Pakistanis Punctuate Their Fury With Fire
'How Else Can We Express Ourselves?'

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."

Sweeping up charred glass in front of a national bank, Liaqat Hussain, 40, a guard, said his wife had asked him to quit his job and join the protesters.

"We are all very upset in my neighborhood, and everyone was offering tires," Hussain said. "It's bad in a way when property is destroyed, but it's also what happens in Pakistan."

Some in the government say that venting grief and frustration is to be expected but that the crowds include hooligans simply looking to steal car radios, cellphones, other electronics and money.

Mohammed Rashid, 32, a teacher, said protesters who wanted to make a point but didn't want to damage private property burned tires.

"It's not good to destroy, but Pakistanis want attention," he said. "Everyone who felt the pain from their hearts gave a tire."

In cities across the country Sunday afternoon, protesters gathered and police sprayed clouds of tear gas to disperse them. In one neighborhood of Rawalpindi, police played a cat-and-mouse game with the protesters. A trickle of people would gather, and police would speed in on open-bed trucks. The protesters would run, hiding in tight alleyways behind women peeling garlic and men frying balls of dough.

A police officer on a motorbike stopped to chat with a group of protesters, telling them: "We are all upset. I can understand."

Nearby, the tire market was shuttered, and police stood guard around the neighborhood.

Special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company