By Salman Masood and Zia ur-Rehman
September 12, 2014
ISLAMABAD — If there were just one image to evoke the chaos of the protests that have paralyzed this city and brought Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government to the brink of collapse over the last month, it would surely be that of a shipping container.
The authorities initially stacked the huge metal containers at crucial travel points around Islamabad, the country’s capital, to serve as roadblocks and barricades to control the protesters. But the rectangular metal boxes were soon commandeered by the demonstrators, who began using them as speaking platforms and temporary housing. Many of the containers became billboards, too, spray-painted with antigovernment slogans like “Go Nawaz Go” and “Revolution.”
Before long, the hulking steel boxes of red, blue or burgundy seemed to be everywhere, cluttering roadsides and sidewalks and snarling traffic — a lingering nuisance that residents here wish would go away.
On Tuesday, Justice Athar Minallah of the Islamabad High Court ordered the city administration to remove the ‘unnecessary containers’ within a week. Justice Minallah also ordered the police to vacate public schools buildings, where at least 20,000 officers were billeted since they were marshalled in mid-August to maintain order.
Islamabad is not used to having life disrupted by vast traffic jams, barricaded streets and teeming political rallies. It tends to be a relatively quiet and diciplined city compared with others in the country, and the government usually keeps it tidy. But the protests have derailed ordinary life here for weeks, residents say, and things are only just beginning to inch back to normal.
“People are getting tired of the protests because things are at a standstill,” said Mariam Chaudhry, a talk-show host on state-run television. “Movement across town is restricted. One has to think before going anywhere. Other parts of the city also seem empty-ish. There are fewer people in the markets.”
Public schools were supposed to reopen Aug. 25, but officials postponed the start to Sept. 3 because of the protests. Some schools have yet to reopen because the police still occupy their buildings, annoying parents and teachers. “It’s been 20 days of continuous holidays,” said one parent, Shams Abbasi.
Businesses have also been disrupted and merchants in the capital say they have suffered huge financial losses. Some placed the blame on the organizers of the protests, the opposition leaders Imran Khan, a former cricketer, and the Muslim preacher Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri.
“After 26 days of protest with no fruitful results, it shows that the two leaders have failed in achieving any of their objectives and instead they disturbed the lives of the people,” Muhammad Ashraf, a restaurant owner, said. At Depilex, a well-known salon in the capital, the first week of protests kept many customers away. “Business is only picking up now,” said Shahbaz Masih, 32, a hairstylist.
A representative of the city’s business community, Ajmal Baloch, who filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court against Mr. Khan and Mr. Qadri over the disruptions, estimates that merchants in Islamabad have suffered losses of at least 10 billion rupees, around $100 million, a figure that could not be verified independently.
The containers are also a drain on public finances — the government is paying $35 to $40 a day to rent each one, officials said. Many were commandeered on little or no notice by the police, who were hurrying to use them to block the path of the protesters.
“Around 1,000 shipping containers, some of them loaded with different goods, have been placed for blocking roads in Islamabad,” said Fazal Manan Jadoon, a leader of a trade association of Pakistani truckers based in Karachi. “It has caused severe loss to the traders,” he said.
Day laborers have also suffered. Akbar Ali, who came to Islamabad in search of work at the beginning of August, said that he had been unable to find any day work because of the protests.
The police have deployed large numbers of officers around major government buildings to keep protesters out at the expense of regular police work elsewhere in the capital. Officials say that has left the city more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
“There are 56 checkpoints across the capital which remained unmanned for 16 days,” said a senior police official at the Aabpara Police Station, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he had not been authorized to speak to reporters. He said there was concern that crowds of protesters would overwhelm officers at checkpoints and torture them in retaliation for previous clashes.
At the sit-in protests outside the Parliament building, Mr. Khan and Mr. Qadri spend their time in two heavy steel containers that are thought to be bulletproof. Around them, thousands of supporters brave the intermittent rain showers, living on the streets in an increasingly unhygienic environment with little access to food or toilets.
Constitution Avenue, where protesters have set up a tent city, reeks and is strewed with litter. A doctor at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences said that a number of protesters had come to the hospital recently suffering from diarrhea. Health officials say the danger of an outbreak of infectious disease among protesters at the sit-in is high.
The protesters seem undaunted.
Naeema Naseer, 35, one of hundreds of women who joined Mr. Qadri’s protest march from Lahore, said that she had not expected to stay in Islamabad so long. “It is true that we are now missing our families back home,” Ms. Naseer said. “But we are determined to stay here until the demands are met.”
For now, the containers remain. On Thursday, at a major traffic square leading to the government district, several had finally been pushed out of the way, but still loomed over the traffic from the side. One sat diagonally on the street, providing just enough room for cars to get by in a narrow single file.