Lahore-Panjab-Pakistan, 24 February 2017. Around noon on Thursday a mother received a call from her daughter’s school in Gulberg. The caller informed her that the school was letting parents collect their daughters early in view of the blast in DHA an hour ago.
As she rushed to the school, a friend texted her a message that one news channel was airing ‘unconfirmed’ reports of an explosion at an American fast food chain’s Gulberg outlet, which is perilously close to the school.
“It was like I had already died. The message numbed my mind and body, totally. Don’t know how I pulled up the car and started calling the school. But the call wouldn’t connect,” she later told the mother of one of her daughter’s classmates, her eyes swollen and her voice choking because of crying.
After failing to reach the school administration by telephone she pulled herself together and drove “madly” to get to the school only to run into a security picket.
The Rangers and the police had thrown a cordon around the Gulberg Main Boulevard outlet of the international chain. A policeman told her to take an alternative route.
“When I asked him about what was going on there and if the Rangers were searching only the food outlet or all the buildings, including the school, in that block, he refused to confirm or refute. He just kept asking me to move on and away,” the mother of two boys and a girl told Dawn.
She wasn’t the only mother to have suffered the trauma. Other parents too had similar experiences. Many made a dash to the school as soon as they heard of the Defence blast. Others were asked by a text message or call from the school administration or from their daughters.
Outside the school you could see many parents crying. Inside the school the children waited to be picked up as soon as possible.
“It was during the short break that the cell phones of our teachers started ringing incessantly. Everyone suddenly started talking about the Defence explosion and then ‘news’ of another blast in Gulberg,” an A-Level student said.
“We were asked by our school administrator to call home so that our parents could pick us up early. Every child was frightened, not knowing what was actually happening outside the school walls.”
‘Close to our homes’
Lahore is no stranger to terrorist attacks. Over the last decade the people of the city have seen hundreds of deaths in suicide bombings and sectarian attacks at public places and shrines like the rest of the country.
Parents remember refusing to send their children to school for days or taking them to public places. Some had even made their peace with their fear of death.
But the recent string of militant attacks in the country that began with a suicide attack on a protest at Charing Cross on the Mall in front of the Punjab Assembly earlier this month seems to have triggered a fresh wave of fear across the country. Thursday’s explosion has intensified these fears.
“The recent bombings have shaken everyone. This new wave looks dangerous. This is different from before. They (militants) seem to be closer… they’re hitting very close to (our) homes this time,” said an executive of a company who didn’t want to be named.
Unlike the past, traders too appear quite mindful of the threat and voluntarily shut down the markets. Restaurants that otherwise are usually filled with guests gave a deserted look.
“No one feels safe now. Everyone is advising everyone to avoid shopping malls, markets and restaurants. People are scared,” a trader told Dawn.
Many blame the electronic media and the government for the current environment of fear.
“If some media outlets are responsible for airing rumours as confirmed news, the (Punjab) government hasn’t done itself any good either by persistently trying to pass off the bomb explosion in Defence as an accident,” argued a LUMS professor. “Indeed, these government denials didn’t help”.
The ministers and officials have only added to the confusion, and public fears, just because it doesn’t want to look inefficient and weak. Such an outlook could boost demands for giving the Rangers more powers.”
The LUMS professor agreed that the management of the General Hospital had taken a good decision in disallowing the media from entering the premises for ‘live’ coverage.
“The media persons don’t realise how dangerous this can be for everyone, besides obstructing the effort to help the wounded.
The loss of 100 lives in a Quetta hospital in August last year and in Karachi’s Jinnah Hospital should be enough to make media refrain from following the wounded to hospitals and creating chaos for militants to do their work.”
Yet TV did spread rumours and panic with the news of Gulberg blast. “It is a tough call: do we inform our viewers and readers or do we play it down along with the likes of Rana Sanaullah,” said a journalist.