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After 27 Hours, Our Train Ride Through Pakistan Ends In Karachi

Nov 23, 2016
Originally published on November 23, 2016 5:35 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's conclude a train ride through Pakistan. NPR's Philip Reeves has spent many years covering that massive country - years of war and terrorism, years of protest and social convulsion, years in which democracy was lost and restored. Before taking a new post, Philip is concluding his work by taking a train through the country's heartland, a train bound for Karachi, the giant city on the coast. The people he met on that train include a passenger with an unusual job.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Anser Ali is a Pakistani soldier. Ask him where he serves, and he replies with one word.

ANSER ALI: Glacier.

REEVES: Glacier - that's the Siachen Glacier, the world's highest battlefield. It's a giant sweep of ice and snow nearly 20,000 feet up in the Himalayan Mountains. A standoff between the Pakistani and Indian armies has been going on there for more than 30 years. There's been intermittent fighting. But the real killers are the weather and the altitude. Life up there is very harsh, says Ali.

ALI: (Through interpreter) There's very little oxygen. Breathing is difficult, and you never feel like eating. There are many hardships.

REEVES: Extreme cold and also avalanches have claimed many hundreds of lives over the years. Ali worries about frostbite.

ALI: (Through interpreter) You can get frostbite on the ear, on the nose, on the fingers. If you get it on any part of the body, then it must be amputated, as there's no cure.

REEVES: Ali's in good spirits today. He's heading home on our train to his wife to begin one month's leave. He set off from the mountains four days ago and still has one more day of travel. Ali's 24 and a sepoy. That's the same as a private. He signed up for the Pakistani military at 17 but didn't want to.

ALI: (Through interpreter) I joined because my father ordered me.

REEVES: Ali says he really wanted to be in the Navy. But now, he's gotten used to the army and the tough conditions.

ALI: (Through interpreter) Despite all that, I now enjoy it.

REEVES: People on our train seem to treat Ali with much respect. Pakistanis we've met on this journey are profoundly disillusioned with their government yet strongly approve of their army. Their nation's spent roughly half of its history and some of its darkest years under military dictatorship, yet some Pakistanis say they'd be happy to get rid of their elected civilian government and be ruled by generals again. Zaman Saeed's an anti-narcotics official and a passenger on this train.

ZAMAN SAEED: (Through interpreter) It would be better. Pakistan would improve.

REEVES: Saeed would like the military to run the country, but just for a few years.

SAEED: (Through interpreter) They should spend three years sorting out all crocodiles who commit corruption and destroy Pakistan. After that, there's no harm restoring democracy.

REEVES: Pakistanis tend to revere their military because they believe it's done a great job reducing violence in recent years by driving the Pakistani Taliban out of the mountains bordering Afghanistan and going after militant outfits in Karachi. The army's harsh tactics cause deep resentment in some areas, though, like Balochistan province, where there's a separatist insurgency.

But we're traveling through Pakistan's heartland - the provinces of Punjab and Sindh. Here, the army has many fans. And a sharp surge in tensions with the old foe, India, seems to be making the military even more popular. Twenty-seven hours after setting out, we're arriving.

The outskirts of Karachi look pretty shabby - lots of slums, narrow alleys, lots of trash on the ground, motorbikes trying to squeeze their way down these tiny lanes, animals, washing hanging out, lots of little kids wandering about.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN BRAKING)

REEVES: Our train draws in. This is the giant metropolis, the port city that makes most of the money that fuels Pakistan's economy.

There we are - Karachi.

The platform's crowded with porters in long, dark-green robes, carrying baggage on their heads. That conversation on the train about an army takeover has left me wanting to learn more. Could Pakistan's military really rule again one day? I get a cab to the Karachi Press Club. The club has a history of challenging dictators. It doesn't allow anyone in military uniform through its doors.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Today, it's holding a seminar about the security services interfering with the media. Outside the gates, though, a small rally is underway in support of Pakistan's hugely popular army chief, General Raheel Sharif, who's due to retire next month. The crowd's demanding that the government extend Raheel's term.

MAZHAR ABBAS: At present, he's very popular. There's no doubt about it.

REEVES: Journalist Mazhar Abbas was a strong critic of Pakistan's last military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, who was ousted in 2008. Abbas doubts the military's planning to make the same mistake of seizing power again. The army chief, General Raheel, has confirmed he will step down this month and has begun farewell ceremonies. Yet Abbas is worried by the public's lack of faith in elected politicians.

ABBAS: People generally are disappointed with the - with the governments for not addressing the issues of education, for not addressing the issues of their health care. They believe that army is the only institution which is strong, which s powerful. They see the army as a last resort.

REEVES: Worry is common to the Pakistanis we've met in the last few days. They worry about money, careers, family and carving out a place in a society with many rigid rules and restrictions. This is somewhere to get away from all this anxiety. It's here at our journey's end, on the beach in Karachi. There are women, some in burkas, others in jeans.

There are children paddling in the waves and young men racing quad bikes. Here, you can take a camel ride, watch a snake being charmed or snack until your heart's content. Or you can just stand on the sand, gaze out at the placid waters of the Arabian Sea and try to forget the storms that may well lie ahead. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Karachi.

INSKEEP: That's Philip Reeves ending a train journey through Pakistan and ending his assignment in South Asia. You will soon hear Philip from a very different beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in his new role as NPR's South America correspondent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.