Sukkur, in the north of Sindh, is not the most interesting place on earth, but it’s unfortunately a place where one is more or less forced to stop on the road overland between north and south.
I say unfortunately because despite the best intentions of many locals who I have met, the feeling I got from the Sukkur police is that foreigners are not welcome in the town. When I arrived after a long day of travelling, having visited Mohenjodaro and Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, I tried to check into a couple of cheap hotels to stay the night. The next morning I was planning to go around Sukkur, visiting its handful of shrines and temples, before boarding a train back to Lahore. All the hotels rejected me, saying that the police would not allow them to take foreigners for “security reasons”. Fair enough, I thought – after all, Pakistan has seen its share of issues regarding foreigners in the past. They recommended me to go to the police station, where I would be registered and suggested an appropriate hotel.
The tomb of the Bhutto family, including those of Zulfiqar and Benazir Bhutto, at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh
On arrival at the station I met two friendly policemen; Dost Muhammad and Sikander, who wanted to take me out for tea and get to know me. Fine again – I had nowhere to be, so we sat in a nearby bakery and munched on cakes and biscuits. We returned to the police station to complete the registration where I was told that everything would be fine, I would just have to wait to meet the head of foreigners’ security who was on his way. In the meanwhile, Dost Muhammad and Sikander commented that it was not good that I had been able to travel so freely to Mohenjodaro and Garhi Khuda Bakhsh. I asked if I had been in danger while travelling there alone, to which they smiled and said “no, it’s safe to travel there – but like that? It’s not good.”
Sunrise over the Ayub and Lansdowne Bridges in Sukkur (Image: M arsh20, Wikimedia Commons)
Enter Abdul Jabbar, a pig of a man who seemed unworthy of a name that means “servant of Allah”. He introduced himself and asked me about my visa status. I showed him the visa and passport, which he seemed satisfied with. He then asked me what my plan for the next day was; I replied that I wanted to go to Sadh Belo, a Hindu temple on the Indus River, and Satyan Jo Asthan, a burial site near the river. That’s when he began angrily shouting at me, “No! No! No, no no!” I was surprised and a little shocked, but I diplomatically began to say “ok, then would it be possible to walk by the river and see them from a distance?” I hadn’t even finished the sentence when he began barking even louder at me in an apparent attempt to drown me out “NO! You CAN NOT GO THERE!” I again began to say “ok, I understand” but he continued to smother the conversation by bellowing the word “no”.
Satyan Jo Asthan by the Indus River and Sukkur (Image: Muhammad Sario, Wikimedia Commons)
I waited for him to finish, and then I said “ok, so tomorrow what can I do?” “Tomorrow you will stay in your hotel room, then in the evening you will go to the station and go back to Lahore” he said. “Can I go out around the city at least?” I asked. The bellowing started again. Once it died down, I asked “can I go out for breakfast, then?” “No, you will stay in your hotel room, eat breakfast and lunch, then go to Lahore.”
The Hindu Temple Sadh Belo, in Sukkur (Image: سیانف, Wikimedia Commons)
Once he had calmed down a little, I asked why I wasn’t allowed to do anything in Sukkur, to which he said “tomorrow we have a VVIP coming, and they will be visiting Sadh Belo and Sateen Jo Astaan”. I asked why the general populace of Sukkur were not being kept indoors, only me, to which he replied “because you are a foreigner”. Apparently only myself with my three shalwar kameez, sunglasses and camera was the greatest security threat to Sukkur that day. “There will be agencies present for the VVIP, and it’s not safe” he continued. So now it seemed that the danger was not so much from me to the VVIP, but from the Pakistani state to me. “So why can’t I even set foot on the road to eat breakfast in a restaurant?” I asked. “Foreigners have been kidnapped by just going out of their hotel in this city.” “So ok, its obviously not a good idea for me to be here, it seems I’m in danger, so I’ll leave tonight. There’s no point in me staying here if I’m going to spend the whole day in the hotel room in danger of being kidnapped.” “You won’t get tickets at the station this late. You have to stay here tonight and tomorrow, in your hotel room, then leave on your already booked ticket tomorrow night”
At least I got to try Sindhi biryani in the hotel!
I looked at the more reasonable Dost Muhammad and Sikander who said that perhaps we could organise a trip somewhere with an armed guard the next day. I said that it sounded like an option, but if I was in danger then was it really advisable? They replied “you’re not in danger, the situation here now is fine. Sukkur is a safe city.” I was bewildered. In the end I stayed at the hotel and had a short tour of Sukkur the next day with a friendly police guard called Imran. He was sympathetic to my situation and even went in to bat for me when the superintendent of Sukkur police forbade me from taking pictures at one point.
Minaret of Masum Shah, Sukkur
It seems that rather than me being in danger, the police of Sukkur viewed me as the danger – perhaps a spy, searching for information on a strategic city in northern Sindh. Sukkur is the headworks for the irrigation of much of the province, and the Sukkur barrage is a highly sensitive location. This would explain Dost Muhammad’s concerns that travelling freely around Mohenjodaro was “safe, but not good”. It would also explain why no one else in Sukkur, including among the police command, knew anything regarding the VVIP arriving the next day – it was simply a ruse to prevent me from visiting anywhere interesting. Equally, why there were no other obvious security arrangements in Sukkur regarding the local populace and the said VVIP – because it never happened. And why I couldn’t go out even for breakfast, despite the threat of kidnapping being dismissed by everyone I met. I don’t even believe that Sukkur is that dangerous, because if it was, the police would be patrolling who enters and leaves the city – at least if Sukkur is a dangerous place, the police don’t care enough to monitor it until a foreigner wakes them from whatever else it is they spend their time on.
Sunset over the Sukkur barrage and the Indus River
Before leaving the police station that night, I told Dost Muhammad that I was very disappointed with my treatment there that night, and that it seemed quite clear that guests are not welcome in Sukkur. He seemed a bit upset by this, to which I motioned at Abdul Jabbar and said “you have been good to me, but he has not.” Dost Muhammad repeated a common Pakistani phrase when he held his open hand out and said “you see, just as not all five fingers are the same, not all men are the same.” Yes, but it’s foolish to put the smallest finger in a position of power. On the whole, my treatment by the Sukkur police was not unfavourable – everyone was good to me (considering the duty they are tasked with) except the man with the most power.
Me waiting at Rohri Station with a police guard – for my protection, of course.
I have heard of many people who have visited Sukkur without incident – sometimes a security guard was assigned, sometimes not, but either way they were relatively free to travel. The common theme among them seems to be that they are very white, dressed in typical western clothes, and don’t speak a word of Urdu. My mistake seems to have been that my complexion, my dress and my Urdu meant that they assumed I was from northern Pakistan, and the suspicion began when they discovered that a foreigner had “flown under the radar”. My advice, if you plan to visit Sukkur, is to register from the moment you arrive, stay in a mid-range or above hotel, and perhaps book a tour.
Have you ever had issues with the police in foreign countries? What was your story? Comment below!