ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - When the place you go to eat, meet, do business, attend conferences and receptions gets blown up, it’s natural to ask whether it’s time to leave.
The sheer sound of the massive explosion from a suicide truck bomb at the Marriott hotel left foreigners living in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad shaken to their core -- and for some of them, it could be a tipping point.
At least 53 people were killed in Saturday’s attack, which intelligence officials suspect could have been the work of al Qaeda. Two Americans, one Vietnamese and the Czech ambassador were among the dead.
Ina Pietchmann, a German woman working for the United Nations, said her “heart beat like a rabbit‘s” when she heard the blast and saw the night sky go red and smoke rise up.
“Our lives have got steadily worse over the past two months, We’re advised not to go to outside restaurants,” she said.
Two months ago there was a security scare after Pakistani police seized two four-wheel-drive vehicles stacked with explosives in the nearby city of Rawalpindi and hunted for another they feared was being sneaked into the capital.
“There’s always some stress lying on you,” she said.
Nuthit Phukkanasut, general manager of the Thai Airways office in Islamabad, said he was restricting his movements.
“I don’t go to places where many people go. I only go out to my friends’ houses. I don’t go to the main shopping areas, the high-risk places.”
Many foreigners left Islamabad after the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001 but later returned as investment poured into the oil, gas and telecoms sectors. It remained a non-family posting for U.S. diplomats, however.
Aside from the Marriott, the Serena, Islamabad’s only other five-star hotel, and the social clubs attached to embassies in the highly protected diplomatic enclave were among the few places deemed safe by security advisers.
Six months ago, a bomb attack in the garden area of an Italian restaurant that was another favorite haunt among expatriates unnerved some, until it was learnt that the target had probably been a table full of agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Saturday’s blast was on a wholly different scale, and could mark the final straw for some foreign residents living in spacious houses bedecked in purple bougainvillea on the quiet, tree-lined lanes of the city.
Steve, a British man in his fifties who has spent much of each working day in the Marriott over the past few years, said he and his wife were discussing whether to tell his Pakistani employer goodbye.
They’ve watched the militancy spreading down from North West Frontier province and tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
”We said we’d give it another 24 hours before deciding, but this is getting too close to home, said Steve, who did not want to give his full name. “I’ll be speaking to my boss tomorrow.”
Rumana Brown, a Bangladeshi woman, arrived in Islamabad 17 months ago to join her British husband, who had been working in the oil and gas sector. She recalls the sound of explosions and gunfire during the siege of the Red Mosque in July last year.
More than 100 people were killed when commandos stormed the mosque to crush an armed Islamist group, but the Marriott blast had jangled her nerves more.
“A half-hour later I was still shaking,” she said. “I think this bombing will be very bad for Pakistan, because it’s the Marriott. All foreigners come here.”
She is thankful to be leaving at the end of the month for Bangladesh, where her husband has transferred.
“I know this is not the end of the world, people will still will have to come to this country for their jobs, but I don’t know how they will do it.”
Additional reporting by Robert Birsel, editing by Mark Trevelyan