PESHAWAR: Zameer Khan’s voice remains steady as he recounts the number of bombs he has defused in his lifetime.
“Thirty-seven bombs and Improvised Explosive Devises,” he says.
There is an almost defiant indifference in the ex-serviceman’s tone. It does not for a moment indicate the formidable line of work he has chosen; a job that requires him to methodically approach a ticking bomb when everyone is running away from it.
Lionhearted Khan first learnt how to dismantle a bomb when he was in the Pakistan Army. After 20 years in service, he is now enrolled at Pakistan’s first police school of explosive handling (PSEH) in Nowshera taking a refresher course to hone his skill.
Despite his years of experience, at PSEH he has a chance to enhance his knowledge as modern war tools evolve. He can learn about circuits — the latest explosive devices — and how to battle the "technological war."
The explosive handling school, which launched operations in February this year, provides training on the latest equipment and technology to detect and safely diffuse bombs. It is a major step towards improving the safety of civilians as well as that of Bomb Disposal Unit (BDU) personnel.
Currently, PSE is training 44 apprentices. Since its launch, 341 officials have completed training at the school.
Limited resources, big hearts
Located on the bank of River Kabul, the main entrance of the school is decorated with portraits of celebrated BDU personnel who were unwittingly killed in bomb explosions.
Among the 15 portraits are the famous duo Hukam Khan and Abdul Haq. The two defused over 2,500 bombs, which the school’s officials believe is the highest number in any part of the world.
Despite the danger that comes with their job, BDUs have a very limited operational budget. Assistant Inspector General (AIG) Shafqat Malik says, “We just get salaries from the government."
Most of the equipment — including robots, bomb suits, X-ray units, EDOs and vehicles — is arranged for the school free of charge through personal efforts and friends.
The school’s main lobby is filled with explosive handling equipment: different types of bombs, detectors and remote-control vehicles for bomb dismantlement — all of which are used during practical training.
Malik explains that trainees are taught to identify the difference between different types of explosive devices, and the disposal of varying types of bombs. They are lucky to be able to use the latest technology, including robots, he says.
People come to train at PSEH from different districts of KP. Some, says Inspector Shafiq Khan, are already trained, while others start from scratch.
“The school provides newcomers with a learning opportunity, and they get firsthand knowledge from experts.” Khan, an ex-serviceman, is also an instructor at PSEH.
New techniques can save lives
The school also conducts two-week short refresher courses for BDU officials. They are trained in post-blast investigation and site preservation techniques so that they are able to determine the nature and the quantity of the explosive material(s).
According to Shafiq Khan, from the moment someone enters a blast site, even the smallest footprint or fingerprint can contaminate it. As soon as something is touched, the entire crime scene changes and it becomes difficult to later identify and distinguish the element.
Additionally, blast scenes are risky sites because of the danger of a second possible blast. Each district in KP currently has at least one BDU expert.
There are 450 BDU officials across the province and majority of them are ex-servicemen. Many policemen, who were not part of the BDU, lost their lives when they were unable to handle explosives in the absence of experts.
Hukam Khan, member of the famous duo, lost his life because of an unexpected second blast while on duty on September 28, 2012.
Post-blast investigation and management techniques, therefore, are extremely crucial for BDU personnel. Safety aside, results from their findings (or lack of) contribute to the amount of evidence present in court cases. “Weak prosecution is often the main reason behind acquittals,” says Khan.
A noble but risky profession
DSP Waqar, an instructor at PSEH, says there have been 15 casualties to date during bomb diffusal, and KP has lost some of its top experts in the process. But despite a lack of proper training facilities, BDU personnel have managed to defuse over 6,000 bombs since 2009.
The majority of officials at BDU are ex-service men, who were once recruited by the police department as serving police officers. Officials are often reluctant to join the BDU — not because they are unwilling to sign up for one of the most dangerous jobs in the world — but because of the lack of proper training and limited resources.
AIG Malik believes that the profession itself is considered to be noble. But because of limited resources and equipment, foreign countries and the military have become mainly responsible for training the BDU personnel on handling certain kinds of diffusals, such as Ordinance Explosive Devices (OEDs).
“This is time consuming, and in most cases, does not meet our needs,” he says.
Despite the difficulty with OEDs, bomb disposal experts from the KP police have successfully diffused more than 5,000 IEDs, including many that were vehicle-borne or carried by suicide bombers. Their gallantry, Malik says, shows how they have “written history with their blood to address the menace of terrorism."
In order to reduce the number of deaths and casualties, AIG Shafqat feels that the police department should run its own training institution for OED handling. The police should be able to manage actual bomb disposal, not just fire fighting.
A technological war
Qazi Waqar, a PhD scholar at PSEH specialising in electrical concepts, feels that trainees also need to be equipped with electrical knowledge.
According to him, terrorists keep abreast of new technologies to make superior bomb circuits and explosive devices. Hence, he says, electrical knowledge is vital as being unaware about sensor technology has proven fatal in many cases.
Zameer Khan says that after learning how to operate new systems during his refresher course, he has become aware that terrorists are also fighting a technological war.
Facing danger everyday
A friend of the late Hukam Khan, Muhammad Arif, a BDU expert posted at the Hazara Division, feels his companion's loss deeply. But risk is a constant factor in his life, and Arif says he has faced danger on countless occasions.
Arif has defused a range of explosive devices: suicide jackets, artillery shells, RPGs, hand grenades, as well as anti-personnel and anti-tank mines and heavy IEDs. He was severely injured in a roadside bomb blast in May 2013, while on his way to his office after defusing a bomb at Thor Gar.
He has been working for eight years, and feels the job is his personal duty. “I feel proud that despite knowing my life is at risk, I still take up the responsibility to defuse a bomb,” he says. “My work saves the lives of many people”.
But it isn’t an easy job. Many trained men reach the bomb site and lose courage. “You need to be calm and bold,” he says.
Zameer Khan, too, witnessed the death of a close friend while he was defusing a bomb. For him, the school offers the hope that he will never have to witness such a thing again.
When he steps out to a spot to defuse explosives, Khan elaborates, he finds himself continuously reciting prayers in his heart. He hopes to invoke the mercy of God, to protect him and others like him. “It feels like death is starting at me in the eye,” he says.
— The author is a Peshawar-based journalist, who works as a crime reporter for The Frontier Post.