Page last updated at 12:44 GMT, Thursday, 18 June 2009 13:44 UK

Pakistan's 'rollercoaster ride'

From earthquakes and political turmoil to a war against Taliban militants, the BBC's Barbara Plett reflects on four years reporting Pakistan's turbulent recent past.

Collapsed shops in earthquake 2005
The 2005 earthquake hit Pakistan as well as parts of India and Afghanistan

I was not that taken with Islamabad when we moved here.

It was pleasant and green, with wide streets and houses laid out on a careful grid, but more like an extended, sleepy suburb than a city: boring, I thought.

"You'll grow to like it," I was told, because it is an oasis of calm in the middle of a turbulent country.

And it is only 15 minutes from Pakistan, people joked.

Well, over the past four years, Pakistan has come closer to Islamabad, much closer.

We got a portent of that just a week after our arrival.

I was awakened by the shuddering and rattling of our house, as a massive earthquake shook the capital.

It felt like a rollercoaster was bearing down on Islamabad. And it was pulling the Taliban in tow

I was easily able to run to safety. Barring one collapsed and several cracked buildings, the city remained unscathed.

But further north, tens of thousands of people were killed, and millions made homeless.

I found myself camping in the rubble of Kashmir, climbing ruptured mountain roads, recording the stories of desperate people who had lost so much, so quickly.

Like a British man of Pakistani origin who hurried back from Manchester to find his home transformed into a ruined, silent heap.

He spent a week digging out the bodies of 14 of his relatives, everyone from his parents to his baby nephew.

Political earthquake

Lawyers boycotting courts after Musharraf dismissed a top judge
Lawyers boycotted courts after Musharraf dismissed a top judge

Then - in March 2007 - a political earthquake convulsed Islamabad.

It was triggered by the General, Pervez Musharraf, who was then running the country.

He dismissed a top judge he deemed a threat to his rule.

That set off lawyers' protests against the military regime - a revolt both serious and surreal, with demonstrations of sweaty men in black suits and ties, striking riot police with their umbrellas, and snarling "Go, Musharraf, Go" into TV cameras.

This vibrant - if inchoate - movement set off an extraordinary chain of events that led to the return of the exiled opposition leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

It was followed by a brief state of emergency and eventually Musharraf's demise.

"We're here in amazing times, history keeps breaking cover!" my husband said to me.

Yes, I thought - again and again - with such dizzying speed it was hard to keep up.

It felt like a rollercoaster was bearing down on Islamabad. And it was pulling the Taliban in tow.

Taliban 'squads'

We had spent ages tracking them down in the wilds of the North West Frontier.

Eventually, we met a bearded, turbaned commander bristling with weapons.

He invited us to tea at his lair in the lawless realm on the other side of a dry riverbed.

"Don't worry, you'll be perfectly safe, there are no police here," he assured us.

We politely declined.

Hotels have now built concrete defences, UN buildings cower behind blast walls, more and more residential streets are closed

But we could have returned the invitation. Because we found the Taliban were actually on our doorstep, in Islamabad.

Their base was the Red Mosque. And their jihad took the form of sending out vigilante squads to eradicate "un-Islamic" behaviour.

Mostly these were burqa-clad female students brandishing bamboo canes, dubbed "chicks with sticks" by the local press.

It ended violently, with soldiers storming the mosque after a week-long siege.

That was a turning point.

Pakistan's Islamist militants, once nurtured and sponsored by the army, decided the state had truly turned against them.

'Fortress Islamabad'

Benazir Bhutto (image from 2005)
Benazir Bhutto was killed on 27 December 2007

Since then they have been fighting back, with Islamabad very much part of the frontline.

Benazir Bhutto, the most vocal Pakistani politician on the need to combat Islamist militancy, was assassinated just down the road, after a rally in Islamabad's sister city Rawalpindi.

Again, real and surreal wove seamlessly together.

"She's a God, she hasn't really died. She's still with us," her devoted followers told us.

But even ghosts have a short shelf-life in Pakistan. In a matter of months, she ceased to be anything other than a memory.

And the once unassailable General Musharraf resigned in August 2008, with little fanfare and few people expressing regret.

The bombing of the Marriott Hotel in September last year was the biggest security earthquake to hit the capital.

The blast was so deafening we thought it was right next to us.

The burning facade of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad
More than 50 people died in the Marriott bombing in September 2008

We arrived a few minutes afterwards, stepping around bodies coated with dust and debris; making way for bloodied survivors who stumbled, or were carried past.

We watched the fire spread from a few rooms into an inferno that engulfed the whole building.

That was the beginning of Fortress Islamabad.

Hotels have now built concrete defences, UN buildings cower behind blast walls, more and more residential streets are closed.

Chicanes to slow down the traffic are springing up like mushrooms after rain.

I do not know what experiences my successors will have.

But my overriding sensation of Pakistan was continually racing to write the first draft of history as it changed, literally, before my eyes.

The sedate suburban life I had thought would be boring turned into a lurching, plunging rollercoaster.

It was a hell of a ride.

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SEE ALSO
Country profile: Pakistan
14 May 11 |  Country profiles

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