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Eyewitness to Pakistan turmoil

  • 23 March 2009

Rawalpindi, Pakistan. In the waking hours of Monday morning I watched as the Zardari Government was bought to its knees. Intense political pressure had forced Prime Minister Gilani to reinstate Chief Justice Chaudhry.

The lead-up to this came as Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of the Punjab, were simultaneously dismissed from office by the Supreme Court on 25 February, effectively barring them both from holding public office.

I was in Rawalpindi the day after Sharif's dismissal. I saw groups of young men roaming the streets, breaking shop fronts and destroying public property. The hotel I was planning to stay in was attacked and had its windows smashed. Groups of men on motorbikes, waving flags and sticks, sped by, shouting political slogans.

'Welcome to Pakistan,' I thought to myself.

In the weeks that followed, Pakistan plunged further into political instability, with an increase in civil disobedience, the uprise of anti government rallies and the threat of a political coup. The Long March intensified and aimed for the heart of Islamabad, a city that was in total lockdown.

Defying his house arrest, Nawaz Sharif broke through several police barricades and led the Long March into the streets of Lahore.

Violent clashes began between protestors and riot police, who, under strict orders to stop the march at all costs, began shelling the crowds with tear gas. Reports of a journalist being run over by police caused a backlash and protestors immediately turned on the authorities, setting an armoured police bus ablaze.

Arrest warrants were issued for Imran Khan and Shahbaz Sharif, but both evaded capture and made it to Rawalpindi, where they remained in hiding until news of Chief Justice Chaudhry's reinstatement was broadcast. Dozens of other political figures were also arrested and detained during the lead up to the march to Islamabad.

The streets of Rawalpindi were now relatively empty, an eerie feeling in a usually bustling city. Shipping containers and large trucks blocked off every major road to and from the city.

But after slipping past several police checkpoints and entering the centre of town I noticed that the city had not come to a complete standstill. Large groups of men once again roamed the streets, only this time they were patiently waiting for the call to action. A call that has now been answered by the current government.

Sharif has been