Mohammad Sajjad/AP
Pakistan army soldiers stand at a gate of the press club after a suicide attack in Peshawar, Pakistan on Tuesday.
Fayaz Aziz/Reuters
Men place flowers and light candles at the site of a suicide bomb attack, that took place hours earlier at the gate of the Press club in Peshawar, located in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, Tuesday.

Pakistan bombings by Taliban hit lower classes hardest

On Tuesday, the latest Taliban bomb went off in Peshawar, killing three. The Taliban targets upscale buildings and neighborhoods, but many of the injured – and those hit hardest economically by the bombings in Pakistan – are the poor.

In their bomb attacks against civilians, Pakistani militants have sought to maximize shock value by hitting elite, high-profile targets like five-star hotels and marketplaces in the country's upscale neighborhoods.

But the repercussions from these bombings hits the less well-off, too, the urban poor who have fewer means to protect themselves, bounce back from economic loss, and even cope with the added anxiety.

“A lot of the elite targets is to show they can do these things, but whenever they do, they strike other targets,” says Haris Gazdar, an expert on poverty at the Center for Social Science Research in Karachi. “Even if they’re in a rich area, a lot of poor people walking in the street die,” he says.

Though the assaults on symbols of power and wealth have grabbed the most attention, more often militants settle for victims who are easier to reach. Peshawar, the main town nearest the Taliban’s base in the northwestern tribal areas, has been struck more times this year – and again Tuesday – than either of the wealthier, more central cities of Lahore and Islamabad, says Abdul Basit, head of security research at the Pakistani Institute for Peace Studies.

 In October and November, the Institute counted 93 terrorist attacks in the North West Frontier Province, compared with fewer than 10 in Islamabad and Lahore. In Tuesday's suicide bombing of the press club in Peshawar, three people died and 17 were injured. Many of the injured were on a bus passing by when the bomb went off.

Top-notch security, for some

The rich and powerful, meanwhile, can secure first-rate protection. And Pakistanis with money and foreign passports have the option of moving abroad – not an easy decision to make, but a reassuring escape hatch.

The president, parliamentarians, and Supreme Court justices in Islamabad work behind a fortified zone ringed with guards and checkpoints, overlooking a broad avenue nearly emptied of traffic. One third of the 90 permanent checkpoints set up in the capital protect this road, says Kalim Alam, inspector general of the Islamabad police force. Another 18 are moved around based on intelligence about possible targets, usually also high-value ones.

 Of the private security guards increasingly in demand, the truly effective ones come with a steep price tag.

Security 2000, a leading firm which claims PepsiCo and CNN among its clients, sends mostly ex-Special Forces with at least 15 years of experience to protect its executives and pays them $200 to $300 a month, says Maj. (R.) Junaid Iqbal, general manager of the firm's executive protection program.

Average Pakistanis earn $67 a month. And that's what some local shops pay their guards. In one marketplace here, storeowners can’t afford that much. So, they pool money to pay three men to roam their plaza. But some question the effectiveness of the guards: Spread so far out, they are difficult to spot, limiting their ability to deter potential attacks.

But the guards posted conspicuously at either entrance of a burger joint in a nice part of Islamabad don’t inspire much confidence either. Their uniforms look regal, complete with red cravat and sash. But their guns are not loaded; bullets are kept in a pouch by their side. “If a suicide bomber comes, nobody can stop him. [The guards at the entrance are] just for the satisfaction of the customers,” says Jamil Rehman, the cashier inside, waving at a dozen diners spaced between empty booths.

Less equipped to cope with fallout

At a dozen shops and eateries in Islamabad, owners say business has dropped by at least half as people seek to avoid crowded places that may be targeted by suicide bombers. For each proprietor watching their revenues shrink, several times more waiters and sales clerks are also feeling the loss but have less of a cushion to bear it.

Mohammed Yusuf, who works 17 hours a day delivering orders for a restaurant by foot and is paid entirely on commission, says on a good day these days he makes $2. Fear of attack has made him work harder – he now zigzags around groups of more than eight people and hurries back to the restaurant to take cover.

 “All I do all day is work and worry about how bad the situation is,” he exclaims, adding that he also frequently watches news of the attacks on TV and “feels disgusted” when he sees that women and children were killed.

 Though fear and anxiety have hit Pakistanis across the socioeconomic spectrum, the poor are generally worse-prepared to handle such unnerving events, says Murad Khan, head of the psychiatry department at Aga Khan University in Karachi.

They are dealing with so many hardships already that with the added troubles “a lot more people just go over the edge,” he says. They also have less access to information about coping or to a psychologist, which costs a prohibitive $6 to $25 a visit anyway.

Sources of worry, and hope, for all

Exacerbating people’s stress is the widely shared view that things will only get worse as the Pakistan Army expands its offensive against the Taliban and the Taliban retaliate with more bombings. Some also worry that the bombings will only stop if the Army defeats all the militants, or if the government fixes the chronic inequality and poverty that gives rise to militancy – both daunting tasks.

For now, says Khan, many people will continue to take comfort in their families and their faith, two things that often play an important role in Pakistanis’ lives, rich or poor.

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