The rusty smell of blood and burned flesh inflames the nostrils before you even see the ill-fated 16-seater Toyota Hiace, now up in flames at the entrance of the Confucius Institute at Karachi University.
Moments ago, on an otherwise usual Tuesday, a powerful explosion had ripped through the vehicle carrying faculty members and the institute’s director for their 2:30pm lectures.
At least two female faculty members were killed on the spot, as was the director and the van’s driver — three of them Chinese nationals — their bodies charred beyond recognition. A fourth Chinese national was injured.
What remained of the bodies lay wrapped in shrouds in Chippa ambulances a few metres up the road.
The rescue workers had tried their best to piece together the victims, taking care to wrap the different body parts of each individual. In one of the ambulances, a blackened stump that looked like it had once been a foot, protruded from a shroud. In another, there was an extra leg that seemed unaccounted for.
At the site, a gutted motorcycle — part of the teachers’ security detail — lay a few steps behind the van, no longer recognisable after its paint and seats had melted away.
The two Rangers personnel riding the motorcycle had apparently been shifted to the Patel hospital in an injured condition.
Strict security regimen
Established in 2013 as part of a partnership between the University of Karachi and the Sichuan Normal University in China, the Confucius Institute aimed to “deepen international understanding of Chinese language and culture, and promoting people-to-people exchanges between China and Pakistan”.
Read more: Confucius comes to Karachi
Since its inception, however, the faculty members — who were mostly Chinese nationals — had remained under threat and had to follow strict security protocols.
While they lived in a guest house on campus, they were escorted by a security detail to the institute and back every day. Security personnel even escorted them to classrooms and frisked each student before allowing them to enter, said one student.
Only last month, the campus security had written a letter to the institute’s director, raising concerns over the Chinese faculty members’ movements outside campus, and urging him to ensure they travelled only when accompanied by their security detail.
On Tuesday, their van had just arrived at the institute’s gate — security detail in tow — a little after 2pm when calamity struck.
Almost an hour later, scores of security personnel — police, Rangers and authoritative men in civilian clothes with walkie talkies — manned the perimeter that had been cordoned off around the site.
The fire had by now been doused, even though wisps of smoke arose from melting plastic that lay strewn several feet apart from what remained of the van.
On the other side of the cordon, TV reporters and cameramen stood in a line, excitedly talking into their phones or mics, repeating the minutest details for their audience or whispering conspiracy theories to their colleagues.
“This had to be a terror attack,” said one. “The van has obvious marks of ball bearings from an IED,” said another.
Their suspicions were confirmed when the Baloch Liberation Army — a proscribed group that has targeted Chinese nationals in the past — claimed responsibility for the attack. The CCTV footage of the incident and the Bomb Disposal Squad’s initial report further confirmed it was a suicide bombing — an act of terror not unknown to Karachi, but to the campus.
“It’s a shame that teachers were targeted like this,” remarked Karachi Police chief Ghulam Nabi Memon, who arrived at the site a couple of hours after the incident. “It is shameful that this can happen to teachers too”.
‘It’s a shame’
Several feet away, curious students, parents and KU administration officials wondered the same as they stood at the edge of the cordon, attempting to draw up the courage to steal a picture or a short video, only to sheepishly walk off when reprimanded by the security officials.
“She was an amazing teacher,” said Mustajab Hussain, referring to Chen Sai — one of the faculty members, who was killed in the explosion.
Mustajab, who hails from Gilgit-Baltistan, had been studying at the institute for the past three years and had grown particularly fond of Sai, who he said was “extremely helpful and caring”.
“What will happen to my education now?” he wondered aloud. “My teachers are gone.”
Others echoed his thoughts. “If they can do this inside the Karachi University, nowhere is safe,” said one. “Should we stop sending our children here too?”