“Black Like Charcoal”

Warning: Graphic images | Photographer: Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud | Khyber Teaching Hospital, Peshawar, KPK


Jul 05, 2014 — On June 9, six days before the Pakistan Army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb, an army offensive against militants in Pakistan’s North Waziristan agency, 15-year old Zubina Bibi says fighter jets destroyed her home in Khaisoor Zar, a village in Mir Ali district.Zubina says she was preparing lunch for her husband when the explosion occurred, setting the room on fire. She says she barely managed to crawl out of the debris that was left in the wake of the bomb before she lost consciousness. When she awoke, her mother told her that her home had been reduced to ashes, and that little now remained.

“I wish I had died that day. I do not want to live a life disabled,” she told Tanqeed.

“My daughter’s entire body had instantly turned black, like charcoal,” said Toran Bibi, Zubina’s mother. When asked what had caused the explosion, Toran said that she “saw big planes that made a thundering sound flying across the air. Suddenly, they started dropping bombs”.

Her doctor, who wishes to remain unnamed because he is not authorized to speak to the media, tells Tanqeed that she is now pregnant. She was married eight months ago with a husband who has “disappeared,” says her mother. “He does not have a National Identity Card and is very careless. As soon as I return to my village, I will ask him to divorce my daughter. He is totally useless.”

The attack on Zubina’s home in Mir Ali took place a day after the attack on Karachi’s international airport, an event which ostensibly prompted the launch of the full-scale military operation in North Waziristan two weeks ago.

Although Zubina Bibi’s home was attacked a week before the current operation officially began, she is among the thousands who have been affected by army intervention in North Waziristan agency. After the launch of an operation on June 15, the Pakistan Army carried out massive air and artillery attacks in North Waziristan, forcing more than 500,000 civilians to flee the area for safer, neighboring districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Since the explosion, Zubina has been taken to several hospitals in Bannu district and Peshawar for treatment. At first, an unqualified medical practitioner attended to her wounds in her home village of Khaisoor Zar. But, as her condition deteriorated, her mother, Toran, borrowed money to take Zubina to a hospital in Bannu. Widowed after her husband, Abdur Rehman, died 14 years ago, Toran Bibi has taken up work as a seamstress. She says she struggles to make ends meet.

Inam Khan, a philanthropist affiliated with Al Khidmat Foundation, a humanitarian NGO run by the political party Jamaat-e-Islami, found Zubina and her mother on the main Bannu-Miranshah road at Bakkakhel, and took Zubina Bibi to Khalifa Gul Nawaz Teaching Hospital in Bannu, where she received her initial treatment. On a doctor’s recommendation, Zubina was then ferried to Peshawar by ambulance for further treatment at Khyber Teaching Hospital.

Tanqeed spoke to her at Surgical Ward-C at the Khyber Teaching Hospital (KTH) in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Surrounded by her mother and two younger brothers, she was awaiting proper treatment: her lower body remains severely charred and bandaged, giving off the putrid odor of charred flesh.

“I have been requesting the doctors to do something to remove this smell for the past three days. It is unbearable for me and for everyone at the ward,” said Toran Bibi. Soon after, a grey-bearded male nurse appeared with a dusty stretcher: She was to be moved to the operation theatre, where he would clean her wounds.

“According to my investigation, there are no shrapnel wounds on her body, and 30 percent of her body has been severely burned and she needs to be shifted to a proper burn center for treatment. Though we have a burn center at this hospital, it is not fully operational yet,” said her doctor.

On June 9, the military says it carried out airstrikes in Khyber district, 160 kilometers north-east, but none around Zubina’s home. With journalists’ access and freedoms in the tribal areas restricted, however, military operations in these areas have gone unreported in the past. In an environment where residents from North Waziristan fear reprisal attacks–by both militants and the military–it can be difficult to convince eyewitnesses and victims to go on record.

A security official stationed in North Waziristan, who asked to remain unnamed because he was not authorized to speak to the media, categorically denied that any bombing had taken place in the agency on June 9. But, the ISPR did issue a stateement about Zubina. According to Maj-Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa, the director-general of the ISPR, Zubina was shifted to the Combined Military Hospital (CMH) in Kharian by the Pakistani military on Wednesday night.

“Zubana Bibi is being treated at [a] well-equipped and state of the art burn center at CMH Kharian under the supervision of qualified physicians. [A] Pakistan army ambulance shifted her from Khyber Teaching Hospital, Peshawar along with her mother and two younger brothers to CMH Kharian,” Maj-Gen Bajwa confirmed in a statement to Tanqeed.

Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud is a journalist who has extensively covered Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA.) He is currently working with The New York Times and tweets at @IhsanTipu.

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