By Farrah Fazal
KARACHI, LAHORE, ISLAMABAD and TAXILLA, Pakistan(KSDK) - Daily bomb blasts and suicide bombers in Pakistan may be a world away from St. Louis, but the violence stretches across the miles. It hits home for some people here.
NewsChannel 5's Farrah Fazal recently returned from a three week trip to Pakistan. She was there as part of journalist exchange program with six other American journalists. They came from all parts of the country and every medium. Two came from print journalism (Allie Shah, a reporter with the Minneapolis Tribune; Karen Bordeleau, acting executive editor of the Providence Journal), two radio journalists (Ed Esposito, vice president of the Rubber City Radio Group in Ohio; Michael Clapp, web editor and photographer for Oregon Public Broadcasting), and three from television (Alicia Dean, the assistant news director at KXAN; Mark Albert, a reporter at KSTP; and Farrah Fazal).
Below is Farrah's report of her trip to Pakistan - in her own words.
I wanted to go to one of the most dangerous areas near the Afghan, Pakistan border called Peshawar where my journalist friend, Shahab-uddin, works for AAJ TV, but I learned the Pakistani government wasn't allowing foreign journalists into that area because it's just too dangerous. Last week, suicide bombers dressed as military men blew up a government building in Peshawar. Five people died.
Violence is a way of life in Pakistan. The other journalists and I travelled to Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Taxilla. We saw the price Pakistanis are paying for a country drowning in so much poverty and promise.
The dawning of a day in Pakistan comes with chaos. The American journalists I was travelling with got an close and personal look at the consequences of that chaos.
Michael Clapp took video as we went through several barricades to get into the Serena Hotel in Islamabad. Security was especially tight at the Serena, but we went through barricades like that and TSA like checkpoints at every hotel and most buildings we entered in our travels across several cities.
Security was even tighter at our hotel for a few days. We found out the Afghan Defense Minister and the Pakistani General were meeting at our Islamabad Hotel to discuss the U.S. pullout of Afghanistan. IT was a little surreal to be in the middle of an international story surrounding us. It made headlines in the local papers. The headlines screamed at us about danger around every corner.
"Every journalist in Pakistan risks their lives on a regular basis," said Aqsa Junejo, a Pakistani reporter for CNBC in Karachi.
Journalists are victims of target killings here. Two of her colleagues and another journalist she didn't know died in a successive blast in Quetta on January 10.
Junejo recently covered a blast herself in Karachi.
"There wasn't a successive blast otherwise you wouldn't see me here, I might have been in the other world," said Junejo.
Reporters Without Borders calls Pakistan the most dangerous place for journalists to work. Reporters like Shahab-uddin cover the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan under constant threat from the Taliban. He was reporting live from the streets of Peshawar on Saturday, February 16, when suicide bombers dressed like military men blew up a government compound. Five people died.
The political parties say terrorists routinely threaten them too. A leader of MQM showed us a letter the ISI, Pakistan's equivalent of the CIA sent him. The letter said he was on Al Qaeda's hit list.
Pakistan's other border with India is a little less violent. Its relationship with its neighbor is a constant battle. A daily patriotic ceremony on the Wagah border between Pakistani and Indian soldiers may be the only peace the two countries find.
Peace doesn't make the news in Pakistan. Politics does.
Anti-American sentiment and the U.S. foreign policy on drone strikes is a hot topic. Government sources and independent journalists told us bashing America gets viewers to watch the news and read the paper.
"We don't get to meet Americans so we can explain to them about our lives," said Mohamed Sajdi.
Sajdi is the father of eight children. He and other Pakistanis we met told us they didn't hate Americans at all. In fact, they often shook our hands, shared the few words of English they knew and took pictures with us. They told us they had a problem with U.S. drone strikes that were killing their innocent family members and neighbors.
The drone missions are designed to hunt down Al Qaeda terrorists.
Our trip across Pakistan allowed us to see a country full of survivors. Approximately 180 million people jam into streets on donkeys, rickshaws, buses, cars and bikes. Somehow they don't 'crash into each other. We didn't see one accident in any of the cities we visited.
Pakistan is about the size of Texas. It's the sixth most crowded country in the world. Seventy percent of Pakistanis are poor. Many of them don't have water or electricity for more than a few hours a day. The lucky ones work for as little as twenty cents a day.
It's a country full of contradictions. We saw the darkness, begging women and children on the streets, and the decadence of the Arabian Sea in Karachi. The lure of Lahore was in its art and its quirkiness. We stood in the richness of the ruins of Taxilla. They've survived wars and earthquakes for 2,000 years.
The bubble of Islamabad waited for us in Pakistan's capital. The first democratically elected government is supposed to hand over power to another civilian government in elections in a few months. The world is watching to see if Pakistan's leaders can do it peacefully. If they can, a new day of democracy will dawn in a country fused with chaos, drowning in poverty and filled with people dreaming of a better life.