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Doctors in danger

Published May 23, 2012 12:10am


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IN the darkness between May 12 and 13, Dr Aftab Qureshi, a neurosurgeon left his clinic and got on the road for the drive to Hyderabad from Karachi. He would not be on the road long.

In details that remain unclear, he was kidnapped by armed assailants. His abandoned car, the last wordless clue to what befell the kidnapped surgeon, was found abandoned near Patel Hospital, a few hours after the abduction.

Dr Qureshi is only one victim of an alarming series of kidnappings and killings that have targeted medical professionals in Karachi and other parts of Sindh in recent days. On the same day that Dr Qureshi was kidnapped, another physician, Dr Faisal Iftikhar, the owner of Iftikhar Memorial Hospital, was also kidnapped by unknown culprits while he was on his way home.

Dr Iftikhar’s abduction took place in Gulshan-i-Hadeed, which is located about 30 minutes from Jinnah International Airport in Karachi and houses workers from the nearby steel industries. According to the Pakistan Medical Association, he was the sixth doctor to be kidnapped from the area.

Earlier in the month, on May 4, 2012 another physician, Dr Raj Kumar was also abducted by assailants. He was eventually released by his abductors — apparently relatives of a reprimanded security guard at his dispensary in Karachi.

In a protest organised by the Pakistan Medical Association recently, doctors tormented by threat of murder and kidnapping lamented their plight. According to a released statement by the organisation, nearly 80 per cent of practising physicians in Sindh complain of being forced to pay extortion to various criminal gangs and groups in order to practise medicine.

According to the statement, those that have been spared intimidation from extortion and kidnapping have been harmed in other ways. According to the Sindh Chapter of the Pakistan Medical Association, the houses of several doctors including Dr Zahid Sheikh, Dr Irshad Shah and Dr Fasih Hashmi have also been looted in the past several weeks.

And those are the lucky doctors. Not mentioned in this list of the looted are those physicians that have perished, as Karachi falls ever deeper into the miasma of many murders. In January of this year, Dr Jaffer Mohsin was gunned down on the steps of his home in Karachi’s Gulberg area. According to witnesses, Dr Mohsin had been threatened by extortionists in the area for several months before his murder.

In December 2011, Dr Saleem Kharal, another one of Karachi’s physicians was killed while trying to resist armed robbers who tried to snatch his car at gunpoint. He was shot in the chest and died at Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, where he also served as department head of pathology.

As it happens when anyone dies in a city with too much death, there are many explanations, some theories and to crowd them all out conspiracies. Depending on particular hatreds, ethnic or sectarian, political or religious, espoused by an individual, rationalisations can be tacked on to one, then another and yet another death dividing them up for digestion by a life-starved population.

Much of the same has happened in the case of doctors; one murder tacked up to sectarian hatred, another to outspoken political activism, a third to the foolhardiness of resisting anyone holding a gun.

In a city where doctors and kidnappers and extortionists can be found in greater abundance than health and money it becomes easy with practice to allot their grim intersections a resigned shrug and a nod — after all, many people are dying in Karachi and it is inevitable that some will be doctors.

But other than death, or threats of death, doctors in Pakistan have something else in common. All doctors, from those trying to watch out for that odd-looking car in their rearview mirrors to those worrying about the next late-night departure from their clinic, are scions of this country’s ever smaller, ever more strained middle class.

The medical profession in Pakistan, has for decades been the route not only to serve the sick in a country with many sicknesses, but a means to earn a respectable living gleaned not from hereditary wealth, or family-owned businesses or politically purchased favours but from the hard work of lone warriors with brains and books.

In Karachi’s medical schools, those with little money, many dreams and inexhaustible resilience have a chance at rising with hard work; a rare one in a country where status is set in stone.

The assault on doctors, whether of minority religions or sects, this political group or that, unfortunate enough to resist the pressure of one gang on another, is then an assault on the country’s middle class. It is a curse on that in-between middle which can afford cars but not guards, homes but not protection and has neither the nonchalant insulation of the rich nor the unenviable empty-handed safety of the poor. The middle has something, not much of it, or very little of it, but easily, effortlessly grabbed by those wanting it.

A doctor, hurrying to see patients, or rushing to surgery is thinking about saving other people’s lives and not his own; perhaps it is this practice of empathy in a city as dangerous as Karachi that is a liability, a costly vulnerability of those who still believe in fighting death.

An assault on doctors is an assault on those who still, perhaps just by virtue of a professional choice, care about life. If the kidnappings, threats of violence, murders and intimidation of doctors are symptoms to the morbid puzzle of what ails a country, they point to a scourge where having even a little caring, even for a fee, is a dangerous.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.


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Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (11) Closed

Maroof Alam Kashkoli May 23, 2012 06:20am
most of the rich don't pay enough taxes to support a social security system that can deter most of the jobless from taking guns in their hands.....
Cyrus Howell May 23, 2012 06:38am
In America money is extorted from those involved in illegal activities who cannot go to the police for protection. In Karachi why can't doctors go to the police to stop this? That is an important question the leaders of Pakistan need to ask themselves. Meanwhile they should provide doctors armed military escort. The only three other places in the world this happens is in Mexico, Nigeria and Italy. If the government lets this go on much longer half of Karachi will be kidnappers and the other half victims. The police will stand with the kidnapper half. Not only will they not need to fill out paperwork, they will be paid not to arrest people.
SQZ May 23, 2012 07:30am
Don't be naïve... It's not jobless youth that end up with guns in their hands. These are sophisticated gangs with direct or indirect political backing. How many unemployed friends or family members do you know of that have resorted to crime? What we need now are drastic measures. Armed robbers should have their hand chopped off, murderers and kidnappers need to be executed (all in public display). Watch how the crime rate dips... I'm not calling for Taliban style rule but severe measures to be adopted. A corrupt police officer can easily fake reports which can be used to jail an innocent person, but would think a hundred times if the punishment is as severe as mentioned above.
Ali May 23, 2012 08:53am
At the moment about 60-65% of people in Karachi are either robbers, kidnappers, looters, involved in some political party, gangsters or abductors. Out of the remaining 35-40% 8-10% are high class that don't bother what's happening to the other lot. The remaining are in disarray and have surrendered to this violence and trying to compromise with the situation rather than fight for it. The time is very near when Karachi will become a city like the ones in Africa where gansters and mafia rule the city and they are distorted.
Adil Jadoon May 23, 2012 12:31pm
There is no law or order in the country. The police and the lower courts are perhaps the most corrupt institutions along with the the politicians. Unless there is political change which is willing to take on these issues of the people we cannot expect an improvement.
andleeb May 23, 2012 01:22pm
Yes, but in America doctors have to pay a hefty amount in malpractice insurance (in ob-gyn it is around $150,000 per year I believe). Many of the cases are frivolous and lawyers/patients sue to extort money from doctors. Same thing, but done "legally"
Willy May 23, 2012 02:42pm
Well if the government would acknowledge that there is a problem then it may be fixed. Pakistan isn’t even on this list for kidnappings, which leads the reader to believe its either safe or crimes are not being reported.
Inam May 23, 2012 04:13pm
Doctors should be given firearms permits for self defence.
A.A.Awan May 23, 2012 05:56pm
Kidnapping doctors is very common all over the country because they are easy targets and earn good money.. at least 30 % of my class fellow doctors have left Pakistan and many more are thinking to do so...
Babu May 23, 2012 06:07pm
I feel sorry for the whole populayion of pakistan.
Akhan May 23, 2012 10:17pm
It is a sorry state of affairs in Karachi, when are people going to say enough and demand security. The politians are elected to serve and protect the people, why arent the public servants doing anything about the mass lawlessness instead of lining their own pockets. Demand action, demand justice for the innocent, demand fairness, demand honor, demand rights, demand education. Unless people start asking their politians to actually do something to help and improve their lives, these power hungry, money grabbing leaders will never do anything.