With just two weeks to go before Kiran Raja’s wedding, guests were expected to start gathering at her house for traditional dholki nights of singing and dancing.
Preparations were being finalized when the government suspended mobile phone services across the country over the weekend.
Saturday was Ashura, the Shiite day of mourning, and the television in the Raja family home was showing disturbing images of the day’s violence, during which six children died in a remote-controlled blast targeting a procession in the north.
Phones were suspended for the two-day holiday for fear of additional attacks. So far this year, which began November 15, 52 Shias have been killed in six sectarian attacks. Last year, 29 were killed during the first month of the Muslim calendar. Muharram is the second holiest month, after Ramadan, and it is considered unlawful to fight during this time. In 2012, Muharram ends on December 13.
Raja’s wedding festivities have been stifled by the extraordinary security measures.
“My siblings are out distributing wedding cards, and we are worried for their safety,” she said. “Many routes are blocked, and we cannot reach them on the phone.”
Riding two to a motorbike, a common means of transportation, was also suspended for the weekend. Raja says many of her guests said they couldn’t make it because of this.
According to Interior Minister Rehman Malik, phone services and wireless telephone network services in 48 cities were partially and fully suspended.
Mobile phone suspension also led to a major drop in emergency calls received at Rescue 1122 headquarters in Lahore.
“Normally we receive 2,500 calls regarding road and fire accidents per day; only 92 calls were received this Saturday,” said Ruqaia Bano, public relations officer at Punjab Emergency Service.
“The difference in figures speaks out for itself. Many rushed to telephone booths to contact us. We were helpless since our assignment starts only when we receive calls,” she said.
Despite the inconvenience, experts say the security measures are essential for combating terrorism.
“Terrorists use a 9-volt battery with bombs which can be triggered after matching the frequency with a pulse from a mobile phone. They apply the same technique to blow up gas cylinders in cars,” said Samson Simon Sharaf, a defense and political analyst.
According to Sharaf, the spread of unregistered SIM cards has contributed to the rise in violence.
“Illegal SIMs are readily available and the cell phone companies cannot monitor all the data. Only post-paid billing and dispatching the SIM to a postal address can help in containing this threat”, he said.