair, stepped forward to say he had smashed three traffic lights with sticks Saturday "to make the government feel our harm." The men clapped and cheered, and the boy beamed.

"My father was proud when I destroyed the traffic lights," Jannat said. "The government needs to know we are upset."

In the wave of public outrage that has followed Bhutto's assassination, nearly any institution that seems to represent the government has become a target of destruction. More than 200 banks have been robbed, and a fiber-optic cable was destroyed, cutting Internet service. Even an orphanage in Karachi was ransacked because crowds mistakenly thought it was a state institution.

Many here say the destruction is a form of catharsis, a way to express deep frustration with politics and the economy in this country of 165 million, where unemployment and illiteracy rates are high, the judicial system is in tatters and a string of often autocratic leaders have seized power by force.

"What is really horrifying about the past couple of days is neither the intensity of the violence nor its apparent senselessness, but the fact that there are so many people in the country who have nothing to lose and who believe, perhaps quite rightly, that the normal channels of raising their complaints -- the legal and law enforcement systems -- are entirely ineffective or biased," columnist Hajrah Mumtaz wrote in the English-language Dawn newspaper. "The riots were ugly because the root issues feeding them are ugly."

Pakistan has endured one of the most chaotic years in an already chaotic history. Instability since President Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule Nov. 3 and dismissed most members of the Supreme Court caused prices of essential goods to rise and the stock market to plummet. Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism, violently suppressed protests and detained thousands of dissidents. He lifted emergency rule Dec. 15.

"In the Pakistani context, this is all about venting frustration against the Musharraf regime," said Ashraf Ali, a researcher at the University of Peshawar. "The dilemma is that people want to register their protest in a violent way because nobody listens when it's peaceful."

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