Cricket Attack Rouses Pakistani Anger Against Militants

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Daniel Berehulak / Getty

A woman places flowers on a floral tribute to the killed Police officers at the Liberty Square roundabout on March 4, 2009 in Lahore, as the city recovers from a terrorist attack which saw a group of 12 men attack the Sri Lankan cricket team convoy.

Throughout Wednesday, the crowd grew steadily thicker by Lahore's makeshift memorial to those killed in the previous day's terror attack on Sri Lanka's cricketers. Near the edge of the grassy roundabout in Liberty Square where gunmen attacked the tourists' bus, activists, lawyers, policemen and ordinary citizens arrived to lay flowers by a sign saluting the bravery of Tanveer Iqbal, one of the six Pakistani policemen slain in the raid. Some raised their cupped hands in prayer, others solemnly held up candles. A large banner expressed solidarity with the "heroes of Sri Lanka."

Similar gatherings have taken place in this eastern city over recent months to protest against the suicide bombings nearby, and against the Taliban's torching of girls' schools in the Swat valley. But on this occasion, the terrorists had, in some people's minds, struck deeper, targeting a sport widely cherished as a second religion, and violating a national code of hospitality. (View images of the attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in Pakistan)

"I have come here to pay tribute to my martyred colleagues," says Anjum Akhtar, a Lahore-based policeman, as he lays a bouquet of roses by the memorial. Akhtar laments that terrorist attacks have become "routine." "It's something we sadly share with the people of Sri Lanka, they suffer terrorist attacks, too," he says. But Tuesday's attack on the Sri Lankan team was different, the stocky policeman believes. "This time they attacked our country and our guests."

Since Pakistan's creation, cricket has been celebrated as the national sport. When the national team scored big triumphs, the occasion would prompt a public holiday. When it fared poorly, cricket zealots were not above resorting to angry and violent protests. After Pakistan lost the 1999 World Cup final to England, a mob attacked captain Wasim Akram's home and raised the accusation of match-fixing.

Even as Pakistan's vicious wave of militancy has spread eastwards from the Afghan border areas in recent years, sporting events have remained largely immune. The sole exception was a 2002 suicide attack outside the Karachi hotel where a visiting New Zealand cricket team were staying. Zafar Khan, the bus driver killed in Tuesday's attack, had driven for the Kiwis, too.

While fundamentalist clerics have issued fatwas against yoga in Indonesia and against the Indian tennis star, Sania Mirza, some Pakistanis hasten to point out that no equivalent edict has been voiced against cricket in Pakistan. "There are two pastimes that the Taliban really like," says Hameedullah Khan, a journalist from the Swat valley. "Playing cricket and drinking Mountain Dew."

Over recent months, as a number of cricketing nations expressed fears over travelling to Pakistan, government officials reassured them that the sport was too popular to invite an attack. That view was echoed by Imran Khan, the former cricket legend turned politician and philanthropist.

"The attack has caused great despondency, shock and anger in Pakistan," Khan told TIME. Taken aback by its brazen nature, Khan refuses to believe that a Pakistani militant group could have been responsible. "This was not a suicide attack, as most attacks have been. Sri Lanka is not part of any alliance like NATO that is involved in fighting in Afghanistan. Cricket is so popular here. The militants want to gather public support for their campaign. By attacking cricket, they only lose support and isolate themselves."

"This was definitely different," says Shafiq Ahmed, a 30-year-old who drives a noisy green rickshaw for less than $2 a day. When it came to previous high-profile attacks, he had reacted with a mixture of mild concern and indifference. "The Marriott bombing was different," he says. "Islamabad is far away, this was in my city. A poor man like me can't even enter the Marriott hotel. When the match with Sri Lanka was going on, something like 90% of the fans in the stadium were from my class."

Like many in the Liberty Square area, Ahmed is also critical of the government's failure to provide the Sri Lankan team with sufficient protection. "The team was here as our guests, but they left frightened and injured," Ahmed says, his voice thick with emotion. "It was our responsibility to protect them. Our government is so useless that they couldn't take care of the Sri Lankans. There is now a big threat to our national game. If Sri Lanka was able to play and leave safely, others would have been encouraged to come over here and play also. Now no one will come. Our image has been damaged across the world, and our national team is left useless, with no one to play."

Outside the landmark red-brick Gaddafi stadium renamed after the Libyan leader in 1974, marketing agent Tariq Mahmood sits forlornly with the morning's newspaper. He was meant to have spent the day watching the third day of the test match with Pakistan. Instead, he casts his eyes over the headlines and photographs with despair.

Living in Lahore, Mahmood has also heard large bombs explode outside the High Court and at the Navy College, both on The Mall road. Yet he insists that there is "a big difference between previous incidents and this one". "Think of Pakistan as a body," he says. "Sometimes the terrorists cut off a finger, sometimes an ear. This time, they've cut off our feet. This is a historic tragedy. They wanted to destroy our very base, our foundation. The Sri Lankan team came after so much difficulty. We begged and begged them to come. India had boycott us. New Zealand were stopped from coming. And what did we do with the trust that the Sri Lankans put in our hands? We broke our promises of security."

Nearly 13 years ago, the Sri Lankans left the same stadium holding aloft the World Cup. Yesterday, they left with physical and emotional wounds, as the last team that will play Pakistan there for years to come. The Lahore attack has deprived millions of Pakistanis rare moments of common joy. But the ensuing fallout may have pushed them closer to forming a united front against militant violence.

Read "Attack on Sri Lankan Cricket Team: Echoes of Mumbai?"

See pictures of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province