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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Islamabad

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, June 14, 2002
From the Field
York Mark


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Pictures from Pakistan

Pakistani paramilitary troopers guard the visa section of the British High Commission building in Islamabad on May 22, 2002. Britain said it would pull more than 150 diplomatic staff out of Pakistan, shut its chancelleries, and advise its citizens to leave the country after receiving a series of security threats.
Photo: AFP

An unidentified UN employee in Pakistan leaves the Islamabad International Airport for their home country on June 2, 2002. Family members of UN personnel in Pakistan began their departure from the country after the world body ordered an evacuation amid fears of war with India.
Photo: AFP


ISLAMABAD - The UN Club in Islamabad is the last - some would say the only - refuge for the city's would-be scoundrels.

In this dry Muslim country, there are few places one can safely slip away to for an evening of behaving like you're somewhere else. In Islamabad, if you want a drink - and the available box of mango juice won't scratch the itch - you're likely either here or shaking it with under-aged locals at a cheesy dance bar in the bowels of the Marriott Hotel. Given the option, most scoundrels of a certain dignity come here.

Most nights, the UN Club is about as predictable a night's entertainment as one can get. You slouch against the bar and discuss worthy things - the reconstruction of Afghanistan, American unilateralism, the problems with the French soccer team - with a collection of worthy people: earnest aid workers, haughty diplomats and unkempt journalists. A few hours and a few gins later, you're wondering why you didn't go dancing at the Marriott.

An evening at Islamabad's UN Club is often depressing, in that it makes you yearn for a proper evening off at home - some place where you can chat about the Stanley Cup playoffs instead of the Taliban. The other night, though, was more of a downer than usual.

Upon entering, I spotted an old acquaintance - an aid worker from Kosovo - and made a bee-line to join his conversation, happy I didn't have to spend the night as the strange loner in the corner who might, just might, cause trouble.

He was there with two other friends - their real names forgotten, I'll call them The Italian and The Brit - who were UN staff. The Brit and the Kosovar had whiskies and The Italian had a Kokanee beer (yes, Kokanee) and we got straight to the topic on all of our minds. Are we going to get nuked as we sip our drinks?

One of the morning papers, The Brit reported, had an item about how Islamabad was No. 1 on India's "Places to Wipe Off The Face of The Earth" list, and that someone had calculated that it would take only about eight minutes from launch to landing should Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee give the word.

A sobering thought, indeed. I order a double gin and tonic.

We wander outside to the garden, to watch the bats swoop down and digest unsuspecting bug meals. Better entertainment than what was television was offering - the last time I dared to look, Don Johnson was leaping into a convertible to chase the Bad Guys. He was wearing white pants.

Unbidden, a thought springs to mind. If that's what al-Qaeda thought American police looked and acted like, no wonder they didn't worry about using their real names while enrolling into flight schools.

End of tangent. Back to the UN Club, where my drinking companions were obviously all shaken by the series of warnings from Western governments that everyone should flee the country. Non-essential staff, spouses and families of diplomats in Islamabad have been pulled home, leaving only the hearty and the unlucky behind. The Japanese are reportedly chartering a plane to get all their nationals out.

I ask my drinking companions whether they want to leave too. The Kosovar, with a grin, reports that his time in the region was up next week anyway. He has a flight out booked that will take him away to a well-earned vacation in a week's time. The Brit, lacking such a hopeful horizon, shakes his head gravely and asks me back "wouldn't you want out too, mate?"

The Italian, by now several Kokanees past being reserved about what he said to a journalist, tries to make light of it all. "I'm leaving, all right… I just hope it's on a plane and not in some box full of my ashes." He laughs. So does the Brit. The Kosovar looks at them in horror and gets up to play pool.

I get up too. It's my turn to buy a round. The bartender and I resume an old conversation about why my country - Canada - would not let an upstanding chap like him into the country even just to visit. He has relatives in Regina. Perhaps that explains the Kokanee.

I find myself apologizing - as I often do to people in this part of the world who want to visit Canada - on behalf of my country. This guy can't visit his family, but Art Eggleton's girlfriend gets to keep the $36,000?

Lunacy, lunacy, lunacy.

Back at the table, the Italian challenges me for a prediction about whether there will be a nuclear war or not. I try and dodge, pleading that I - who arrived here only that day - am surely not expert enough to answer such an Important Query. He persists.

I tell him that war doesn't seem all that imminent to my untrained eyes. If Pakistan is about to let the missiles fly (and India has promised it won't shoot first) wouldn't the government be running all sorts of preparatory drills, making sure everyone knew where the closest bomb shelter was? Wouldn't they be at least testing their air raid sirens? Trying to borrow Air Force One for the weekend?

My gut feeling was that no one seemed that worried about war, only about who won that day's football match. As further evidence, I tell them my taxi driver promised me there would be no war, and that only the silly foreigners were worried about such things.

The Italian cuts me off with a guffaw. "What did you say your specialty was? I hope it's cooking, not war." I try to explain to him that whatever my expertise is, it like lies somewhere in between those two topics, but he ignores me and carries on.

"You think the Brits and the Americans are pulling out of here for nothing? You think they do this all the time? This is serious."

The example of the Cuban Missile Crisis is raised, not for the first time this night. The key difference between Krushchev and Kennedy versus Musharraf and Vajpayee, is that everyone knew Krushchev and Kennedy were the only ones who could launch the missiles. It is The Italian's conviction that controls are so lax that just about everyone in the Punjab has the ability to fire a nuke if they get angry enough.

I try to argue with him, but he reminds me I've already identified myself as a non-expert. My opinions, so sought after a moment ago, are now null and void.

"You should have stuck to cooking, bud," he says, roaring with laughter. I pledge to switch jobs with the Iron Chef, whenever I see him. The next eight minutes go by very quietly.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.