CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Long after saturation media coverage is over, disaster survivors carry on, with or without outside help, often with the kind of inspiring courage and resilience that we see in the Boston Marathon bombing survivors.
We also see this courage and resilience in survivors elsewhere, like in my country, Pakistan, where such violence is all too frequent. In Pakistan, however, there is no long-term institutional support, no organized follow-up for bomb blast survivors.
In contrast, it is inspiring to see young people doggedly supporting survivors that were on a bus targeted last Jan. 21.
The bus was full of families returning to Quetta, Balochistan from a pilgrimage in Iran, when it was hit at Mastung, a border town in western Pakistan. The attack immediately killed 22 of the bus’ 51 passengers. Others died later.
Those who survived, like the Boston Marathon survivors, live with bereavement and permanent injuries, including loss of limbs.
Nasrin Bibi lost her only daughter, 20-year-old Sadaf. Kauser Ali’s wife and 19-year-old daughter, Kaniz, died. The chubby-cheeked 11-year-old Ibhtihaj and his brother Meraj, 18, lost their mother, grandmother and two sisters: Farwa, 19 and Ridha, 10. Former bodybuilder Sadaat Hussain, 37, who was also Mr. Pakistan 2003, is paralyzed from the waist down. Zakir Hussain, 23, is a double amputee.
In Cambridge, where I moved from Karachi three years ago, I’ve been in touch with some of them.
Sadaat Hussain, former Mr. Pakistan, now paralyzed from the waist down.
The link between such attacks in Pakistan and America is the perpetrators’ adherence to the extremist Wahabi brand of Islam originating from Saudi Arabia, which began in the 1980s when the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia turned the Afghans’ nationalist war against Soviet occupation into a “jihad” or Islamic holy war.
The “mujahideen” that were indoctrinated, armed and trained to fight the “Godless Communists” later morphed into the Taliban and various splinter groups. Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda found a convergence with them after the first Gulf War.
The connection to the attack in Mastung is that the bus passengers were Hazaras, a distinct ethnic group originating in central Afghanistan that follows Shia (Shi’ite) Islam.
The militants see Shias as heretics and, since the 1990s, have killed some 4,000 in Pakistan, including 1,400 Hazaras. In fact, one of the Taliban’s first targets in Afghanistan was the Hazaras.
Some of the survivors of the Mastung bus attack were taken first to a hospital in Quetta, and then later moved to the best private hospital in Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial hub and largest city. Like Boston, residents of this multi-ethnic megalopolis came in droves to show support, with blood donations, gifts, hand-made cards and more.
The informal group of youngsters I’ve been in touch with emerged from among these volunteers.
Mastung blast survivors Mehrin, Ibtihaj and Meraj, with volunteers at the hospital in Karachi, February 24, 2014.
Arriving at the hospital one day, they learnt that the survivors were being discharged. The volunteers – two of them just 19-years-old – spontaneously accompanied them in the ambulances taking them to different parts of the city where they would stay until their return to Quetta.
“We couldn’t just leave them on their own in a strange city,” Anas Mallick, a 19-year-old college student told me.
Besides Anas, the group comprises six other young men and women – another 19-year-old college student, Zain Ali, and students and professionals Zoya Naqvi, and Shagufta Abbas, Fahad Umar, Shumail Zaidi and Sheema Ghani, mostly in their early twenties.
When Zakir’s right leg was amputated, Anas and Fahad stayed overnight in the hospital, arranging for blood and other needs. Doctors had hoped to save his left leg but it had to amputate it some days later.
Zakir, a soft-spoken general store owner, had travelled alone for the pilgrimage, leaving his pregnant wife in Quetta. “I wish those who carry out these bombings would understand that they're humans and so are we," Zakir told me on Skype, demonstrating a cheerful smile and stoic courage a day after his amputation.
Like the other survivors, he didn’t have a wheelchair after being discharged from the hospital. The young volunteers raised the money and bought five wheelchairs the next day.
They regularly visited the survivors, accompanied them to medical follow-ups, bought groceries, and took them out to eat, shop and sightsee. They raised money to fly the survivors back for medical follow-ups in Karachi and are now looking at long-term needs, like eye-surgery to restore the long-distance vision of Kauser Ali, a poet. His face is pockmarked with the scars from shrapnel, which has been surgically removed, some fragments embedded so deep that they initially went undetected.
Doctors at CMH Quetta were unable to locate these glass pieces that AKUH doctors extracted from Kauser Ali’s face on January 28, 2014.
They want to buy a rickshaw for Sadaat Hussain, the body builder, to enable him to earn a living. He is the sole breadwinner for his family, but he is not able to work his two jobs, as a gardener by day and guard at night.
While he was still in the hospital, his family, strapped for money, sold his motorcycle, since he can no longer ride it.
It was Anas who got me to Skype with the survivors, trying to show them they are not alone, not forgotten.
Talking to Ibtihaj later when he was back in Quetta, I couldn’t bring myself to discuss his losses. Instead, I showed him our cat and recited a nursery rhyme my daughter used to like. It made him laugh.
This plucky little boy has become the public face of the survivors, whose stories activists are keeping alive through social media. Photos of Ibtihaj in the hospital, his head bandaged, flashing a grin and a victory sign went viral. So did pictures of Ibtihaj and Ridha making cheeky faces, smiling, pulling each other’s cheeks, sticking out their tongues.
Ridha and Ibtihaj in happier times.
An “Ibtihaj fans” Facebook page is regularly updated with his and the other survivors’ progress.
“Sometimes when I’m alone, I think why did they do this to us?”
Despite their difficulties, like the Boston Marathon survivors, the Mastung bus blast survivors refuse to be crushed. Here’s to their spirit, to those who are helping them retain it, and to all those who fight hatred with love.
Beena Sarwar is a journalist, artist and filmmaker from Pakistan focusing on human rights, gender, media and peace. She is currently the Pakistan editor of the Aman ki Asha (Hope for Peace) initiative that aims to develop peace between the countries of India and Pakistan.
This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.