When she reached the spot, the violence was so fresh that bitter smoke was still rising from the bodies. Those who had barely survived were screaming for help from their twisted positions on the ground. There were others, who were standing. But they were doing something else. It was in that moment that Dr Shehla Kakar did not know who was more vile: the suicide bomber who had come to Civil Hospital Quetta that day or the men making videos of the dead with their cell phones.
It was a year later that Dr Shehla had told me about what she saw on August 8, 2016 when the entrance to the Emergency at Civil hospital was attacked. I had approached her for a documentary I was shooting.
Dr Shehla, a graduate of Bolan Medical College who became a well-known Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology there, passed away on Tuesday, July 8, of a cardiac arrest at 43. And as I learnt of the news, I could not help but remember our meeting.
The day Dr Shehla had spoke about was one of the worst in Balochistan’s recent history. She was working as a gynaecologist in Sandeman Provincial Hospital, Quetta at the time of attack. The day the hospital was attacked, there lawyers were not spared either in a shooting involving the president of the Balochistan Bar Association.
“It’s difficult to keep yourself sane as you navigate the red lines of turmoil,” she had told me. “But I rolled up my sleeves, recalled my training and began treating as many injured as I could.” Almost everyone who died or survived the blast was a lawyer in a tie and a coat, she had said.
“I took off the tie from one of the wounded men and tied it a little above his arm so that he didn’t bleed out,” she said, explaining her improvised tourniquets. “I rushed to another and did the same on his leg, using his coat. Seeing me work through the patients, all of the lawyers who survived started copying me by taking off their coats and ties to treat the wounded.”
As our interview progressed, I asked her how important it was to be a first responder in a terrorist attack. She started talking about research that hailed first aid as the crucial life-saving skill under such circumstances.
“Tell me, do you know First Aid,” she suddenly asked me.
Her words broke me out of interviewer mode. I had no answer except to mutter that I didn’t.
She smiled. “An incident like this can happen anywhere. Wouldn’t you want to be the one saving someone’s life rather than be standing on the sidelines filming people looking up to you as their last hope?”
I had come up against the same dilemma when talking to Ali Ahmed Kurd for the documentary. The former Supreme Court Bar Association president told me that the tragedy of that day has never diminished for him. “The cream of Balochistan’s educated class from Turbat, Gwadar and Bela to Chaman and Dil Badin… Dr Shehla was our savior,” he said. “We are indebted to her for our lives. If she had not been there, many of my friends and colleagues would not be with me right now.”
I had asked him if a journalist’s duty was to tell the story rather than start treating the injured. Kurd didn’t let me finish.
“We cannot let ourselves only be defined as doctors, engineers or journalists,” he said. “We are humans first. How can you tell a story while looking in the eyes of someone battling death and not try your best to save them? Can you only remember to save your job and forget you are a human first in that moment?”
Needless to say, what Dr Shehla and Kurd said made this an incredibly difficult documentary to shoot for me and my team. The hour with Dr Shehla had not left an eye dry in the room that day. It was as if everyone had been waiting for us to show up and listen to her tell the story of that day. It is not often that you find a chance to talk about these incidents. It took Dr Shehla’s words to make us realize that it was our duty to learn how to save actual lives before we can even think about telling their stories.