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'This is no way to celebrate': the invisible victims of aerial firing

Victims of aerial firing share their stories, which lead one to ask why we continue to partake in this celebration

Design: Ibrahim Yahya
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PUBLISHED September 18, 2022

To celebrate the birth of our beloved country, to cheer the existence of our own independent country not just Karachiites but almost everyone in the country with a heart-filled enthusiasm comes out to show their happiness and celebrate the 14th August but Saima Kanwal will not celebrate Independence Day ever again.

It was nearly midnight, few minutes shy of Independence Day, when Saima along with her two daughters went onto the roof of her building located in North Nazimabad, near a five-star hotel. The sky was alive with fireworks, all around the neighbourhood the sounds of celebration could be heard. It was then that Saima’s older daughter, Ammara Amin began complaining of a burning feeling in her chest. “We had just reached the rooftop where all other flat mates and their families were also celebrating when suddenly my daughter said, ‘Mama, something hit me here’ and she was pointing to her chest,” she said. The rooftop was dimly lit and amidst the cheers and confusion, it was a few moments before Saima registered that there may be a problem. “When she kept on complaining, I decided to take her down to the flat,” she said.

It was only after Saima took her back to their flat, that under the glaring lights she noticed a big, gaping hole in right in the middle of her daughter’s chest. Blook was trickling down from the wound too. This was when Saima realised that Ammara had been hit by a stray bullet – the result of celebratory aerial firing.

The building Saima lives in has Essa Laboratory and Diagnostic Centre on the ground floor but they don’t offer emergency services so the family had to think of more options. On most occasions, roads get blocked when people come out to celebrate so the family couldn’t reach Imam Clinic, which is just across the road. Luckily, they found a way through narrow streets and unpaved roads to Ziauddin Hospital where Ammara was given emergency treatment. “The hospital made it more difficult for us as they kept making us run between two ends of the building to submit fees first, then take her to X-ray area, then back to emergency, then they sent her for an ultrasound where she was forced to lie down which was painful for her as it was building pressure in her chest. Ammara was not crying or screaming but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t in pain or trauma. However, the hospital staff was abhorrently mismanaged,” said Saima.

After a battery of tests, when it was confirmed that there is a bullet inside her chest and needed to be removed, the hospital didn’t have the surgery team available and suggested they keep Ammara in in observation till the next morning. “My brother-in-law knew someone in the Pakistan Navy and after all this hassle at Ziauddin Hospital, they suggested that we should shift Ammara to Abbasi Shaheed Hospital immediately,” she said.

Amidst a sea of panic and confusion, not knowing what was the best course of action at this point, Saima felt her best option was to pay heed to the advice of Pakistan Navy, who would perhaps know more than her about this. Ammara was shifted to Abbasi Shaheed hospital at four in the morning on August 14th, 2022 and soon afterwards, she was wheeled into the operating room where the bullet was removed from her chest.

“Doctors team at Abbasi were extremely professional and didn’t waste a single minute. The only thing they were concerned about was if the bullet has penetrated any organ or bone but by the grace of God, nothing like that had happened,” she said.

When the doctors started the surgery and tried taking the bullet out, it kept slipping further inside. The doctors then made a really deep cut to get the bullet out. After the surgery, Ammara had to get her wound cleaned and bandaged and the stitches healed after 10 days.

Ammara’s case was the 17th case of the night just in Abbasi Shaheed Hospital along. The newspaper of August 15th reported that one person had died while at least 57 others were injured due to Independence Day-related aerial firing.

Saima and her family refrained from sharing Ammara’s pictures when police arrived and recorded their statement. They did however file an FIR of the incident. But then again what change can be done unless and until strict laws are put in place? “The incident has left such a mark on our personalities that we will never in our lives be able to celebrate Independence Day like we used to do. Everyone in our family is also very fearful now and they have been telling us that they will not step out of their bedrooms on such occasions because if God forbid that bullet was fatal I could not have been able to live a normal life,” she shared.

A match that proved to be fatal for some

Not everyone is as lucky as Saima whose child is back in their home resting and recovering. While the country celebrated Pakistan's win in the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy, there were parents who had to mourn the loss of their children while the country was dancing on the streets celebrating Pakistan’s victory, Syed Hussain Raza Zaidi battled for his life in an operating room at the Jinnah Post Graduate Medical Center (JPMC).

Fifteen-year-old Hussain, was an O-Level student at a school in Model Colony and was the eldest among two brothers. He stood on the balcony of his house, watching fireworks in the area after Pakistan defeated their arch-rivals India by 180 runs, which was a big celebration for the country. Around 9.30 pm when the whole nation was overjoyed with victory, four men on two motorcycles passed by street 25 of Model Colony firing shots in the air, one of which hit Hussain in the ribs and passed into his stomach. Hussain's parents took their kid to JPMC, but by the time they got there, he had lost too much blood. Hussain was still being treated by the doctors, when he passed away.

The family lost their eldest son, Hussain, as a result of the aerial firing in the name of celebrating Pakistan's victory, transforming the national celebration into one of private grief.

A bullet can find its way

Many chastise that as a step of precaution, people should not step out on such occasions. However, there have been cases where people were hit when they were inside their rooms resting, sleeping, or spending time with their friends and families. One such case is of Anum Faheem, who was hit by a bullet while she was sitting in her lounge with her mother in Liaqatabad.

It was May 29, 2001, when the mother and daughter were sitting in the safety of their home. Anum’s mother was combing here hair after she had just finished oiling it, when Anum felt like someone slapped her really hard. At first, she thought her mother had accidentally hit her with the comb. “I felt like someone hit me on my thigh with full force, I turned to my mother and asked her what was wrong,” she said.

Anum felt the pain deepen and when she touched her right thigh, she felt something wet which made her worry. The pain quickly transformed into a burning sensation, in a matter of minutes. “I went into my room and when I checked, there was blood. My mother called my father and when he saw it, he instantly knew it was a bullet wound,” said Anum, , who is now 36-years-old.

The aerial firing in this case was a result of angry demonstration, after a religious scholar was killed. The roads were blocked from everywhere. People were furious and were burning tires and even attacking cars.

Reaching the hospital was nearly impossible as the scholar’s resident was nearby. There was no public transport, rickshaw or taxi available. The searing pain made it impossible to sit on a motorcycle.

“We called my uncle and he came and then my father and uncle took me to Abbasi Shaheed hospital, initially they gave me some medicines, cleaned the wound, and did x-rays to check if the bullet had not penetrated to the bone,” she said.

After some medical protocols, Anum was sent back home and given a date after a week for surgery. Her right leg was fortunately saved from amputation as the bullet was just a few millimeters away from her hip bone. Had it penetrated; her life would have been different. “After 10 days, they performed the surgery and took the bullet out, which I kept safe with me until last year when we shifted to a new house and it got lost,” said Anum, who still gets panic attacks when she hears firing in distance.

It took Anum two months to get back on her feet. “The mark is still there, it's like a hole in my thigh as the wound was deep enough that the bandage and dressing used to take a whole cotton bundle to fill in medicine in the wound. “No one is safe no matter whether you are in the house or outside on the terrace, the bullet can come from anywhere in any direction, why aren’t there any laws to prevent such incidents and why has nothing been done yet, it been 21 years when I got hit and the cases have only increased,” she lamented.

What is the solution?

There are laws in place that should theoretically protect people from aerial firing-related injuries and deaths, however the implementation of these laws isn’t quite there. An advocate against weapons and an active member of the initiative, ‘Citizens against Weapons’, Naeem Sadiq told the Express Tribune that nothing can be changed and there is no use of words until government really wants to do anything and help curtail this issue. “Problem is mostly elite class and well-off people are using weapons for this purpose. The police can't hold them accountable as they have more guards standing on their gates than the police have in their vans,” he said hopelessly.

Sadiq, who has been advocating against gun culture for many years now, said that increasing the price of weapons or bullets won't affect the rich but bringing in responsibility to report among neighbors is what can bring change. “Empowering the police force to arrest such goons can help control the problem,” he said.

He also suggested that they should arrest one such rich man who is using guns openly and IG police should make sure to make it a big deal, newspapers should cover and he should be arrested for six months for firing without any reason. “One such step can prevent a lot and the police should be given authority to arrest rich as well, who are not above any law,” he added.

Since strict laws alone cannot help until strict implementations are carried out, increasing the price of bullets can also be helpful since a single bullet costs somewhere between Rs7 to Rs10 rupees and it is easily available to buy so firing one round is not very expensive.

Hospital protocol

On any such events or special days, hospitals -especially public hospitals - stay on high alert as they tend to receive injured people in large numbers. “Over the course of my career, I have seen such cases on Eid, Independence Day, new year's night, matches, political victories, Muharram, 12 rabi-ul-awwal, any violence, and even if any political figure dies,” said Dr. Seemin Jamali, former executive director of the biggest public hospital in Karachi JPMC. She also added that the first step is to give treatment to the patient and as soon as he or she has been tended to, the doctor has to inform the police in such cases. All the ambulance services take the victim to the nearest possible hospital. However, most cases come to public facilities, since they are well-trained and equipped for such cases.

“The protocol is to treat at the earliest, surgeries and removing bullets are mostly done the same night but in some cases where complications arise, the surgery is delayed due to reasons that can vary from case to case,” she said. FIR and police formalities are done in the hospitals and if the victim doesn’t survive, the autopsy is done the same night keeping in view what was the sight of injury and the body is handed over to the family.

What sections of law the does case fall under?

In all such cases where there are injuries or deaths due to aerial firing, the case is registered against the accused under section 324/337-H2 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). The case falls under aerial firings such as cars, property, or any valuable item is registered against the accused under section 427 of the PPC.

According to the spokesperson of Karachi police, whoever commits mischief and thereby causes loss or damage to the amount of Rs50 or upwards, is punishable under this law with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both. The spokesperson also added that law does take action against any such illegal activities keeping in view the legal course of action.