Category Archives: Terrorism

Murder she wrote…

Madhusree Mukerjee’s new book is a shocking indictment of one of the West’s great idols, Saad Sarfraz Sheikh finds

A family sitting along the roadside, suffering from the famine in 1943

History remembers Winston Churchill as a valiant leader who saved the British Empire from near collapse during the Second World War. A multitude of books have been written in praise of his disciplined life, garlanding him with greatness: author Harold Evans called him “the British Lionheart on the ramparts of civilization”, mainly because of his World War II shenanigans.

But in Churchill’s Secret War, Madhusree Mukerjee reveals a man largely hidden from public view.

Churchill’s Secret War, By Madhusree Mukerjee, Basic Book Pulisher, Pages 366, Price Rs 2,495

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In 1943, 3 million Hindustanis perished in the Great Bengal Famine, one of the biggest manmade catastrophes of the twentieth century. While Mahatma Gandhi flirted with death by starving himself in protest, many others starved to death through no choice of their own. East Bengal was devastated by a cyclone through its coastal regions in October 1942, a tragedy that claimed thousands of lives and destroyed the autumn rice crops. Bengali peasants ate the rice that should have been planted that winter. When the hot weather came in May 1943, the rice crop, barely a fraction of what it should have been, failed to feed Bengal’s peasantry.

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Madhusree Mukerjee
Madhusree Mukerjee
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Mukerjee’s book relates frightening survival stories and exposes official papers to illustrate how Churchill and his men ‘created’ the Bengal Famine by diverting food supplies from starving Indians to well-stocked British soldiers around the world.

Matters got worse as the British Empire lost Burma, the main source of India’s rich imports. Within a month, starvation hit southeastern India like a dark plague. This did nothing to Churchill: when told in a telegram that people were perishing in the famine, Churchill’s only response to the government in Delhi was to ask why Gandhi hadn’t died yet during his fast.


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Churchill didn’t even bother with the long-floated idea that British imperialism benefited its subjects. “I hate Indians,” he told the Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery. “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” “The famine was their own fault,” he declared at a war-cabinet meeting, attributing it to the Indian habit of “breeding like rabbits.”

He resolutely opposed all food shipments and emphasised that ships were “desperately needed” for the landings in Italy, which were slated for September, even though the Americans opposed the invasion. He felt that sending food to India would mean a loss of valuable transport.

Amery recalled: “I lost patience and couldn’t resist telling him that I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s.”

(Amery himself was no angel, having argued that India was “overpopulated” and that the best strategy was to “do nothing”.)

In her book Mukerjee relates how Indian grain was sent to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) even when it was unneeded. As Indian cities were littered with the bodies of those who had died of starvation, Australian wheat sailed past to depots in the Mediterranean and the Balkans; and the government ignored offers of American and Canadian food aid.

The Bengal government was unprepared; too much rice had already been shipped off to feed troops in the Middle East and Ceylon. With the hot weather rising, people began to die. By September relief centres were flooded with “rickety babies with arms and legs like sticks, nursing mothers with wrinkled faces; children with swollen faces and hollow-eyed… walking skeletons all of them” (Bayly and Harper, Forgotten Armies, 282-84, 288). Calcultta’s death rate in mid-October reached two thousand a month. British and American soldiers were horrified to step out of Calcutta cinemas and find people literally dying in the street, as vultures, crows and kites circled above.

Either the officials were too distracted (Bengal’s governor fell ill and died during the crisis, leaving an administrative vacuum) or were too slow to react; or they simply did not care, even as the magnitude of the disaster reached Biblical proportions.

The British Government had inflated local market prices to ensure supplies, making it unaffordable for ordinary Indians to purchase grain. India was disallowed from using its own ships to import food. Native officials were also to blame: Bengal’s Muslim League ministry failed miserably, while many of its Hindu members made huge profits trading in rice during the shortage.

India’s new viceroy, appointed the same year, called the Churchill government’s attitude to India “careless, vindictive and despicable.”

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, a professor now at Harvard University, writes in The Friday Times 15th Anniversary edition that the nasty Bengal famine of 1943, which he witnessed as a child, was made viable not only by the lack of democracy in colonial India, but also by severe restrictions on reporting and criticism imposed on the Indian press, which isolated even the Parliament in Britain from the misery in British India. The British press in India voluntarily cooperated with the government. The famine received governmental acknowledgement and serious political attention only after Ian Stephens, the courageous editor of The Statesman of Calcutta (then British-owned), could not, in good conscience, comply any longer and decided to break ranks by publishing graphic accounts and stinging editorials on October 14 and 16, 1943. The parliament in Westminster then acquired a grip on reality, and famine relief – much delayed – at last began a few weeks later. The famine ended not long after that, but with the loss of more than 3 million lives.

Arthur Herman in his book Gandhi & Churchill says that the Bengal Famine signalled the severing of India’s last ties of loyalty to Britain.

As for Churchill: after Gandhi’s assasination, everyone including the assassins offered their condolences and regrets, but Churchill never published any tribute at the passing of his longtime rival. “An awful tragedy has already occurred,” he told the House of Commons, referring to the Partition. “At least 400,000 men and women have slaughtered each other in Punjab alone.” This number was greater, he pointed out, than all the losses of the British Empire in World War II. “Millions are fugitives, wanderers or exiles from their place of birth. We can only be thankful that no such catastrophe or anything which approached one twentieth part of its magnitude, fell upon the helpless Indian people during the long years they dwelt in peace and safety under the British Raj and Imperial Crown.”

An angry Labour MP rose to point out, correctly, that millions had died during the 1943 famine under Churchill’s watch. Churchill replied that under British rule, India’s population rose by 100 million and that there was a difference between failing to prevent food shortages and deliberate murder.

Churchill wanted to write history himself, hoping to be remembered as he cast himself till eternity. And for a while the myth lasted: in 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and as recently as 2002 a BBC poll declared him the “greatest Briton” of all time.

But as power starts to shift once again, going now from West to East, it prompts fresh readings of the world’s history. Let us hope Madhusree Mukerjee’s book is the first of many.

Saad Sarfraz Sheikh is a photojournalist and percussionist based in Lahore. He writes at


Published in The Friday Times, July 22-28, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 23

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Every move you make…

They watch you at all hours. Do you know who they are? Saad Sarfraz Sheikh goes after Pakistan’s Intelligent Sophisticated Individuals

Peeping Tom

They say they are everywhere. Yes, everywhere. They could be hiding under your bed, or listening to you and your wife complain about the increasing price of pampers. They could be watching you flirt with your secretary at work. They could smell your stinking socks while you sleep at night to ascertain what you did in the day. They’re even inside your laptop, monitoring every webpage you visit.


No, they’re not microscopic insects. They aren’t robots or super heroes either. They are, rather, Intelligently Sophisticated Individuals.

For the sake of brevity, let us employ an acronym.

Your mother could be an ISI. Haven’t you noticed how she keeps an eye on you? How often she goes through your pockets and asks weird questions about what seem to be non-issues?

Perhaps the neighbour’s dog is an ISI? Haven’t you seen how he doesn’t leave your trail, even for a second?

Wait, am I pointing fingers? Sorry! I don’t want my fingers to be broken

It turns out they could also be one of the saints of Multan, those revered beings to whom you turn after being “cursed with 7 daughters.” Have you heard about this one saint in Multan who has a small shrine in the heart of the cantonment? Legend has it that many people from Southern Punjab would visit him and seek his help in matters that ranged from choosing lottery tickets to getting their children married. The fakir, nestled in a cozy corner at a road intersection, would “bless his followers” and dance in a patched robe. After serving humanity in this way for decades, his power came to an abrupt end and he was buried at the very spot where he used to sit. It was only later that our intelligence agencies came to know the truth: the fakir was a RAW agent who had spied on the military in Multan, and his family in India did not want a burial but an “antim-sanskaar” for their dearly departed.

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This is just one of the many “intelligence failures” that have taken place in Pakistan’s history; and, as far as such failures go, it is a relatively harmless one. It’s a dinnertime joke compared to the big intelligence failure currently looking us in the face.

What happens when your own intelligence starts to play double games and pursue interests that are opposed to your own? If, instead of protecting the public by interpreting signals from foreign countries, a national intelligence agency starts to meddle in the internal political workings of the country, it no longer serves a useful role. Or, to put it another way, it stops being beneficial to the public and serves only itself.

Wait, am I pointing fingers? Sorry! I don’t want my fingers to be broken.

What do you do when the cops “go bad”? How do you react when governments are toppled, coups are carried out, the people’s representatives are assassinated and thousands go missing?

Your mother could be an ISI. Haven’t you noticed how she keeps an eye on you? How often she goes through your pockets and asks weird questions about what seem to be non-issues?

How do you feel when you find out that your so-called protectors, the people whose comfort and power is financed by your taxes, actually start to sleep with the enemy? (It’s come to the point where you can define ‘enemy’ however you like: our spooks are in bed with the Americans as well as the jihadis.)

More seriously, how do you as a citizen deal with what the intelligence agencies did in Bangladesh 40 years ago and are now doing in Balochistan?

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All over the world the ISI has come to be associated with deception, fear and murderous consequences. It is ironic that an institution built to gather “strategic intelligence” has now turned into a media regulator that “keeps a check on journalists” and specializes in kidnapping, torturing and killing those who seek the truth. To all those who ask for evidence, I cite only the statements and interviews of countless retired spooks who have admitted to the agency’s role in rigging elections, uniting and dividing political parties and “cleansing” the media. Such widespread manipulation has made a mess of the political process in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, dim-wits like Imran Khan are speaking cryptically of a “pre-planned conspiracy that is weakening the army and ISI”.

Really? Did Syed Saleem Shehzad, and the Chechen women in Kharotabad, and that poor kid in Karachi, all kill themselves deliberately to malign the singularly patriotic Pak Fauj?

Saad Sarfraz Sheikh is a photojournalist and musician based in Lahore. He writes at

Published in The Friday Times, July 08-14, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 21

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Who killed Syed Saleem Shahzad?

Friday, June 3, 2011
Pakistan continues to make headlines under the masthead of being the world’s deadliest country for journalists. Statistically, 16 journalists have been killed in Pakistan the past 14 months; some of the worst excesses occurred in the restive Balochistan province.

“These journalists work under extremely dangerous circumstances”, says noted Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi. The Friday Times Editor-in-Chief said that journalists are both “part of the problem and solution,” walking a fine line between reporting the public’s sentiments on Pakistan’s ongoing turmoil and reinforcing them. Sadly, what is being revealed by human rights groups (here) is that it isn’t just the terrorists and their activities that make Pakistan dangerous for journalists. In addition to anti-state elements (militants), state elements top the list for “abducting, beating, detaining, disappearing, threatening, torturing and murdering journalists, who dare to question their intervention and authority”.

40- year- old Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online’s Pakistan bureau chief, is the latest victim of the dangerous quest for honesty and truth. According to news reports, he was “picked up” in broad daylight in Islamabad on 29th May, as he was on his way to a television interview.

Another view of the journos protest in Lahore

Another view of the journos protest in Lahore

Fears grew for his safety after he was missing for more than 2 days, and the Human Rights Watch (HRW) believed him to be in the custody of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The HRW declared that Syed Saleem Shahzad could also be subjected to mistreatment and torture during “custody”. As ill-fate would have had it, police found his body in Mandi Bahauddin on Tuesday, May 31, about 150 kilometres southeast of Islamabad, days after he published an article that could have upset the powerful people at the centre of Pakistan’s war on terror.

“This killing bears all the hallmarks of previous killings perpetrated by Pakistani intelligence agencies,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in South Asia. He has called for a “transparent investigation and court proceedings”.

The following quote from Shahzad’s final article gives an idea of just how embarrassing his latest revelations might have been to several powerful parties.

Another view of the journos protest in Lahore  ‘Al-Qaeda carried out the brazen attack on PNS Mehran naval air station in Karachi on May 22 after talks failed between the navy and al-Qaeda over the release of naval officials arrested on suspicion of al-Qaeda links, an Asia Times Online investigation reveals. At least 10 people were killed and two United States-made P3-C Orion surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft worth US$36 million each were destroyed before some of the attackers escaped through a cordon of thousands of armed forces. The naval base assault was a humiliation for the Pakistani army, which battled for 17 hours against at least four heavily armed men, who blew up two surveillance planes and killed 10 soldiers’.

In a follow-up to this despatch, Shahzad had planned to explain the recruitment and training of militants. Sadly, that never happened.

As we dig into the archives of Shahzad’s bold reportage, an experience that brought him dangerously close to the dark world of Al Qaeda, Taliban and extremists’ links to Pakistani politics and security – where he often took great personal risks to deliver his unique insights, we realize the immense research and information Saleem Shehzad possessed. An expert on the Al-Qaeda, Taliban, ISI, Pakistan Army, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkatul Islam and Lashkar-e-Taiba, his prolific journey as a reporter is as deeply rooted as the problems he focussed on.

Who will be the next target is the worry amongst Pak Journos  It is pretty obvious that he ruffled many a feathers and his honest reporting made many uncomfortable. Brief detention by the Taliban in 2006 allowed him to interview their big fish, which included Taliban commanders Sirajuddin Haqqani, Qari Ziaur Rahman, Baitullah Mehsud and Ilyas Kashmiri, who leads Al-Qaeda’s operational arm through his 313 Brigade and is suspected to be the mastermind behind the 2008 terrorist rampage that left more than 160 dead in Mumbai.

Saleem found his true calling while reporting on the symbiosis of the ISI and Taliban factions on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Recently, he focused on militant loyalists within the armed forces of Pakistan, mentioning their human resource operations and changes. His reportage has brought ISI’s former strategic asset Ilyas Kashmiri into focus, as he is now seen as the operational in-charge responsible for establishing Al-Qaeda-Taliban “terror cells”.

Saleem Shehzad may not have been targeted by the ISI, but he was surely being monitored as a potential threat by all the stakeholders. Fellow journalists reacted angrily to his death, which is not merely the murder of a journalist; but the murder of truth itself.

People are now directly accusing the ISI on television and social media forums. “Any journalist here (Pakistan) who doesn’t believe that it’s our intelligence agencies?” tweeted Mohammed Hanif, a bestselling author.

Salim Shahzad's death not invain - reads the plycard

Salim Shahzad's death not invain - reads the plycard

The sad thing is that Saleem isn’t the first, nor will he be the last Pakistani journalist to face such dangers to life. Last September, Umar Cheema, an investigative reporter for The News International , was kidnapped, blindfolded, stripped naked, had his head and eyebrows shaved, beaten up, filmed in humiliating positions and dumped on the side of the road six hours later.

“If you can’t avoid rape”, one of his interrogators jeered during the ordeal, “enjoy it”. The perpetrators were never found, but when asked about his suspicions, Cheema told the New York Times: ‘I have suspicions and every journalist has suspicions that all fingers point to the ISI’.

Cheema is more concerned than ever for his own safety. ‘Obviously I feel really vulnerable’ he says. ‘We need an independent commission to look into [Shahzad’s death]’.

One of the primary reasons as to why people majorly suspect the ISI is that the kind of operation in which Syed Saleem Shahzad lost his life, doesn’t seem to be the work of militant groups known for spot killings or abductions that end up in Waziristan, but of the intelligence agencies.

Shahzad was known to have sources both within the Pakistan’s intelligence community and among Taliban and Al Qaeda militants. Last October, the journalist had been called for a meeting at the ISI headquarters after he had written an article that claimed the Pakistani authorities had released from custody Afghan Taliban military commander Mullah Baradar to negotiate with the Pakistan army.

Shahzad said the mood at the meeting, at which he was asked for but declined to reveal the sources for his article, was polite but that at the end one of the senior officers had said to him: “I must give you a favour. We have recently arrested a terrorist and have recovered a lot of data, dairies and other material during the interrogation. The terrorist had a hit list with him. If I find your name in the list, I will certainly let you know.”

Ali Dayan Hasan of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the journalist had taken these words as a threat. “He told me he was being followed and that he was getting threatening telephone calls and that he was under intelligence surveillance,” Hasan told Reuters. “We can’t say for sure who has killed Saleem Shahzad. But what we can say for sure is that Saleem Shahzad was under serious threat from the ISI and [we have] every reason to believe that that threat was credible.”

One of the ISI’s media wing officials who attended the meeting and questioned Shahzad was Rear Admiral Adnan Nazir, a naval officer.

On Monday, May 30, Pakistani intelligence officials told journalists that they had picked up Kamran Ahmed Malik, a former navy commando, in Lahore on May 27, Friday. Malik and his brother have been detained in connection with the investigation. While Malik has not been formally charged, it is widely reported that he is being held for questioning about his links to both the terrorists and former colleagues inside the navy.

When contacted on Thursday June 2 night, Rear Admiral Adnan Nazir declined to comment on the raid or the death of Shahzad, saying “I don’t speak to anyone.”

Many say that if the ISI isn’t involved in the murder, then it should at least help in identifying and capturing the killers. Why? Because, it has to. And it alone can.

Amid chants of ‘Yay jo deshatgardi hay, iskay peechay wardi hay (Militancy is backed by the military) ringing around the Lahore Press Club, Pakistani journalists find themselves in a concatenation of cross fires. There is a new fear, and the government is in no mood to protect the journalists. The only official reaction is Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s suggestion that journalists should be allowed to carry small firearms for their self-defence.

As public outrage intensifies, the ISI, in a rare clarification, has felt that it needs to make its voice heard. On June 2, a senior ISI official told the government news agency, Associated Press, that allegations of the agency’s involvement were absurd. He said allegations that its operatives were behind the abduction and killing of Syed Saleem Shahzad were baseless, and vowed to help bring the perpetrators to justice. He denied that the agency had made any threats to the journalist and described Saleem Shahzad’s death as “unfortunate and tragic” and a “source of concern for the entire nation.” The intelligence official was unnamed in accordance with the nature of his job.

The ISI, which has been accused of multiple human rights abuses against journalists and political activists in Pakistan, said it was regrettable that some sections of the media had levelled such allegations against the agency. It called on them to act responsibly and suggested that it may consider taking legal action against them.

The official said that a meeting between ISI officials and Shahzad in October was part of the media wing’s mandate to keep in touch with members of the media and that it represented nothing sinister.

The only problem with this version of events is Shahzad’s last written testament to Human Rights Watch in Pakistan some months ago in which he communicated his fear that the ISI, rather than some unknown forces, had warned him off for wading into troubled waters and might exact punishment. Additionally, his wife has confirmed that a senior ISI officer was in touch with her husband and had even “interrogated” him some time ago.



Hopes for any inquiry, however, are low. Although the ISI technically reports to Prime Minister Gilani, in reality it is controlled by the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. Although accused of numerous human rights abuses over the years, serving ISI officials have never been prosecuted.

Waseem Shahzad, Saleem’s younger brother, says ‘Nobody can say my brother backed down because of threats or bribes. He paid the ultimate sacrifice’.

Saleem Shahzad is survived by his wife, Anita, and three children. His widow wants no autopsy nor any charges filed against anyone.

Published via Syndicate Features in the South Asian Tribune

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Cacophonous carnage

Lahore was shaken and shattered on July 1, 2010, when the shrine of the patron saint of the subcontinent, Ali Hajveri Data Ganj Baksh, was attacked by two suicide bombers on Thursday. The resulting impact was clearly visible on the faces of all residents of ‘Data ki nagri’, Data’s city. It was a familiar site after the blasts outside the shrine’s complex, as endless decks and streams of frantic ambulances crowded the roads and lined along the pavement, awaiting orders.

Inside the shrine, shoes and clothes lay scattered on the floor. Complete pandemonium ensued, as the entire place smelt like a meat shop with body parts scattered on the ground, there was a murky layer of blood plastered on the marble floor, ugliness that would take weeks to clean, and many generations to forget.

Emergency officials scampered around the complex, screaming for more ambulances, as civil defence officials scavenged the remnants of the victims.

Officials rummaged and sifted through the rubble and filled cans full of ball bearings.

The Police also recovered remains of the suicide bombers.

Rescue 1122 and civil defence workers reached within 20 minutes of the blast. One could hear them calling out to each other, “Look, I found a watch, let’s send it to the morgue, it could help in identification purposes…”

Lahore’s violent and explosive past has trained them well. Barely a month ago, they were rescuing people from an attack on two Ahmaddiya worshipping places.

Thursday is the busiest night of the week as around 40-50,000 people frequent the shrine.

This Thursday it was no different, as the usual number of people settled themselves at the complex, unaware of the impending doom. They later drowned in a massive blood bath as a string of suicide attacks struck different parts of the complex.

CCTV footage clearly showed how the suicide bombers had penetrated the security gates. It showed bombers in their final moments before they blew themselves up. In the footage, a security guard at the shrine was seen chasing one of the bombers shortly before a huge blast, which sent crowds of panicked devotees fleeing in all directions. Salim Raza, a guard posted at an entry gate with a scanner, detected a suspicious man clad in a green turban, white robes and a shawl, carrying a bag. He ran after the suspected bomber who seconds later detonated his explosives, engulfing the site in a huge cloud of white smoke.

Entering through the same security gates later made one realise how two men wrecked the future of at least two hundred families, who had lost their brethren in the attacks. Doctors said they were expecting the death toll to rise, as the city’s main hospitals declared a state of emergency. Relatives poured into morgues and emergency wards to identify the survivors and victims.

Angry protesters waited in the darkness, building a mob around the complex, igniting whatever they could get their hands on. The Police were unable to control them, and resorted to firing to disperse the violent crowds, who had just damaged media vans and thrashed their employees for “lying to the masses” The firing caused further panic and confusion, as people ran in all directions.

Initial reports suggested the use of crackers/low intensity bombs, but as survivors ran for their lives leaving behind victims, it was clear that it was indeed a high grade bomb.

Data Darbar was the last place one could think of being attacked, but considering the fact that these terrorists wanted to cause maximum damage, using a carefully orchestrated attack strategy, it comes as no surprise.

Eye-witness at the shrine recalled the explosion as an intense one, and said that a majority of the victims were busy praying inside the complex.

A resident of Lahore said that they now had nowhere to go, as mosques and shrines were not safe anymore.

The lunger, which was stopped for the first time in history, was located in the basement, where volunteers were seen cooking large cauldrons of rice and vegetables in the past.

The Data Darbar administration stopped the distribution of free food among devotees, a tradition that has been a distinctive feature of the shrine for hundreds of years. “Free food was available 24 hours of the day for everyone, it had never been stopped under any circumstances,” said Jawad, a resident of Bhatti Gate area, a regular visitor. In addition to the devotees, free food was also a source of living for hundreds of labourers.”

Data Darbar Administrator Rao Fazalur Rahman, however, justified his decision to shut down the provision of free food. “The people associated with the preparation of lunger are in a state of shock,” he said, adding that lunger would be started as soon as the situation normalised.

The media carefully reported a lower death toll although from the blast site, it was evident that hundreds must have lost their lives.

The attack shut up those who still questioned whether these attackers were ‘Muslims’ or not, adding stead to the fact that all spheres of Muslim schools respected the Patron Saint of Lahore.

The Taliban were quick to deny and involvement and ‘condemned’ the attack, and ‘innocently’ announced that they never attacked ‘public places’…

It remains a mystery as to who did it, as no outfit has claimed responsibility till date.

The 3 day strike was widely followed, and traders estimated a business loss of Rs3 billion as all major markets and commercial shopping centres were shut. The loss of Rs3 billion did not include taxes and duties paid to the government.

“This is yet another blow for the city of Lahore. These bombings are further proof that there is only so much you can do to protect yourself. If someone is determined to blow themselves up, they will do it.” an official said.