I am on my way to Sehwan, for the first time. Usually, people go to the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar every Thursday and during the annual urs but somehow I have missed the occasions. What draws me to Sehwan this time is that just a week before the blast — on Thursday, February 16 — my friends were there at the very same area, inside the mausoleum, where the suicide bomber caused devastation, taking away at least 88 lives and maiming more than 150. My friends know the shrine musicians. No clear information is forthcoming about them and others, so we decide to leave Karachi, get first-hand information ourselves and take it from there.
And so here I am, away from Karachi’s mayhem in Sehwan. With its low-height structures and sparse populace, the city is a world away from the rest of urban Pakistan.
It is early evening. Our first stopover is the Taluka hospital. The hospital was much maligned on television channels for its incapability to handle the blast victims and the absence of ambulances. The criticism was particularly harsh since Sehwan is the constituency of the current chief minister of Sindh. Entering the arched entrance of the renamed taluka hospital, Sayed Abdullah Shah Institute of Medical Science Sehwan (SAIMSS), I am surprised to see the large premises. I had imagined a small healthcare facility.
Some of the media characterisations during the Sehwan terrorist attack may have been exaggerations
On the right is a double-storeyed building looking swanky with people seated on a bench outside the glass-covered door. On the left is the OPD block and further down, the gynaecology-obstetrics block. At the far end of the precincts are the trauma centre and the medical director’s office. The otherwise quiet premise is punctuated by the chugging of a concrete mixer, labourers pushing wheelbarrows into a narrow lane next to the main building. It later transpires that an underground tank and a ramp to the first floor was being constructed.
The atmosphere is surreal. Just a few days ago this place was filled with dead bodies, severed limbs and the cries of the injured. But now, standing in the middle of the spacious waiting area, roaming around the quiet corridors, it is as if it never occurred.
Then this reverie is broken. Outside the trauma centre, several bloodstained tatty mattresses are left to dry off on a patch of grass — a reminder of the unprecedented suicide attack in Sehwan.
Dr Moona Soomro shudders at the memory of February 16. “It was the day of judgement,” she says. On duty that night, she thought a transformer had exploded. “A few minutes later ambulances started bringing in dead bodies, women with torn clothes and injured toddlers.”
But television channels reported there were no ambulances and they had to be called for from other cities, I ask. “That is untrue. Our hospital’s ambulances rushed at the site. Other private hospitals and NGOs also sent their ambulances. Doctors and paramedical personnel of entire Sehwan also came to help,” she replies.
Looking forward to meet the injured victims of the blast, we are told they have been discharged. The ones with serious injuries have been shifted to hospitals in Nawabshah, Jamshoro and Karachi.
The evening air becomes cooler as the sky turns darker. The dhamaal must be about to begin at the dargah. The golden-domed dargah is brightly lit. The undulating narrow pathway leading towards the dargah is lined with stalls of chadors, rose petals, nuts and sugar balls. There is a sizeable crowd outside the gate. A coterie of Rangers mans the first walk-through gate. A group of policemen stand to the side. Bags and purses are not allowed in but cell phones are. Everyone undergoes a pat-down search after passing through the gate.
Barefoot visitors pass through another walk-through gate right before entering the tomb chamber. The dhamaal has just ended. To the relief of my friends, the shrine musicians have survived the attack. A group of men surround the tomb beating their chests, chanting in praise of Hazrat Ali and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. The mood is electric and defiant. The area is not bursting at its seams as is customary but there is a steady stream of pilgrims.
Remarkably, the shrine is mostly intact. The steps leading to the tomb are slightly chipped. Thin white poles dangle around the colossal chandelier.
The atmosphere is surreal. Just a few days ago this place was filled with dead bodies, severed limbs and cries of the injured. But now, standing in the middle of the spacious waiting area, roaming around the quiet corridors, it is as if it never occurred. Then this reverie is broken. Outside the trauma centre, several bloodstained tatty mattresses are left to dry off on a patch of grass — a reminder of the unprecedented suicide attack in Sehwan.
A faqir, Mohammad Sheran, is sitting his bandaged foot visible under his silver-embroidered red cloak. He remembers falling down with great force when the blast occurred. “I was lucky to have only injured my foot. SAIMSS did the necessary treatment and discharged me.”
A regular visitor of the shrine is critical of the heavy presence of security. “Of course, they will beef up the security now. But they had been alerted since the blast at Shah Noorani shrine [in Khuzdar, Balochistan],” she says in fluent English while running her fingers over prayer beads.
Next morning we meet SAIMSS director Dr Moinuddin Siddiqui. He is wary of talking to us — since he has taken a lot of flak from the electronic media. Still, he answers all our questions without getting defensive. Recalling the day, he says they have experience in handling serious road accidents but this attack came like a bolt out of the blue.
“Three categories of people were brought in that night. First were the dead, who were about 78 in number. Then 135 were those with minor injuries who were given first aid and discharged, some immediately and some a few days later. The third lot was the critically injured, who numbered around 60. They needed to be operated on and needed ventilation. They were the ones who were transferred to other city hospitals.”
He claims they could have taken care of even those if he had the skilled personnel. “The sanctioned strength for the upgraded hospital is 95 but only 10 have been posted. I need help from the government to fill the vacancies. We don’t need medicines. We have enough of those. If this hospital has all the manpower then it is enough for entire Sehwan,” he says. What about the ambulances, why don’t they have any? “The channels reported incorrectly, we have eight and all went that night,” he answers.
He insists on showing the ambulances. The vehicles are not the only thing I get to see but also a renal dialysis unit where three patients are receiving dialysis, a well-stocked pharmacy, refrigerators crammed with vaccines, two small operation theatres and a truck unloading cartons of medicines. While doing the round with the director, I find the hospital clean, more so than several government hospitals in large cities, but there are nooks which are shabby, there are medicines strewn all over and there is a lack of equipment in the ICU room with people freely walking in and out.
Meeting the injured victims at the People’s University of Medical & Health Science (PUMHS) Hospital in Nawabshah later in the day makes the tragic incident tangible and disturbing. Firdaus from Shahdadkot, recovering from burns and bone injuries, lost two small sons that night. Azeema is here with a severe leg injury and pellets on her back. Her child is missing. Lal Bibi from Shikarpur is unable to get up on her own, both her arms fractured. She is anguished by the loss of her two children and two others who are unaccounted for.
Nurse Sabiha was on duty that night. “Thirty ambulances rushed from our hospital to Sehwan. While waiting for the injured, we arranged everything, from blood to drips, ready to handle whatever came our way.” Or so she thought. “Blood was oozing uncontrollably from bodies. A man was brought in with no ears. Some women had no clothes on,” she says, recoiling at the memory.
In comparison, the injured men at the PUMHS Hospital are upbeat, having lost no one, grateful to have a second chance. Truck driver Azhar from Dera Ghazi Khan and his friend Saqlain came to Sehwan because “their heart wanted to.” “We were posing for a selfie when the blast happened,” he says grinning, a tube emerging from his body emptying blood in a large glass container. “Debris filled our eyes. But we helped each other out. Nothing happened to Saqlain,” Dr Raja Faheem says Azhar’s chest and lungs are filled with blood, but he is out of danger.
Ghulam Nabi, a vegetable seller from Larkana, nursing a foot injury, came to Sehwan as was his wont. When asked if he would visit the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar after recovering, he answers: “Why not? I will definitely go.”
The writer is a member of staff
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 5th, 2017