Ufaq Fatima

Ambulance drivers, the unsung heroes of 2016 unrest

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Srinagar, Jul 08: The haunting memories of 2016 unrest are refusing to go away from the minds of people here as the violent protests that followed the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on July 08, 2016, had become a new norm in the Valley for months together.

Two years have passed since Abdul Aziz Khan, 57, an ambulance driver at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital, faced the wrath of government forces and angry mobs while ferrying patients and medical staff to the hospital. The scars of beating at the hands of government forces are not only visible on his skin, but fresh in his memory too, as are the blows, stones and choicest abuses and invectives the angry mobs of young protestors had hurled at him.

Narrating the horrible episodes of 2016 unrest, wherein ambulance drivers played a crucial role in saving lives of many injured people, Khan says,  “during my service of 30 years, I have never witnessed such difficulties that I had to face during 2016 unrest. Ambulance drivers had to face wrath of forces as well as of the public. What hurt me most was that even our own people lacked empathy towards us and resorted to stone pelting on ambulances.”

Thrashing of ambulance drivers’ and damaging their vehicles had become a routine during 2016 mass unrest in Kashmir.

According to the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil society (JKCSS), 200 ambulances were attacked and 20 drivers were injured between July and December 2016, of whom many were severely injured.

The whole medical fraternity was on the edge during the unrest as the number of causalities multiplied with each passing day.

Ambulance drivers were active 24X7, spending days and nights in the premises of the hospitals. However, the chaos and mistrust that emerged during the unrest affected these drivers the most.

While narrating his ordeal, Khan points towards the injury marks on his right hand. These scars remind him of how brutally he was beaten up by the government forces that caused fracture in his right-hand finger.

“I had close shave with the death when my ambulance got stuck near Safa Kadal in old city, and I was caught amidst stones, pellets and bullets,” recalls Khan.

Muhammad Shafi, 56, another ambulance driver of SMHS Hospital, also terms the events of 2016 unrest as “most horrifying experience of his life”.

“Recalling those moments send shivers down my spine.  Every time I would leave for my duty, I was never sure about returning alive. I was never worried about myself, but for my family who count on me for support,” says Shafi.

Shafi has four children, who were consistently forcing him to leave his job during 2016 unrest. “My wife and children used to tell me to leave the job as it posed a constant threat to my life.”

Other ambulance drivers who were active during 2016 unrest have similar tales to share which talk about them being dragged, beaten and injured, both by the government forces as well as the civilian vigilantes, who were using equally brutal force to impose shutdowns.

Abdul Hameed, who was In-charge Head of Transport Section at SMHS during 2016, terms the unrest phase as “the most difficult” for the ambulance drivers.

“This didn’t even happen in 1990s when things were more critical than they are now. In 2016, our drivers were asked to remove obstacles from the streets themselves, and on other hand, protesters used to beat them for carrying medical staff with them,” he says.

Citing an example of a driver of SMHS Hospital, Ghulam Mohammad Sofi, who was moving a patient from Ganderbal to SMHS, Hameed says, he had received 200 pellets near Safa Kadal.

“Despite blood oozing out from his right arm, he managed to drive the vehicle with one hand and reached SMHS Hospital. From here he was shifted to Bones and Joints Hospital, Barzulla, where he underwent a surgery and was hospitalized for 15 days,” narrates Hameed.

He adds theirs is a noble profession, which should be respected. “But unfortunately, in Kashmir, people and authorities failed to recognize the crucial role that the ambulance drivers played during the 2016 unrest.

“They risked their lives during the 2016 unrest. However, even a small word of appreciation for them is missing, not to talk about compensation and honors!”

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