The Economic Boom in Pakistan That Everyone Wants to Bust
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you thought working at McDonald’s was a crappy way to earn a day’s pay.
By Laura Secorun Palet
How do you know if a country has a grave terrorism problem? You can talk to experts, read the local newspapers or even visit some morgues. Or you could just look at the number of coffin sales. In Pakistan, they are soaring.
The jihadi insurgency in the northwest part of the country is leaving a bloody body trail, but it’s also providing an economic opportunity for the region’s enterprising coffin makers, who are making the most of a painful humanitarian crisis. In the 4.5-million-person capital of the North-West Frontier Province, Peshawar, around 40 coffin sellers work night and day to keep up with demand after every attack.
This grim economic upside has been picking up for some time now. Since 2001, according to the Pakistani government, more than 50,000 people have been killed in terrorism-related gun, bomb and suicide attacks, mostly in the northern tribal areas. Only last December, the Taliban assaulted a school in Peshawar, shooting indiscriminately and leaving 141 people dead, mostly children.
And it’s not only terrorists driving the coffin boom. Drones are also “good for business.” Since 2010, at least 2,400 people have died in northwest Pakistan in drone strikes. “In an art project that was taken to northwestern Pakistan, every single one of the drawings made by the children living in the area depicted a drone — it is their worst nightmare,” says Mona Kanwal Sheikh, a senior researcher in international security at the Danish Institute of International Studies.
As the body count grows, so does the number of shops selling wooden boxes. Still, coffins are not part of traditional Muslim death rites in Pakistan. Most corpses are wrapped in a white funeral shroud before being buried directly into the ground. But the violent nature of suicide bombings, drone strikes and IED blasts often leaves the bodies dismembered, disfigured or in such awful condition that family members have little choice but to try and gather the remains in a coffin.
The simple handmade wooden coffins often have little windows on top to show the faces of the lost ones. The simplest sell for about $30 apiece, while the most ornate cedar and velvet versions — often used to bury senior military officers — can go for up to $350. This is good money in a region that struggles with unemployment and lack of investment. Still, residents hope that coffin makers will one day be out of business. “Coffins are sold in large numbers when some major attack happens, like the school one in December,” says Javed Aziz Khan, a local journalist. “But these incidents have decreased now, so there are hopes that things are going to improve soon.”
Unfortunately, experts don’t think that’s likely. “Before 2001, there were no Pakistani Taliban. Today we have hundreds of Taliban-affiliated organizations,” says Kanwal Sheikh, “and there are no prospects that they will go away.” So as the Taliban continue to retaliate against the Pakistani government and the U.S. drone strikes, more local woodworkers will see their coffin businesses prosper while wishing they can one day go back to making just tables and cradles.