It was an unusual gathering at Karachi’s Cantt railway station, where over 100 people from civil society organisations, intellectuals, political and trade union workers, and journalists had gathered for a peaceful cause. Sixty of those gathered, including more than a dozen women, were part of a Peace Caravan that left Karachi on February 13 for Peshawar to express solidarity with people of Peshawar and the Frontier Province. The women participants in particular, mostly trade union activists and labour leaders, were enthusiastic to join the caravan as it offered an opportunity to meet the womenfolk of the area worst affected by terrorism.
The idea of organising a Peace Caravan emerged at a consultation meeting of the Pakistan Peace Coaltion (PPC) at the Karachi Press Club in November 2009. Civil society participants underlined the need to form a delegation to visit terrorist-hit areas of the NWFP. The objective of the caravan, then, was to express solidarity with people of the Frontier province; mobilise the working class, civil society and political parties against terrorism; build pressure on the government to fulfil its responsibility of maintenance of law and order; raise a voice against the US-led international war on terror; and create harmony among working people in their difficult times.
When the train whistled to start its journey, the caravan participants and their friends on the platform raised pro-peace slogans. The other passengers of Khyber Mail were keenly watching the enthusiasm of the participants. Many were happy to see that civil society organisations are expressing solidarity with the working class, which is facing economic hardship due to faulty economic and political policies.
In Hyderabad, the first stop, a large number of civil society activists were anxiously waiting to join the caravan. Men, women and children showered flower petals over the caravan members and raised slogans against terrorists: “we want peace not war; we want peace not bombs.” A group of 10 activists, including three women, joined the caravan from Hyderabad. The Joint Action Committee (JAC) Hyderabad issued a statement supporting the initiative, saying that the people of Sindh, land of Sufis, are against all kinds of terrorism.
The morning was cool when the caravan reached Rahim Yar Khan. Despite the chill in the air, the activists of local civil society organisations as well as the Unilever trade union welcomed the caravan with slogans against terrorism – and a hearty breakfast of paratha, chole, and tea. Together, the activists condemned bomb blasts in different parts of the country. During breakfast, one passenger on the Khyber Mail, Khudi Khan, explained that he lost his leg in a terrorist attack in Landikotal. He appreciated the peace initiative and expressed the hope that the country would become peaceful very soon.
At Khanpur, the caravan was met by beating drums and local activist Zafar Iqbal Jatoi, who said that people must unite and raise their voice against terrorism. While only two activists joined the caravan at Khanpur, a much larger gathering awaited the Khyber Mail at Multan. Intellectuals, labour leaders, writers, journalists, and residents of Multan also joined the caravan. “Silence is criminal and we appreciate those who have broken this silence,” said local leader Saleem Lodhi. “We need to stand up and speak otherwise we will be finished.” For his part, Dr Alvin Muran pointed out the diversity of those participating in the caravan: “There are Muslims, Christians and Hindus in this caravan which depicts a true picture of Pakistan.”
The caravan then headed towards Lahore, making two more stops at Khanewal and Okara before arriving at the Walled City. In Khanewal, the Anjuman-e-Mazareen and Peasant Women Society Pakistan had organised a gathering, where local activist Akeela Naz said that over 500,000 women are living in extreme poverty in Khanewal and adjoining areas. Similarly, at Okara, the caravan was met by a large gathering of peasants assembled by the Anjuman-e-Mazareen.
Arriving in Lahore in the evening, the caravan was greeted by hundreds of trade union and civil society activists and workers of the Awami Party as well as several civil society organisations, including South Asian Partnership (SAP-PK), SPO, Bonded Labour Liberation Front, GIYAN, and PILER.
Of course, the main purpose of the visit was to celebrate Peshawar and the resilience of those living in the midst of terror. During its two-day stay in Peshawar on February 16 and 17, more than a hundred caravan participants enjoyed a warm welcome. SAP-Pk and Aman Tahreek (AT) hosted a lunch for the participants at the city’s Grand Hotel. Aman Tahreek representative Dr. Syed Alam Mehsood lectured on the conflict and the root causes of Talibanisation. Later, caravan participants staged a demonstration and raised anti-war and anti-Taliban slogans on the main university road.
On the evening of Feb. 16, the delegation also visited the mausoleum of Rehman Baba, which was bombed by Taliban militants in March 2009. Caretakers of the mausoleum explained the losses sustained by the mazaar to the delegation. Later, the caravan also participated in a public meeting organised by the MLF in Industrial area of Hayatabad, in which more than 1,000 workers participated. The evening was concluded at a PPP (Sherpao) reception hosted by MPA Sikandar Hayat Sherpao (who was previously injured in a suicide attack) and Senator Haji Ghufran at the Peoples House in Hayatabad.
The following day, at a lunch reception, NWFP governor Owais Ahmed Ghani stated that the visit of the caravan had boosted the morale of the people and would be a major breakthrough in reducing public fear of Taliban. A similar theme was discussed at the Peshawar Press Club, where the caravan paused to express solidarity with journalists who were targeted in December 2009 by a suicide bomber.
As a final stop, the delegation visited Bacha Khan Markaz, headquarters of the Awami National Party. Senior ANP leaders and senior representatives of the delegation, including Mian Abdul Qayom, a labour leader from Faisalabad, engaged in a discussion. Several issues, including America’s role in the region, came under discussion. Overall, the ANP leadership appreciated the delegation’s visit and expressed the hope that the peace caravan initiative would bring together people from different parts of the country.
Shujuaddin Qureshi is a Senior Research Associate at the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER).