It is now my second full day in the courtyard of the police HQ in Quetta Pakistan, I am writing this in the shade of my truck with the prospect of two further days stuck here as part of a “security protocol”. I think that they are being a bit overcautious as they were concerned about the religious holiday so were keeping all the foreigners (3) in the police station for the duration of the knife wielding Shite commemorations of the martyrdom of Inman Hussein, who Shite Muslims credit with saving their branch of the religion. There was also the small matter of the government office that issues permits for travel being closed until Monday (now Friday)
Apparently the very keen beat themselves with small knives on the end of chains in the streets and the street becomes covered with the blood of the devoted, I think some keen Christians do something similar around Easter time in some parts of the world. I was not to see this cultural event, as the very friendly Police Chief explained that they had a “security protocol” and I was the “welcome guest” of the Police here in Quetta until the government offices reopened on Monday. I think that the other name for welcome guest is “protective detention” as we are not allowed to leave the police compound, unless we want to stay in a very expensive hotel that they guard 24/7, and we are not allowed to leave that place or travel at all without a number of bodyguards.
I could see the devoted flocking to town on the way with their black flags and black uniform dress code but the handover from police station to police station took so long that I arrived on the Quetta town boundary at dusk, and was made to wait on an escort for another hour, which meant crossing the city to the police station in the dark…on the eve of the commemorations.
You know police are serious when things begin to feel homely, I was brought up in the middle of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland and my father was an electrical engineer with the Fleet Air Arm so technically British Military. When we would approach a checkpoint at night we had to turn off the car lights so that we did not show up the soldiers and the checkpoint would be in darkness with powerful lights pointing outward to blind snipers. So it was in Quetta city and I thought to myself “these guys are the real deal”. In the daytime my dad would say to the soldier “I am going to show you my ID and you are not going to react or salute or anything like that OK, no special treatment” just in case the IRA had spotters looking and would later target the car and I think he would not speak about who he worked for in public places just to be sensible.
When I hit Quetta city in the dark the checkpoints were just like in Belfast or Armagh, which we always called “bandit country” in a light hearted way, I think driving a big foreign Land Rover into Quetta is like driving a car with a big union jack on it into South Armagh twenty years ago, most likely you will be fine, if you keep moving, but all the security people are super jumpy and deadly serious. Although no travellers have been hurt or kidnapped for many years, so statistically it is a very safe crossing (I checked carefully before choosing this route) part of the reason it is so safe is the very professional protection of the Pakistan Police and Military.
So it was to be in Quetta, we crossed the city in three hops between secure police stations, on the first one I had a pretty normal escort of a Police Toyota pickup with a driver, a policeman and two commandos in the back. I was to stay close (like 1m to 2m off the back of the truck at 40kph) as they piled through the dusk sirens and blue lights on constantly clearing the way. At the second stop my escort changed to an armored car, based on a 110 Land Rover so we were well matched, this on had a 50mm on the roof turret and I was told to run with side lights only and to keep close which I did in a very nerve fraying way as we piled through crowed crossroads and two markets.
On the final leg I was in the town center barracks and heading to police HQ, which is about 3km north of the city, on this occasion I had the special forces escort, I guess as it was properly dark and we were driving from and to a known target, or maybe they just wanted to drive around for a bit. I was introduced to the escort sergeant fully kitted out in helmet, balaclava, goggles, and tactical black uniform (with “ SPG no fear” on the back and “police commando” on the bullet proof vest) I was again told to sit on the tail of the lead motorcycle, he said “close, you understand close!” gesturing with his arms a 1m distance. I nodded and gulped, by now sweating and truthfully a bit anxious. Each of the three bikes has two soldiers one driving and one waving other motorists out of the way with his short machine gun.
I decided that I was going to do exactly as they said and so stuck right on the tail of the sergeants bike for the convoluted route they took (not up the highway which was an option) this meant crossing junctions, roundabouts and slip roads at 30-40kph as the outriders cleared junctions alternating running overlaps at junctions ahead of us and covering the back to stop anyone pushing in to the convey. As we approached police HQ the gates opened and we piled straight in weaving between the barbwire barriers and the stingers on the road. When we stopped I put my rather sweaty head on the steering wheel and simply said out loud “F**k me that was proper scary” while trying to stop my hands from shaking.
Jovially one of the special forces outrider drivers came up to the window and said “very good driving mister, you army?” so I guess I did something right out of fear.
Now the interesting thing about this story, apart from it being in itself an unusual tale, is that it is an illustration of the complexity of our perception of fear. I would walk about in downtown Philly (256 people murdered last year with guns) or London (multiple bombings and terrorist attacks), or Paris (rampaging gunmen last year) and not be too concerned for my own safety. In Quetta, protected by very professional special forces at speed in the dark, so a super hard target, I felt properly anxious. It is interesting that we confuse the security presence with the actual risk, of course there is some correlation but in Pakistan, which is trying to build its tourist industry, I get the feeling they go very far out of there way to ensure you are super safe, but those very precautions, which probably mean you are really really safe, make you nervous as they are so strange and alien – even more so if you have not been brought up in Belfast.
So now I am in the Police compound writing my blog and the summary could be, the chances of anything bad happening to you Baluchistan province on the transit to Iran are very small, probably comparable to the risks of spending time in any major city in Europe or America. However if escorts, guns, police fortresses and convoy driving make you nervous, take another road…
Another good thing to do is to check out the local holidays, this holiday moves around depending on the Lunar calendar so you have to look it up, when the guide says go to Quetta, call into the government office for an hour to pick up your non-objection certificate for onward travel to Iran, and then it is two days to Iran – just make sure the office is not closed for the next four days, as you will not move until you have the paper!!