ISLAMABAD - Shopping at a crowded bazaar, where vendors sell rolls of brightly colored cotton and stacks of fresh mangoes, a man wearing sandals and a traditional Pakistani tunic looked confused when asked whether he was worried about a nuclear war between his country and India.
He finally shook his head, admitting he could not answer because, like many in Pakistan -- which is both a nuclear power and a Third World country -- he did not know what nuclear weapons were or the kind of damage they would cause.
India and Pakistan have indicated they are ready to fire some of their 200 nuclear warheads at each other in their dispute over Kashmir; foreigners are fleeing the subcontinent and world leaders are trying to defuse what is considered the worst nuclear threat since the Cuban missile crisis.
But you wouldn't know it in the Pakistani capital. For a city said to be on the brink of a nuclear conflict that could kill tens of millions, Islamabad is remarkably calm, in part, Pakistanis admit, because much of the population has no idea what a nuclear bomb is or the destructive force it unleashes.
"There is some unawareness about what nuclear war brings," said Haroon, who works at a shop that sells pirated copies of music CDs. "People mostly don't know what destruction these weapons can make and what are the aftereffects."
Pakistan has among the world's lowest education levels, and most people are illiterate.
A blast that could vaporize everything within a few kilometers and pollute the land and air with deadly radiation is a concept beyond the comprehension of a good number of people.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University, decried what he called his country's "simple ignorance about what nuclear war means," adding even his students did not comprehend the long-term impact of a nuclear explosion.
In Islamabad, nobody seems to be stockpiling food, building fallout shelters or sending their families abroad. Everyone appears to be just carrying on as before, preoccupied with World Cup soccer and the approaching monsoon season rather than nuclear annihilation. Banners hung around the city warn of the dangers of tobacco advertising, but there are no anti-nukes slogans to be found.
"I think Europeans are more worried than local residents here," said Mahboob Saghri Khaddak, a retired journalist.
Nuclear ignorance is not unique to Pakistan. Protesters in India marched this week carrying signs reading, "We Want War," apparently without regard for the risk of nuclear escalation.
"Both countries, we are stupid due to lack of education," said Majid Ali, as he watched a soccer match on a tiny black-and-white screen on the counter at his grocery store.
Ever since they were partitioned at the end of British colonial rule, India and Pakistan have quarreled regularly over Kashmir, a stretch of the Himalayas between the two countries. With its Muslim majority, Kashmir might have rightly gone to Pakistan in 1947, but its Hindu ruler favored joining India.
Persistent unrest has followed, as Islamic militants pressing for an end to Indian rule have launched a series of guerrilla and terrorist attacks that have intensified in recent weeks. India accuses Pakistan of aiding the militants and has retaliated by shelling Pakistani villages.
A million troops are now stationed along the Line of Control that divides India's part of Kashmir from the smaller segment under Pakistani authority. But it is the nuclear weapons possessed by both India and Pakistan that have fueled concerns in the West.
Richard Armitage, an envoy dispatched by George W. Bush, the U.S. president, met on Thursday in Islamabad with Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani President, who pledged he would not be the one to launch the war. Mr. Armitage met yesterday with Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Indian Prime Minister, amid signs tensions were easing.
"I was able to convey [to Indian leaders] ... the commitment of President Musharraf to stop all cross-border, cross-LOC infiltration," Mr. Armitage said.
Reinforcing his words, the State Department said it had detected a significant reduction in the number of infiltrations from Pakistani-controlled Kashmir into the Indian-controlled part of the territory.
"We have growing indications that infiltration across the Line of Control is down significantly," spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington.
Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Defense Secretary, is to meet the two leaders next week.
Outgunned by its better-armed adversary, Pakistan sees nuclear weapons as a way of evening the military balance in the region. After India conducted five underground nuclear tests and declared itself a nuclear power in May, 1998, Pakistan announced it had tested six bombs.
Pakistan has an estimated 25 to 50 nuclear warheads which can be dropped from fighter planes, or fitted to Ghari missiles with a range of 1,500 kilometers or Shaheen missiles with a shorter range. India has 100 to 150 warheads and missiles capable of hitting targets up to 3,000 km away.
Because of the subcontinent's dense population, experts have predicted that a nuclear strike could kill tens of millions. But rather than sounding the alarm bells, as would be expected of Western activists, a local peace group scorned Mr. Musharraf and Mr. Vajpayee this week for creating war hysteria.
In a part of the world where one of the most common expressions is "inshaallah," Arabic for "if God wills it," the relaxed attitude to the possibility of mutually assured destruction can also be partly attributed to the fatalism of the local culture.
Three men squatting beside a sidewalk tea stand in the heavy afternoon heat put the odds of a nuclear war at 50-50 but shrugged away the thought.
"I leave it to God," one of them said. They also seemed oblivious to the full consequences of a nuclear attack.
A group of taxi drivers resting in the shade on a woven mat, however, said they were well aware that if nuclear weapons were launched "everything is finished. The atom bomb," one of them said, "is very, very dangerous."
Perhaps even more disturbing than those who don't understand nuclear war are those who do yet are still unfazed. "I know what is nuclear, no worry about that," offered a man in Rawalpindi, the bustling city southeast of the capital.
But he said he was not concerned about the prospects of a nuclear strike, saying if it happened, he and other Pakistani casualties would gladly become martyrs, or shaheed, for Kashmir. "We are ready," he said. "No worry about nuclear because we want to be shaheed."
Mustat Mirza, 78, said nuclear war would be devastating for both countries. "Everything will be totally eradicated from the use of that atomic bomb," he said. But he agreed Pakistan should use its nuclear missiles if it were necessary to repel India.
Some Pakistanis said the lack of panic in Islamabad's wide streets was simply a sign that people are certain nuclear war will not happen, either because the two sides will negotiate peace or because neither leader wants to expose his own citizens to nuclear fallout.
"People here are very confident that the government and the other side will not go to that point," said Haroon, who did not want to give his full name. "That's the major reason people are so satisfied."
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