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Mourners sit in front of photos of their loved ones who lost their lives in the August 8, 2016 bombing in Quetta | Reuters

THE LONG SHADOWS OF A TRAGEDY

Five years ago today, a suicide bombing in Quetta claimed over 70 lives, including of 54 lawyers
Updated 08 Aug, 2021 09:47am

Five years ago today, a suicide bombing in Quetta claimed over 70 lives, including of 54 lawyers. The attack continues to haunt the women of the community, many of whom were widowed at a young age. But their stories remain unheard. What has life been like for them since their husbands’ passing?


It was a day like any other. Aliya* was in the kitchen preparing lunch for her children to take to school. Her husband, a lawyer in Quetta, was getting ready to rush to court. He had been practising law for a number of years. By now, Aliya was more than familiar with this routine and his hurried departures from home.

As she was bringing her husband’s shoes to him, she noticed they were not properly polished. She quickly wiped them with the corner of her dupatta and gave them to him.

And off he went. He was in such a hurry that he rushed out without even saying goodbye. Aliya was left looking at her dupatta; the dust had left a smudge on the yellow and red floral print on it.

This was five years ago, and it was the last time Aliya saw her husband alive.


In The Unwomanly Face of War, oral historian Svetlana Alexievich writes that “women are always at the receiving end of the trouble when an incident happens.” Her book details the experiences of Russian women during the Second World War, but she could well be speaking of the women in Balochistan. War, as she writes, belongs to the mothers, daughters, sisters and wives because “they have to bear the brunt of the pangs of [a] patriarchal society.”


That day, on August 8, 2016, several lawyers, including Aliya’s husband, gathered at Quetta Civil Hospital to protest the killing of a senior lawyer, Advocate Bilal Anwar Kasi, and the targeting of their community.

They did not know that they were moments away from being targeted themselves. A suicide bomber was also in the crowd. Soon, there was a blast outside the hospital, killing over 70 individuals, including 54 lawyers.

“After they brought his body to me, I went to the room and tore the part of my dupatta that had the dust of his shoes on it,” Aliya tells me, half a decade after his passing. “This is it; I have kept it close to my heart,” she says, as she shows the fabric that she has preserved.

That fateful August, dozens of other wives of lawyers in Quetta lost their husbands.

Speaking to Al Jazeera in the wake of the blast, a lawyer, Atta Khan Kakar, had described the devastating attack as an incident that had “decimated” the legal fraternity of Balochistan, setting the province back by a 100 years and lending an irreparable blow to Balochistan’s future. “We are a target because we provide justice,” he had said.

Today is the anniversary of that deadly attack.

The ripples of its consequences continue to define the lives connected to those claimed by the suicide bombing. Whether by way of shattered hope for justice, by ties of blood disrupted, or the thwarted security of human ties that seemingly bind people in relations beyond the grave.

In a tribal society such as Balochistan’s, when incidents such as the August 8 attack take place, the women left behind continue to suffer. For many, the compounds of their houses become their cages; with their movement curtailed even further and their already tied wings clipped by tribal and patriarchal customs and conventions.

These are the stories of those women.

Vigils were held across the country in the wake of the blast in Quetta. Here people light candles in Peshawar | Reuters
Vigils were held across the country in the wake of the blast in Quetta. Here people light candles in Peshawar | Reuters

THE UNSEEN FACE OF CONFLICT

In The Unwomanly Face of War, oral historian Svetlana Alexievich writes that “women are always at the receiving end of the trouble when an incident happens.” Her book details the experiences of Russian women during the Second World War, but she could well be speaking of the women in Balochistan. War, as she writes, belongs to the mothers, daughters, sisters and wives because “they have to bear the brunt of the pangs of [a] patriarchal society.”

While there is no active ‘war’ taking place, the women of Balochistan have continued to lose their loved ones. With many families left without any grown men, the women have to navigate a deeply patriarchal society without the support of men at home. These women continue to be the unseen face of this conflict, living on among rising insecurity.

I have been struggling over these past few months to gather material for this story, often coaxing and trying anything possible to convince the brothers, brothers-in-law and daughters to arrange interviews with the widows of the lawyers killed in the deadly suicide attack on August 8, 2016.

Of the 54 women I approached through intermediaries, only four agreed to be interviewed, and that too on the condition of anonymity.

A NEW REALITY

When I finally meet Aliya, my mind is abuzz with questions.

I am seated in a sunny room with a window opening in a small garden. Aliya comes in with her face covered and sits in the far corner of the room. There is no exchange of pleasantries. She just starts by speaking of that day.

“I still remember that day,” she says, wiping her tears with a tissue paper. “Everything was normal, as it has always been. The sky, the sun, my feelings for [my husband].”

Aliya says that her brother, who works at the sessions courts called her and asked where her husband was. She told him that he had left for the court. “He hung up the phone abruptly, as if he was in a hurry. I had all these confusing thoughts,” she recalls.

The phone rang again; it was her brother calling. “I asked him why he hung up on me. ‘What happened?’ He replied, ‘Bilal Kasi has been killed and we are on our way to the hospital.’”

Aliya asked her brother to call her husband on his mobile phone. He told her that he had already tried, but his phone was off. “My brother asked me to tell my brother to come to Civil Hospital, in case he calls me. But he never did,” she says. His call never appeared on her phone again.

Aliya recalls going to the kitchen to make tea while in deep thought, thinking about Bilal Kasi’s family, wife and children. “Suddenly there was this huge bang and a deafening explosion, like a blow to my ears,” she says. The teapot, she recalls, fell on the floor.

Family and community members offer prayers at the funeral of the men killed in the August 8, 2016 suicide attack in Quetta | White Star
Family and community members offer prayers at the funeral of the men killed in the August 8, 2016 suicide attack in Quetta | White Star

As her heart pounded and she tried to regain her senses, the electricity also went out.

Blasts such as this happen frequently enough in Quetta that people recognise them right away. “I was not sure where the blast had occurred,” Aliya says. “Strange anxieties assailed me in the moment after the explosion, as if the world had gone silent for a second. For a moment, my husband came to my mind. I wondered where he might be.”

“Obviously, at the court,” she thought to herself. “That’s the most secure place in the world.”

Aliya remembers trying to call her husband and her brother, but to no avail.

When she switched on the television, the news had already broken. The blast had occurred at Civil Hospital, hardly a five-minute walk from her home. “I had never been there and was unsure about what to do,” she says.

As Aliya was still pondering over what to do, her brother called her. “He was crying,” she says. “Sobbing, he said they had killed everyone and everything.”

“I asked him about Shafiq and he said, ‘Everyone...’ Then he hung up the phone,” she says.

Aliya was in a state of shock, but only for a moment. She immediately thought of her children. “They were still in school, unaware of how their lives and future had been shattered,” Aliya says.

She hailed a rickshaw and headed to the school. On her way, she saw ambulances rushing towards the hospital.


Maheen* is also angry. “I was and still am a housewife,” she says, using ‘housewife’ as a term to describe a wife who is not allowed to leave the house. “I was never allowed to leave the house, not even when my husband had a hole in his throat from a bomb blast shrapnel.”


Aliya remembers everyone at the school being in a state of panic. Like Aliya, many other women, widowed less than an hour ago, had reached the school to pick up their children.

“I took my children from the school,” she says. “They were surprised to see me because I had never picked them up from school before. They asked me a million questions but I had no answers,” she adds.

It all happened so fast. Thirty minutes had passed since Aliya had left the house. By the time she returned, there were neighbours and relatives gathered inside the house, waiting for her and the dead body of her husband to come home.

This was her new reality. The beginning of the rest of her life.

There are photos of Aliya’s husband and the family in the room where we are sitting. “Whenever I am lonely and tense, I come out here to talk to the pictures of my husband,” Aliya says. “I do not have anyone else to share my life with.”

Aliya is only one of the many other women widowed at a young age in the bombing. With their whole lives ahead of them, they find escapes in the memories of happier times.

LOST YOUTH

Advocate Bilal Anwar Kasi | File photo
Advocate Bilal Anwar Kasi | File photo

Sakina* had been raised to be the perfect wife. Her family’s top priority for her was to fulfil that role. She was still a teenager when she got married. A feisty young girl, Sakina had big dreams and marriage was not one of them.

But the Sakina sitting before me today is a different woman. This is a woman who at the age of 28 lost her husband. A woman who is raising her children alone, without the one thing she was taught she could always rely on — the loving support of her husband.

“I got married right after my matric examinations and received the result at my in-laws’ home,” she tells me. Sakina remembers being heartbroken when her in-laws and husband appeared to not be too impressed by her receiving a distinction (first division) in her exams. “I burnt my marksheet and blocked my father’s number because he was responsible [for getting me married before I had finished my education].”

But over time, Sakina’s anger subsided. “Apart from my studies, my husband supported me with everything,” she says. “I was young and alive … I loved my husband and he loved me back. His love made me forget my studies.”

We are sitting in a room next to a veranda and a courtyard with a grapevine tree. Sakina is sitting right in front of me, with her back against a wall. She stops in the middle of speaking and stares at the roof, apparently to hold back tears.

It doesn’t work. With tears running down her cheeks she asks, “Do you know, I grew older in one day, twice my age?”

I nod in agreement, not knowing what to say.

Lawyers mourn the loss of their colleagues outside Quetta’s Civil Hospital after the blast | AFP
Lawyers mourn the loss of their colleagues outside Quetta’s Civil Hospital after the blast | AFP

“For more than a decade, he was just like this wall,” she says, fondly remembering her late husband. “For all my mistakes and secrets, I would go and hide behind him. He was my cover, my support.”

After his passing, Sakina has had to become that wall for her children. But this has been far from easy. “You know, a widow grows older quicker than a married woman,” she says.

“I wish I could delete August 8 from the calendar; I wish I could erase all the [bad] memories. It kills me.”

On that day, everything happened so quickly that Sakina hardly remembers anything. “When something heavy strikes a person all of a sudden, the memory of that particular situation turns into a blur,” she says. “I still can’t remember who came to grieve or how they brought my husband’s body home.”

But Sakina remembers one thing clearly. “While my husband’s body was lying in the courtyard, with each passing minute, the news of another lawyer dying would pour in,” she recalls. “I would instinctively ask about the lawyer’s age and compare it to my husband’s. If the lawyer was younger than my husband, I would stop crying and think, ‘He was younger than my husband and his family must be hit harder by grief.’ If the lawyer was older than my husband, I wouldn’t stop crying because my husband died too young. He had all these years to live for us, for himself.”

Sakina didn’t just lose her partner and support system that day, she also lost her sense of self. A girl raised to believe her life should revolve around her husband’s, a girl who was discouraged from pursuing education or gaining independence, was forced to start over so suddenly.

“I have no more wishes left,” Sakina says. “I don’t even have tears now. I only have to live for my kids.”

Sakina recognises that family is everything. Like her, dozens of other women have had to take over and become their children’s mother and father.

COMING TOGETHER

Men comfort a lawyer after the killing of his colleagues in the bomb explosion | AFP
Men comfort a lawyer after the killing of his colleagues in the bomb explosion | AFP

Fatima* and her husband would rely on one another for everything; they were each other’s support system and family. Not being natives in Quetta, their language and culture was a little different from those around them, and they did not have an extensive group of friends or supportive community. They were not on good terms with either of their families. But it didn’t matter, because they had each other.

Fatima’s husband was still a struggling lawyer. So she took up a teaching job to share the financial burden of the household. She is still an Urdu teacher, but her husband is no more.

“My class had just started that day,” she says, recounting the day she lost her husband. “While I was busy writing on the board, the principal came in and asked one of the students to accompany her to the office. She whispered in my ear, ‘There has been a bomb blast at Civil Hospital and the student’s father has died. His uncle is here to take him home.’”

A chill ran down Fatima’s spine. Unable to concentrate, she gave the students a class activity and sat in the chair thinking about her student, his mother and their future.

“I was still unaware of the fact that the suicide attack was aimed at the lawyers,” she says. Fatima was sitting on her chair, lost in deep thought, when the principal called her to her office. “I thought it would be routine work or she might want to discuss something about the student,” she says.

Instead, she told Fatima that the attack had been targeted at the legal fraternity. Fatima immediately checked to see if her husband had contacted her, and then started trying to get in touch with him. When she couldn’t, she took her children, students at the same school, home.

When they reached home, neighbours had already gathered around there. Her worst fear had come true.

In a matter of hours, Fatima’s husband was brought home, tightly wrapped in plastic and locked in a coffin. “No one was allowed to see him,” she says. “There was nothing to see but charred pieces of him. I wanted to see his face. I still want to see his face. I want to say goodbye to him.”

While talking about that day, Fatima looks up at me and asks, “Do you know what the biggest problem with sudden death is? It is that you hardly have time to say goodbye to your loved ones.”

Fatima’s brother is sitting next to me. After her husband’s passing, she has grown closer with her family, both her in-laws and maternal family, who did not approve of her marrying her husband.

During her husband’s life, Fatima and her mother-in-law did not get along either. They lived in separate houses. But the magnitude of this grief has brought them together. “Now she is my best friend,” Fatima says. “We don’t fight anymore, or maybe we don’t have any reason to fight.”

“Both Pashtun and Baloch families have a close-knit family system and a widow is supported by a brother-in-law or the whole family comes to the rescue,” she says. “But I was living away from everyone and had no support, not even from my parents.”

Fatima says while her husband was alive, her brother would “constantly threaten” her because she had married for love and had brought “dishonour” to the family.

After her husband’s passing, her parents came to the funeral, but that was the only time. Her mother-in-law started visiting her often though. And she also started getting more visits from her brother.

But the hurt clearly remains.

The government announced a compensation of 10 million rupees for the widows of the lawyers. Fatima says she was not much pushed by this, as no amount of money could compensate for the loss of her husband and his love.

But now, she says, her brother visits her and she also goes to her parent’s house. “At least the money has brought my family back together,” she says, clearly cynical and angry, but trying to make the best of the situation.

A GILDED CAGE

Residents of Chaman protest against the suicide bombing in Quetta | PPI
Residents of Chaman protest against the suicide bombing in Quetta | PPI

Maheen* is also angry. “I was and still am a housewife,” she says, using ‘housewife’ as a term to describe a wife who is not allowed to leave the house. “I was never allowed to leave the house, not even when my husband had a hole in his throat from a bomb blast shrapnel.”

Whatever Maheen knows about the incident she has heard from her son. Even when she was getting calls on the day of the blast, she did not initially answer the phone as she had been instructed not to answer calls from unknown numbers.

Eventually that day, Maheen learnt about the blast. While watching the news she realised that her husband must be at the protest because he was always close to his community. “‘He definitely is there! Please go and find him; go bring him alive,’ I kept saying,” she recalls. She sent her son to the hospital immediately.

Maheen’s husband hadn’t died right away but he eventually succumbed to his wounds.

“Hours later, my son called and told me his father was no more,” she says. “I hung up the phone. I couldn’t stand up and couldn’t cry. My gut was wrenched and I could hear my pulsating heart in my ears.

“Everyone kept telling me to cry, to let the grief pour out, but I couldn’t,” she says. Several hours later, when her husband’s dead body was brought in, his face seemed “perfectly fine”. He just had a “small hole” in his throat.

After seeing her husband, Maheen began to cry. “It was just a tiny hole, why couldn’t they save him?”

Days later, Maheen’s son gave her her husband’s wallet. “Baba wanted to say something when he gave me this wallet,” he told his mother. “He tried very hard, and his face turned red, but he could not speak.”

Maheen kissed the wallet and placed it close to her chest. “I often think about what he wanted to say,” she says. “I am still waiting for him to say something.”

***

Maheen, Fatima, Sakina, Aliya and so many others’ lives changed entirely five years ago today. These women’s stories have remained untold. Struggling in a deeply patriarchal society, they’ve had to take on unimaginable challenges in the absence of their husbands.

Their husbands, members of Quetta’s legal community, spent years raising their voices for justice. Indeed, they died protesting and speaking against wrong. But in their absence, their partners’ voices remain unheard. Their sighs, and tears are often confined within strictly guarded boundary walls of houses that no longer feel like home.

For them August 8, 2016, never ended.

It will be a constant presence for the rest of their lives.



Header: Mourners sit in front of photos of their loved ones who lost their lives in the August 8, 2016 bombing in Quetta | Reuters


*Name has been changed to protect identity

The writer is a Chevening Scholar and received his Masters in Development Studies from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. He tweets @f_kasi

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 8th, 2021