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Archive for September 24th, 2008

Today, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met VP Republican candidate Sarah Palin in New York City. According to CNN, who called the meeting “an eyebrow raising exchange,” Zardari reportedly called Palin, “gorgeous.” The news agency reported,

On entering a room filled with several Pakistani officials Wednesday, Palin was immediately greeted by Sherry Rehman, the country’s information minister. “And how does one keep looking that good when one is that busy?” Rehman asked Palin, drawing friendly laughter from the room.

When Zardari shook her hand, he reportedly called her gorgeous, and then said, “Now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you.” CNN reported, “A handler from Zardari’s entourage then told the two politicians to keep shaking hands for the cameras. ‘If he’s insisting, I might hug,’ Zardari said. Palin smiled politely in response.”

When a reporter at the Zardari meeting asked about her day meeting with foreign officials, she said, “It’s going great…These meetings are very informative and helpful, and a lot of good people sharing appreciation for America.”

Translation: There was more grease in that meeting than on an offshore oil rig.

AZ, I think calling Palin “gorgeous” and trying to hug her during an official meeting before the press may not be the best way to impress the all-too-trigger-happy vice presidential hopeful. Just a thought. [Image from the NY Times]

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The Marriott Hotel bombing last Saturday was an immense tragedy for the people of Pakistan, particularly those from Islamabad. The tragedy is perhaps more telling when we take into account the innocent civilians killed and injured by the blast. CHUP interviewed four people from Islamabad on their reactions to the bombing, in order to provide a more humanized portrayal of the bombing and its aftermath:

At around 8 pm on Saturday evening, September 20, 2008, an enormous truck bomb went off at the gates of the Marriott, a hotel located in the center of Islamabad, near the presidency building, prime minister’s office, and the parliament. The blast occurred while many people were still enjoying iftaar, after just breaking their fast. Sajid, an IT executive in Islamabad, said he was on his way home after Maghreb prayer when he heard about the blast. He said, “I was shocked and rushed home to see the breaking news headline, “A dreadful blast heard near Marriott Hotel” on a local television channel.”

Izza, a program support specialist for ED-LINKS, heard her living room window rattle. She told CHUP, “From my memory of the bombing at the Danish Embassy a few months ago, I knew that the rattling was caused by an explosion. Within minutes, local news channels started speculating the origin of the blast. The landline and my cell phone started ringing with calls from concerned friends and family. Cell phone networks started getting congested.  Panic flooded the city.”  An Islamabad-based lawyer, [who wished to remain anonymous] was actually at home getting ready to leave for the Marriott when she heard the loud blast. She recalled, “Some people were taking my husband and I out for dinner and we were told to be there by 8pm sharp. The only reason we are alive or uninjured today is because my husband changed the plan from 8pm to 8.30pm about an hour earlier.”

Not long after the blast occurred, local media outlets were providing real-time coverage of the incident. Pakistanis stayed riveted to their television sets for subsequent developments. Sajid noted his shock was quickly replaced by “concern for the safety of the poor, unsuspecting security guards and drivers who always bear the brunt of such attacks.” Izza related her thoughts on watching the fire spread throughout the hotel, noting, “We didn’t expect to see the fire spread slowly but confidently to the rooftop, to one room, to two rooms, and then throughout the hotel.  I don’t know if I can explain what I felt: a certain sense of helplessness and dread looking at people wave and shout for help from the windows of the sixth floor, looking at the injured being carried out, looking at cars melting in the parking lot, and praying I didn’t see anyone I knew.”

A teacher in the capital [who also asked to remain anonymous] told CHUP, “I kept looking at the fire and thinking why is it out of control? Why aren’t the fire trucks here? It just kept getting bigger and bigger. I really got worried. There were people in the windows, and I kept thinking, “The Marriott is not a 50-storied building, surely these people can be saved.” The aforementioned lawyer was also horrified by the images of people in the hotel’s windows, and said it reminded her “momentarily of the people trapped in the Twin Towers on September 11.” She added, “What made one feel especially helpless is the fact that we have practically no emergency services. A fire engine took 45 minutes to arrive because it was coming from Rawalpindi. I felt that more people could have been saved had we had proper emergency services.”

Izza echoed, “Pakistan is a country under siege.  Explosions, suicide attacks and bomb threats are now routine—yet we do not have a disaster management plan.  The capital city of the country at the heart of the war on terror does not have a strategy or the means to deal with the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Why were firefighters helplessly watching on the outside, unable to provide rescue while the building slowly went up in flames?  Why were the poor guards at the barrier not equipped to put out the fire when the truck went up in flames?”

Several hours after the blast, news agencies cited officials who said that between 30 and 40 people were killed in the blast, and at least 200 were injured. A day later, the death toll increased further, with reports finalizing that 57 people died in the bombing, and about 250 were injured. The Marriott Hotel had been largely demolished by the fire, a far cry from the vibrant hotel that had once housed some of the capital’s most popular restaurants. Although officials have not yet confirmed who perpetrated the attack, fingers have been pointed at Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Many Pakistanis are outraged at the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan. The aforementioned teacher asserted, “I am very, very angry. I am upset, hurt, and angry…My beautiful country has changed. It hasn’t gone? Has it?”   The lawyer CHUP interviewed expressed similar sentiments, asserting, “I am appalled and angry at this criminal act especially as the perpetrators claim to be doing this in the name Islam. This is not Islam. This is blasphemy.”  Sajid echoed, “Terrorism is no longer confined to the borders of Pakistan… it is a pure disgrace to mankind; killing innocent people cannot be jihad. Terrorism has spread to all corners of the country.” The teacher also criticized the government’s reaction to the bombing, and, after hearing the “hurried, botched-up address by the president [Zardari]”  before his flight to the United States, felt like screaming, “Don’t go! Stay and pick up the pieces! Console us. Tell us something.”

As news coverage of the blast begins to subside, we are left remembering the victims of the attack. Izza recalled, “The hotel’s many restaurants, its gym, its salons and several other facilities make it one of Islamabad’s central attractions—its guards and doormen, its valets, its staff, were all people we knew well and exchanged greetings with each time we visited.” The security guards, in the final moments of their lives, “became heroes,” she noted, “showing commendable bravery,” as they attempted to put the blazing fire out. The lawyer will also remember those who worked at the hotel, saying, “I am devastated when I think about those two nice men in red coats who always used to open the door for me when I went to the Marriott… I have been informed that they were killed in the blast. So were many others all of whom I knew by their friendly faces and to all of whom I used to say ‘Salaam’ as I went through the lobby. I also think about the men, women and children who were innocently breaking their fast at the Marriott.”

Although bombings have been a frequent occurrence throughout Pakistan, large-scale attacks in main cities are significant because of the impact they have on your average citizen. They are a reality check; showing Pakistanis that bombings are no longer just occurring in the tribal areas, but at their front door. The tragedy is further humanized by the victims that many knew on a personal basis. The Marriott Hotel bombing  should be the final wake-up call for both our government and for the Pakistani people, who had yet to fully embrace the war against militancy as “their war.” If anyone had doubts before, they were largely dismissed in the aftermath of Saturday’s horrific tragedy.

If you would like to donate your time or money to help rehabilitate those injured in the blast or to the families of the victims, please visit the blog for The Citizens’ Trust for Victims of Terror.

You can also donate funds to help families of the Marriott guards killed in the blast via Global Giving, click here for more information.

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