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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 28 May, 2002, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
Life goes on in Islamabad
Islamabad
The peaceful scene contrasts with the danger of war

On the narrow winding roads which lead down from the hills into Islamabad, a jeep raced past carrying at least 10 people in the back, four of them clinging to the sides.

They were heading from a surrounding village to the markets of a city where the haze of pollution is now accompanied by a gloomy pessimism about the prospect of war with India over the Kashmir crisis.

But as UK foreign secretary Jack Straw met Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf at his huge palace near the city's diplomatic quarter on Tuesday, that mood also appeared to be tinged with a sense of defiant pride over their leader's tough talk.

Escaping city

Islamabad, set against the backdrop of the Margallah Hills, is a modern city built in the 1960s as Pakistan's capital.

The centre of government, many of its tree-lined streets are filled with big, expensive houses.

Green belts run through its heart, and from the view points on the hills all around, families escape to the fresher air to look down on the low-rise city.

From the Shakar Parian hills to the south you can see the smart golf course, the exclusive country club and the shiny convention centre which is yet to open.

An orchard of trees planted by world leaders provides a little shade from the intense midday sun.

In the parched earth, there is a tree planted by George Bush senior.

High cost

Around the corner from that is one planted by former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Abdul Sattar and Jack Straw
The two foreign secretaries were holding talks
And in the distance, nestling at the foot of the Margallah Hills is the stunning Shah Faisal Mosque with a main prayer hall which can accommodate 10,000 people. Up close it shimmers in the sunlight.

The taxi driver laughed when I asked if he lived in Islamabad. "No, it's too expensive for me, too much," he said. "I couldn't afford to live here."

Those who do live here but can't afford the big houses live in tents pitched on the green belt and the parkland to the north of the city.

The pessimism in the air is not really new.

"It's been like this for a while, but it's getting worse," said one man.

"We thought it was all over after Afghanistan - but now it's India again."

Loyalty repaid?

"It's not good. It's bad for business. Westerners are staying away and people are fearing what will happen. I am very worried."

There is a feeling that the US should do more to help Pakistan after General Musharraf risked a backlash from hardliners with his support for the war on terror.

Tuesday's newspapers are filled with news of President Pervez Musharraf's latest speech on the crisis alongside reports of the latest missile tests and the frenzied diplomatic activity going on in the region.

Mr Straw's delegation is just one of a number in the city. The Russians are here, Japan is sending its deputy foreign minister.

"Pakistan not to start war despite Delhi hysteria," screams the front page of The Nation, which is almost entirely filled with reports on the Kashmir crisis.

Calm in the hills

Security is tight across the city following recent attacks on Westerners, while a policeman seems to stand on almost every street.

But away from the busy roads, with the speeding jeeps and the brightly painted lorries, there is calm in the hills overlooking Islamabad.

Children try to persuade people to get weighed for a few rupees. Taxi drivers drop off sightseers. Groups of men sit in the shade chatting quietly. A couple have their picture taken from the top of the hill.

The picture book scene is a million miles away from the dire warnings of death and destruction should war come to this region.

In the palaces and offices in the distance, meanwhile, the talks go on. Meetings are held, photocalls arranged, statements made.

Up on the hills, the trippers and taxi drivers are just trying to carry on as though everything was normal.

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See also:

27 May 02 | UK Politics
28 May 02 | UK Politics
22 Dec 99 | Europe

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