We were having a quiet night in. We had turned down an invitation to visit nearby friends because one of us wasn’t feeling well.
A quiet night in.
Until that quiet was punctuated by an explosion so close and so loud that our patio doors shook. Disorientated, we rushed into the garden. Even before I understood what was happening, instinct kicked in. My mind on full danger alert, I turned around and ran upstairs to check on my babies. They were sleeping peacefully — completely unaware of any of the drama unfolding that night in Islamabad. But somehow just seeing them safe made me feel better.
This night that changed everything happened only three months after we first arrived in Pakistan, exhausted after a disastrous journey that took 24 hours longer than it should have. A huge thunderstorm had caused us to divert back to Dubai: Looking back, it seems like a warning of the cataclysmic events to come.
The first weeks were the hardest, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. Left at home with the children, no friends and little support while my husband started his new job at the British High Commission, I found myself stalking around the house like a caged tiger, occasionally screaming in frustration at the heat outside, the boredom, the sheer dullness of being trapped in a walled compound. Even the pool was out of bounds while the sun beat down during the main part of the day.
Then one day Ansa turned up, a local woman who asked if we needed help. Suddenly, there was someone to rub the baby’s belly to get her to sleep; to cook us the most wonderful curries using the freshest spices; to talk to me. I bought a car, found the shops for bread, for fruit, for meat. I started to feel confident in venturing out on my own, taking the children to a music group organized by a group of expats. It was a strange life, but we started to get used to our new reality.
Until that night.
In our living room the radios cackled into life. Where was everyone? Who was out; who was at home? Television switched to the news — the Marriott hotel in flames. The hotel we had visited many times with our daughters, our baby — just 9 months old — and our 3-year-old toddler. A huge fish tank in the lobby, the best dried fruit shop in the city, cakes and pastries from the cafe. It was one of our only sanctuaries in a city where every time I left our house I had to tell my husband where I was going and when I would be back. We never traveled without a radio. At every road block, I checked to see if any of the other cars looked as though they were driven by suicide bombers.
It turned out no one we knew was killed that night. One colleague was injured as she was out with her two children. Yet she was luckier than many of the people whose faces we recognized but whose names we never knew. Guards who smiled when we visited. The woman who painted my nails just a few days previously. Waiters who took our orders.
The days that followed were dominated by one question: Would we be sent home? The decision was passed back to London. The hotel was still smoldering, discussions taking place about who the bombers were.
But with two young children, life had to go on. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t just curl up on a sofa and weep. Instead, I took them to dance classes, met with friends, attended the school closing ceremony. I drew on inner strength that I didn’t know I possessed; I ignored the voices screaming in my ear that everything I was doing was wrong, against nature; I thanked my lucky stars that our daughters were too young to understand.
We had to carry on. We had no choice — but I spent my days on edge. And as a parent, this was devastating. Our first instinct is to protect our babies and I felt as though I was failing to do exactly that. Not only did I have to deal with the constant fear of bringing harm to my children, I also had to cope with the feelings of guilt that I was doing this to them. We had chosen to come to Pakistan; we had ignored the silent condemnation from those who couldn’t understand our decision. The allure of a good life overseas and an interesting job for my husband had overcome our instincts to stay away. Now it felt as though we were paying the price.
In the end, it was decided it was too risky for us to stay. The date was set — we would leave two weeks later. Two weeks in which we had to say our goodbyes to a city we barely knew but had somehow found a place in our hearts. Two weeks in which I hated taking my children off the compound, but also couldn’t stand leaving them at home.
The day I said goodbye to Ansa, I cried. She cried and gave me a brown envelope containing the recipes for the curries we loved so much, copied out laboriously in her broken English. I still have those pieces of paper; I still cook those curries; we still think of Ansa.
Back home in a familiar place, feeling safe, with family close by, I spent two days in bed, feverish, not eating. I allowed myself to have some time off from child care, to let someone else look after our daughters. But then, as parents do, I got up and I carried on — we still had another six months of uncertainty until we knew where we were headed next. St. Lucia, back to the United Kingdom and now South Africa.
Yet for us, every move since has been easier — nothing we have been through will ever be like those three months in Islamabad and the immediate aftermath. It’s been nine years since we left, but the lessons learned that night and the days that followed will always be with me. I didn’t know I had the inner strength to get through that period; as parents we had no idea we would ever have to cope with something like that. But as parents, I truly believe we all have it in us. This time, it took a bomb for me to realize it.
The Islamabad Marriott Bombing occurred on the night of Sept. 20, 2008. At least 54 people died, mostly Pakistani nationals. Although three suspected terrorists were originally arrested, no one was ever found guilty of the crime.
Clara Wiggins is a British writer and author of the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. She currently lives in South Africa with her husband and two daughters.
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