Letter From Peshawar

Pakistan CRIKEY  24/11/09

From the car we could see a busy morning unfolding at the Peshawar Courts as we passed them, an enormous crowd filtering through a half-open security gate, each person frisked carefully. Old men with shifting slowly to the gate, burqa-clad women cradling their young, uniformed guards barely out of school, their brows creased with fear.

Pashtuns are hardly known for their fear, famous instead for their warrior culture. That is until the militants took to suicide-bombing. Now, the entire city of Peshawar seems afraid. Every government-owned building is sandbagged, barbed wire loops the perimeters and jittery sentries have their machine guns raised and ready. By contrast, the courts have no blast bags and I am surprised only two policemen are patting people down as they enter.

Seconds later, as if in answer to my thoughts, a suicide bomber detonated himself among those we had just passed.

We didn’t stop. My host, Vasif Shinwari, dropped me off as planned, to spend the day observing doctors working at Lady Reading Hospital — Peshawar’s largest centre of medical care. I was right on time. Even without a major incident, it is one of the busiest hospital in the world. Before this wave of terrorist attacks, LRH received its fair share of gunshot and grenade injuries, normal daily emergencies on the frontier.

Devout Muslim doctor Shiraz Afridi, qualified in Belfast and head of the emergency department, was expecting me. Before I could reach his office, however, the first ambulance arrived with a coughing wail and screeched to halt in front of us. The mayhem was instant. News of a blast in Peshawar spreads as quickly as the fires they often ignite. In no time we were caught in a melee of shouting police thrashing a rapidly forming crowd of onlookers with sticks while men holding megaphones ordered the masses back. Heavily-armed sniper teams appeared on the rooftops and riot police manned the entrance. From all over the city, gloved doctors, nurses and volunteers descended on the casualty department. More ambulances pulled up and back doors were torn open. Countless hands transferred patients to trolleys and rushed them up concrete ramps to the trauma bay. Frequent zapping came from the cattle-prod of the triage officer’s security man as he cleared the sorting area for only the most critical.

First came the unconscious, lathered in blood and soot, some with their beards singed off, others peppered with shrapnel wounds. Then, one by one, ambulances arrived with walking wounded, stunned and staring blankly ahead, to shocked to pay their injuries attention. Then, it was all over. Ambulances arriving now contained little more than charred and shredded bodies.

Nineteen people had died, while more than 50 were injured. Among the dead and injured were lawyers, considered heroes of Pakistan after their protests in the last days of Pervez Musharaf. Behind me at the gate appeared their colleagues, men in black-and-white suits, the accepted uniform of legal establishment, all desperate to know some news. The Chief Justice of NWFP himself, Ijaz Afzal, widely respected for his wisdom, arrived with a heavy police escort. I followed him into the casualty ward and up to Dr Afridi’s office. Along the way he gestured to the wounded waiting in corridors, “Look at these people; they came to the courts because of injustice, and in return they received an even greater one.

Unrelenting blasts have led to widespread confusion. Conspiracy and rumours rule supreme. Is the American hand sewing instability to create an excuse for demanding the nukes? Could India be trying to cripple Pakistan? Are the Russians taking revenge for their defeat in the eighties? Is the Pakistani establishment ramping up its demand for Washington’s next pay cheque? On the street, many fingers remain reluctant to point at the most obvious perpetrator — the Taliban. Local journalist Shaukat Khattack spoke to me after interviewing Hakimullah Mehsud, head of the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan. During his interview, Mehsud admitted responsibility for most of the attacks and claimed to have 3000 suicide bombers in waiting. Few in Pakistan believe there will ever be true peace in the country while ever Afghanistan remains occupied. Until Karzai and the Pakistani establishment have meaningful dialogue with Taliban groups on both sides of the border, unrest is likely to continue, if not escalate. In the meantime, Pashtuns such as Dr Afridi and his staff must deal with the ongoing fallout.

Not knowing when and where the next bomber will strike, the people of Peshawar may fear for their lives, but are finally waking from complacency. No longer are they willing to sit idle, speculating over tea. Pashtuns are ready to defend their culture, be it from cruel extremists or a corrupt government. Already, people of the frontier are pulling together for survival. Only immense dedication and hundreds of hands can treat and clear all patients from an emergency department within 30 minutes of a major bomb blast. This shows that despite the challenges facing them, Pashtuns are a race with unmatched resilience and courage. Such qualities must one day deliver the peace they deserve.


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2 Responses to Letter From Peshawar

  1. Hisham Tariq says:

    Hi- I just saw a report on a Pakistani news channel that was interviewing the current head of Lady Reading Hospital and mentioned you and your research- being from the area and researching in disaster management I found your blog very interesting- I was there in Peshawar that day as well and remember it well.

    • Salaam Hisham,
      Interesting. If you have a link to that report let me know. Shiraz Afridi is an amazing man indeed. I write at length about him in my book Paramedico. We are in touch regularly. His experience in trauma triage in unsurpassed. And his department’s dedication to the victims on these blasts is remarkable.

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