While most people flee from the scene of a bomb attack, there are others — the unsung heroes of this seemingly unending battle with terrorists — who march unafraid into the lion’s maw. Sometimes armed with little more than a pair of pliers and insurmountable courage, these men save the lives of untold hundreds with no concern for their own safety.
Saleem Khan fiddled with his hands nervously while we had doodh patti at the Bajaur Hotel. Don’t be fooled by the name — it’s not some classy five-star joint but rather a dhaba surrounded by the treacherous hills of Fata. As he stared into the rapidly cooling cup of tea in his hands, I stared at his hand, noticing something odd: he was missing a finger.
Just as I had almost given up hope that he would tell me his story, he looked up and spoke: “I can’t remember exactly which wire I was on when the explosion took place, but I was almost done defusing the bomb.”
I tried to make sense of what he had said, and he looked as confused as I felt, but then he explained further. “There were two bombs planted in this girls’ school, but we knew of just one. While I was defusing this one,” he stretched out his hands, as if working on an invisible bomb, “there was an explosion from the other side.” His eyes grew wide and he leaned forward as he spoke, “Eleven young girls were killed, and so many were injured. I just lost one finger from the shrapnel.” He shook his head, seeming disappointed at having lost ‘just’ one finger.
Saleem Khan, 45, has defused more than a hundred bombs in his time with the Peshawar Bomb Disposal Squad and once he starts telling his tale, it’s not hard to see why the loss of a finger seems like a small thing to him.
Many of his friends in the squad have lost an arm or a leg while defusing bombs, but some have lost much more. Two of his best friends died in blasts while on duty — friends he had grown up with. One of them, an eager young man called Mushtaram, joined the Peshawar bomb disposal squad because he could not find any other means to support his wife and four-year-old son.
He risked his life every day for a meagre salary until he grew fond of what he did. In three years, he grew to become one of the most talented technicians and an inspiration to his colleagues. In his short career, he defused more than 120 bombs until one day something went wrong and the resulting explosion claimed his life.
While the memory of his friend visibly saddens Saleem, it also gives him the inspiration to come to work every day. Looking up from the nearly drained cup of tea, he tells me what Mushataram used to say to him: “There is no greater satisfaction in the world than to know that your job is to save other peoples’ lives.”
As we walked out of Bajaur Hotel, Saleem promised to take me to meet his late friend Rahim Khan’s 12-year-old son Mansha and his mother. Rahim had also been a bomb technician who lost his life when militants fired on him as he was defusing a bomb they had planted.
The tragedy doesn’t end there: last November Mansha was out with his mother, shopping at Peshawar’s Faqir Killey market. While Mansha’s mother was selecting the lace and gota (fabric used to embellish traditional dresses) to use in the tailoring business she had started in order to make ends meet after her husband’s death, a bomb exploded in the market. Mansha’s mother was severely wounded and can now only move with the help of multiple support instruments. Mansha himself, once a bright, talkative and talented kid, can no longer speak and seems to be lost in a world of his own, refusing to respond to anyone or anything. The shock of the blast coupled perhaps with the lingering trauma of his father’s death, has made him a prisoner in his own mind.
When Saleem took me to Mansha’s home, the first thing I saw was a wall covered with sketches and drawings. All made by Mansha before the blast. Seeing my interest his mother smiled and said, “If he could still do it, he would have sketched your portrait in about 20 minutes, right here.” Along with the drawings were pictures of him playing sports and a motley collection of medals he got as his school’s youngest sports champion. I wondered then, if Mansha would ever sharpen his pencils or swing his bat again.
Why this story is particularly painful for Saleem is because his friend who had risked, and lost his life protecting others, could not in the end protect his own family.
For his part, Saleem has vowed never to get married. When I ask him why, he responded in a sharp tone, “of course I would not want to contribute to the possibility of causing an innocent woman to become a widow, or a child to become an orphan.”
As I gear up to meet the rest of the Peshawar Bomb Disposal Squad, I am warned by my facilitator that I shouldn’t expect them to be very forthcoming. They aren’t used to talking to women, I am told, and certainly won’t be willing to discuss their own experiences and feelings. Even if they do open up, my facilitator warns me, the language barrier will be formidable. To my surprise, most of this is untrue.
They range from the fairly young to the middle-aged, and all are dressed in simple shalwar kameez. “They don’t have any uniforms,” my facilitator tells me. Most of them speak only either Pashto or Dari but some also know a smattering of Urdu, and it is through this lingua franca and the translation abilities of my facilitator, that we manage to converse.
Scratch the surface, and you find that they all have the same concerns and issues. Most of them have severe problems in their personal lives, all as a result of the nature of their jobs. Almost all of them have suffered some kind of injury, and all of them have lost friends and colleagues. Universally, they complain about a lack of training, of resources, and most of all, of recognition for the dangerous job they do.
Leading the discussion is their in-charge Major Shafkat Malik. Since he joined the squad a few years back, he has lost eight experts out of a total of 35 — all of them died on the job.
“Two of them were very close to me,” said the major. “We would go for Friday prayers together and hang out with each other afterwards. We were like family and losing them has shaken me, but it was these boys who kept me together with their courage and support,” he said, pointing towards the surviving members of the team. At many points, when the team lost someone, friends would face post-traumatic stress, break down into tears or even leave the job, but the rest of them would manage to hold it together. “Most who left the job also came back eventually,” said Shafkat.
When the going gets tough, they have a ritual of sitting in a circle and sharing their grief and try to get the stress out of their system. “Yes, sometimes it gets very emotional and overwhelming but it is cathartic at the same time to see your team by your side, sharing your sorrows,” said Shafkat.
Overwhelming. That’s the only word to use when describing what these men go through. Almost all of them have had serious fights with their spouses over their jobs, and many of them have seen their families walk out on them.
“Our department is known as the EOD, standing for Explosive Ordnance Disposal, but really it stands for ‘Every One’s Divorced’,” said Shafkat with a laugh. He would know, as he separated from his wife when she could no longer take the danger and unpredictable timings of his job. “I’m not the only one,” he adds nonchalantly. “It’s very common for professionals in this field to face domestic problems. One of my boys recently got divorced, and while many leave the job for something their families approve of, many others stay on.”
One of the oldest technicians in the team is Malik Khan, who also handles the post-blast investigations. When I asked him what sort of bombs he cannot defuse, he replied instantly:
When there is a human element delivering a bomb, it’s much more dangerous for various reasons. Suicide bombers are desperate people; they’re usually brainwashed and it’s hard to influence them physically or mentally.
“Suicide bombers have back up radio control, backup timers, and in the worst of situations, a third-eye,” said Malik. This ‘third-eye’ is the handler who’s watching them, and in case the mission is compromised in any way, for example if the suicide bomber is interrupted by security forces, the handler will detonate the device remotely. Therefore, the smartest way to deal with a suicide bomber is to use lethal force.
But Malik says that that is also not a sure bet because “if they’re shot, sometimes there is a backup timer that will run down and detonate anyway.” Lost in thought for a moment, he adds, “I have heard of technicians physically going in there and neutralising the device on a bomber jacket, but we have never done that here.”
One would think that the very act of walking towards a live bomb would be terrifying to the point of being paralysing, but technician Hukum Khan says otherwise.
“The moment you step towards the bomb, your senses sharpen. Yes, there is fear at the back of your mind, of an explosion, or of a hand grenade thrown at you — which has happened at times — but with time and experience you learn to tame that monster.”
The moment a bomb disposal expert steps into the zone (the expected blast radius), he has to be careful of threats from anything that looks out of place. Sometimes, there are additional roadside bombs or a car that’s randomly parked — if it has a bomb in it, it’s weighted down from the axles.
The greatest danger is when the technician is not equipped with the exact tools needed for a specific bomb. Hukum explains, “Sometimes, you need to get a resupply of equipment and going back to the bomb site and figuring it all out can be very pressurising and stressful.”
He also pointed towards the lack of proper equipment for technicians. “Only a few years back we were so under-equipped that the only tools we had were a pair of pliers,” he laughed. “Thankfully, now we have better technology, yet it is still not sufficient for a place where bomb threats come on a daily basis.”
The department has been struggling to get better equipment, uniforms and training for the staff, but the government keeps ignoring their requests. “There have been a few developments as I brought up the issue internationally, but it is important to not overlook a few crucial requirements including insurance, and an increase in their salaries,” said Shakfat.
Still, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. When I returned to Lahore I met Peter K Jepsen, who was sent to Pakistan as a trainer for the use of bomb disposal robots by the European Union. Peter, a bomb disposal technician himself, represents a Global Defense System Group that handles specialised equipment, support training programmes for the army and law-enforcement agencies. Peter had just finished training the first batch of bomb disposal technicians at the Central Police Training Academy, right outside of Lahore, when I caught up with him.
“My team and I are delighted to donate machinery and train these Pakistani technicians, who seem larger than life to me now,” said Peter, who travels through Europe, Middle East and Asia to train bomb technicians with robotic and other automated technology. “They are intelligently responsive during the trainings and can do a wonderful job if regularly trained.”
He said it is important for technicians to be trained not just in the use of technology but also on the psychological aspects of their jobs. “Psychological training and moral boosting is priority training for bomb technicians around the world, but seems absolutely absent in Pakistan,” he said.
Peter was training the batch in how to use a brand new High-Mobility Car, a robotic technology which would assist them during bomb disposal. Remote reconnaissance robots have also been donated to bomb disposal teams in Pakistan and are meant to assist the disposal technicians.
The government needs to work more closely on the provisions of the department and encourage training programmes for technicians. Members of the bomb disposal squad are on call 24 hours, under-paid and unrecognised by the public at large.
Every time a bomb is defused, hundreds of lives are saved but sadly the credit is hardly ever given to these unsung heroes and none of them have ever received the awards the government otherwise doles out on a regular basis. It’s particularly telling that when I first spoke to Saleem he was surprised to hear that I wasn’t looking for statistics but instead wanted to know how he felt about his job. No one had ever asked him that before, he said with a sad smile.
*Some names have been changed to protect identities.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 13th, 2012.