My father survived the Karsaz bombing; each new terror attack takes us back there

The mental health impact of living with terrorism day in and day out remains an invisible cost that is unfactored and uncared for.
Published June 1, 2022

Over the last few decades, there is a severe burden of ‘resilience’ that has been thrust upon the inhabitants of some large cities in Pakistan, whether it is in the form of persistent rates of crime, diseased public utilities, unbreathable air, floundering healthcare or dismal transportation infrastructure.

This oft-romanticised resilience is once more being demanded by the state as citizens of cities like Karachi, Quetta and Peshawar are again being pushed into an unhappy reunion with an affliction that has reared its ugly head after a relative lull — accelerating terror attacks at home.

Deadly incidents of this nature are cause for serious emotional instability among residents of these cities. But by now, many locals have whittled down emotional survival to a fairly simple and linear process:

Internal security event → temporary panic and lament of said event → desensitisation → next internal security event → repeat.

It may seem somewhat callous to reduce this to such a mechanical progression, but the defence mechanisms adopted by those who live in the midst of frequent terrorism are not really up for judgment. If sanity is to be preserved, some form of detachment is necessary. And as someone who has personally employed this process many times in the past, I can say that it works, and works well at that.

Until your father is present at the site of a bombing. Then the process comes crashing down.

When calamity hits home

Karachi, 18th October 2007: Celebrations of Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan were met with two bombs ripping through Karsaz in quick succession, killing nearly 200 people and injuring 500 others. Jammers were activated, emergency was declared, and public healthcare facilities were put on high alert. My father was drowning somewhere in this sea of deadly chaos.

The rest of us were home when the news found us. On hearing it, my mother lost all sensation in her legs and collapsed. We began dialling my father’s mobile phone number but couldn’t get through because of the jammers. There was no way of knowing if he was safe, or injured, or even alive.

The only information we could get was coming from our television set — all I remember of it now is a crimson BREAKING NEWS template designed to incite fear and a casualty count that was escalating with horrifying frequency. We kept dialling my father’s number desperately in the hope that we could break through the infrastructural blockade imposed by the state. The minutes kept passing and panic kept mounting.

At this point, there is no formula or process in the world that can help you.

You’d think crying would come naturally at this time but it doesn’t; you are too gripped by fear to respond as you normally would. Your heart throbs and you lose basic bodily control. You are gasping for air and trembling all over, and it is a Herculean task to collect yourself enough to focus on dialling a number, over and over again.

As soon as they could, my father’s brothers and cousins set off to find him — I vaguely remember one of them rushing into the car without his shoes on. They didn’t think about what would happen if another bomb went off in a city that appeared to be under the control of terrorists. Frankly, I don’t think they cared. The meaning of family truly comes through in times of crisis, and if there’s one thing to be grateful for in a society where relationships are unravelling constantly, it is to have the support of loved ones who prioritise those bonds above all else. But that’s a subject for another time.

Hurt is good

Soon after they left, we received a phone call from my mother’s sister in Hyderabad. She had somehow miraculously gotten through to him. “He’s hurt,” she told us.

How hurt, she could not say — she had only spoken to him for a few seconds. In the days that passed, we would come to learn that shrapnel from the bomb had pierced through his torso and legs, lodging pieces of metal deep inside his body and permanently damaging a large part of his intestinal tract.

But at that time, ‘he’s hurt’ was good to hear. We were happy with hurt because hurt meant alive, and alive meant hope. My father had found his way to an ambulance that was taking him to the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre — a designated hospital for injuries and casualties — but he eventually ended up at (what is now known as) the Dr Ruth Pfau Civil Hospital Karachi.

The cosmic irony of the situation is still astounding — at the time, my father was employed at the Civil Hospital as Professor of Surgery. Had any patient in his condition come to the hospital that night, they would have been surgically operated on by my father and his team. And yet here he was, bleeding profusely out of his abdomen, playing the role of patient instead of surgeon.

As word spread through the hospital that one of their own was injured, a team of healthcare workers began stabilising him for surgery. He was operated on at around dawn, some hours after hell exploded in Karsaz. My father lost half his intestines that morning in a procedure known as a hemicolectomy. He was in intensive care for the weeks that followed. Metal still remains lodged in his body, buried deep in his bones. But he is with us today. Words cannot express how grateful we are for this, and all of us pray constantly for his sustained health.

The scars that never heal

Words can, however, attempt to convey the depth of trauma we were exposed to as a family that night, and the lasting impact it has had. Nearly 15 years later, I have still not been able to talk about it. I can only write about the horror of October 18th, protected by the façade of screens and the comfort of one-way communication. If the bombing comes up in conversation, I change the topic; when I fail at that, I leave the room. That period of my life haunts me completely and is triggered every time there is a terror attack in Pakistan, especially in my hometown Karachi.

As one can imagine, it has been particularly difficult to deal with the spate of IED bombings in Karachi these past few months. Nights have been spent with tears, terror, and trauma as memories of 2007 find their way into bedtime thoughts and nightmares.

There is little hope for stability that can be offered by a leadership that is forever dancing with these forces of terror, sometimes in negotiation and at other times in battle with them. Loss of innocent life remains an unrelenting theme in Pakistan. The mental health impact of living with terrorism day in and day out remains an invisible cost that goes unfactored and uncared for. We are mentally breaking down inside. But so long as we appear functional on the surface, who really cares about what’s going on internally?

Some among us are still able to deal with terrorism using the standard emotional survival process mentioned at the beginning of this piece. My own emotional response, unfortunately, has changed. It now goes:

Internal security event → terror → incapacitation → next internal security event → repeat.

Header illustration: Panuwach/