RAWALPINDI: Shadi Khan was once a proud soldier fighting the Taliban, but today he quivers in pain, socks bagged around metal pins after a bomb blew off his legs on Pakistan’s deadliest battlefield.
His unit had arrested 10 Taliban operatives and killed another eight, and was heading back to base camp in South Waziristan when the bomb exploded. That was August 2010. He is still in hospital.
“It was as if I had been shot. It was a huge pain. Both my legs were blown up and I was injured in the stomach. I was conscious for the whole thing, but after around three hours I passed out,” he says.
One soldier was killed and Khan was the most seriously wounded out of four who were evacuated to a field hospital. He’s since had multiple operations and both his legs have been amputated above the knee.
“Now I’ll go home and just connect to my God. I’ll remember him. I’m still young, but I can’t walk at my home, where the land is rough. What else can I do? Perhaps I can teach students, if I can get a job in any school.”
Under US pressure to root out Taliban and alQaeda-linked networks in its northwest and districts on the Afghan border, more than 2,795 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in fighting since 2004. Another 8,671 have been wounded. Those official statistics overshadow the more than 2,403 foreign, mostly American, soldiers who have been killed in 10 years in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s war has also ignited revenge bombings that have killed another 4,200 people since July 2007, destablising the nuclear-armed country and forcing the establishment to fight hard against homegrown Taliban.
Khan is a patient at Pakistan’s Armed Forces Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine (AFIRM) in Rawalpindi, the country’s only hospital of its kind that helps maimed and disabled soldiers rebuild their shattered lives.
Their best efforts barely make the pain better for Khan. His family are in the southern province of Sindh, hundreds of miles away, and he has received only one visit – from his father – since he was injured.
“I got some irritation,” he said, shaking. His new legs were fitted only four days ago. An earlier pair didn’t fit and had to be changed. Staff say they are desperately short-staffed and under-equipped. With only 100 beds and 147,000 troops committed in battle across the northwest, the work load has grown tremendously.
Major General Akhtar Waheed, head of the hospital, said 750 patients are treated each day. He lists his main staff as five specialists, 13 general nurses, three psychologists, two speech therapists and 10 physiotherapists. While the military has agreed to help build a new block to raise the number of beds to more than 150, it is only in the planning stage.
Major Zahid Rustam has been staggered by how much things have changed in the six years he spent training in Australia, Britain and the United States. “Oh my God, the work load has tremendously increased. When I went, you know, we used to find some patients who had a fall or something like that, but now we have a lot of amputees. We have a lot of spinal cord injured patients. “We have a lot of work, a lot of work.”
Compared to hospitals in Pakistan, Afirm has impressive facilities, is hygienic and seemingly well run. But compared to hospitals where Rustam and other medical officers have trained, its staff are over-stretched. “We need people who are specialised,” Rustam told AFP. “We have like only three occupational therapists in the whole hospital and where I’ve been working, one ward would have like 10-15 occupational therapists, so how are we going to do?”
Lieutenant Colonel Khalil Ahmad says staff work to rehabilitate soldiers to their fullest possible capabilities, but the brutal reality for the most seriously wounded is early retirement and even life in a wheelchair.
It can take six months to a year for an amputated soldier to be fitted with a prosthetic limb. Officers who can stay in uniform are priorities. Sayed Altaf Hussain is one of the lucky ones. He lost his foot in battle on November 26, 2009 but has been allowed to return to duty in North Waziristan, even if in his own words he does “nothing much”. He is 34-years-old and has served in the army for 14 years. “I can’t quit right now. I’ve got four years left. I want to complete, so I can get my pension otherwise I’ll lose out financially.”
Despite risking his life for his country, Hussain receives a salary of just 14,670 rupees ($174) a month to support a family of 14.
“There’s been a lot of inflation in Pakistan and it’s very hard to manage. “I joined the Frontier Corps to defend the country number one and number two because there is poverty and we need to do something to earn money.” Some of the more seriously wounded are taught data entry or skills that officers say can turn them into assistants for mobile repair men, electricians, mechanics or tailors.
But when AFP asked to visit a wounded soldier who had been discharged, at home, to see how he was coping, the military refused permission.
Major General Waheed concedes that the consequences of horrific injuries have a “massive impact”. “It affects the whole family, even in the troops because so many soldiers from this unit, or this platoon, have been affected and so that’s naturally quite disturbing. “Once you rehabilitate them, train them in a specific job, give them something to do, I think the impact becomes much less, quite less,” he said. For some parents, brought up on the doctrine that India was public enemy number one, the war against the Taliban is not one that Pakistan should be fighting in the first place.
Colonel Abbas watches as his once talented commando son, Captain Qasim, is helped into a wheelchair after a physio session. Thanks to therapy at the hospital, he can now walk a little after a brain injury that left him on a ventilator for two months.
“This army is not meant for this. There are no goals, there are no aims. We’re fighting against Muslims. Muslims are killing other Muslims.”