The long read: They pick up the dead and wounded from burning buildings, terrorist attacks and gun battles. And they get paid 1 a day
The impact of the explosion sent Muhammad Safdar flying backwards. He looked up from where he had landed and saw that the windows of his parked ambulance had shattered. As he tried to pick himself back up, fellow volunteer drivers working for the Edhi ambulance service gathered around him; it looked as if Safdar was bleeding. But he had not suffered any external injuries. Human flesh got stuck to me, he recalls now, as we sit in the ambulance control centre in downtown Karachi. My friends were checking me for injuries, but it was pieces of other people. I was trembling hard and I couldnt hear my own voice when I spoke. It sounded juddering. I could only hear whistles.
It was 5 February 2010 and Safdar had already dealt with the fallout of one explosion that day: an hour before, a motorbike laden with explosives had slammed into a bus carrying Shia Muslims to a religious procession. Safdar had raced to the scene to load the dead and injured into his ambulance and take them to the nearby Jinnah hospital. With more than people 30 injured and 12 dead, the emergency room was in a state of chaos, filled with crying and screaming as doctors struggled to cope. He was still inside the hospital when the second bomb exploded just outside the entrance.
Safdar did not realise until later that he had suffered head injuries. At the time, he followed his first instinct, which was to get up and continue to help. A further 13 people were dead, with scores more injured. Everything was a mess, there was blood everywhere, he remembers.
The hospital entrance was badly damaged and there were fears of a third bomb. Ambulance drivers took those with the worst wounds to other nearby hospitals for treatment. Three ambulances were destroyed in the explosion, so they worked with what they had.
Across the crowds of casualties, Safdar kept his eyes on his boss, Abdul Sattar Edhi, the founder of the service, who was sitting inside one of his own ambulances. As the head of a huge charitable organisation offering services to the poor, Edhi made a point of remaining at the frontline of rescue work. He had been collecting the dead and injured alongside his staff. Safdar ran over to him. I came to pick him up in case of a third blast, but he said, I am not going. Wherever I am, there isnt a blast, so I am not moving. Safdar continued to haul bodies to ambulances parked outside. Amid the dirt and blood, he spotted something suspicious: a very clean-looking motorbike in the car park with a TV set strapped to the back. Safdar ran back to Edhi to tell him what he had seen. Edhi alerted police and stayed put as experts defused what turned out to be a third bomb.
In 13 years as an Edhi ambulance driver, Safdar has lost count of the rescue jobs he has done. He has entered burning buildings, dived into water after shipwrecks, retrieved survivors after terror attacks and industrial accidents, and navigated running gun battles.
Sporting red T-shirts emblazoned with bold white letters reading EDHI, these workers are a familiar sight at Pakistans all-too-common disaster scenes. Here in Karachi, a megalopolis of around 20 million people, there is no state ambulance service.
Karachi has suffered through decades of violence. Ethnic tensions have been simmering since the 1950s, ramping up as conflict and natural disasters elsewhere in Pakistan pushed more and more people into the city. For years, gang war raged in the slum of Lyari, and as terrorism increased in Pakistan in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks and the declaration of the war on terror,Karachi became a key militant operating ground. Since 2014, a crackdown led by the army has brought a semblance of calm, but violence still simmers below the surface.
Safdar, in his rudimentary ambulance, has been at the frontline of the shifting conflicts consuming his city, placing himself at huge personal risk for very little money.
Safdar first stumbled into the Edhi Foundations main office in 2003, shouting that his brother had waited too long for an ambulance. Safdar was around 22 years old (it is common in Pakistan for people to be unsure of their exact birth date), and his brother Adil was roughly 20. The ambulance driver on duty, Muhammad Liaqat, remembers, Our reaction was not to reply in any aggressive way. He has a very good heart, but he is hot-headed.
Adil had contracted polio as an infant, and the disease still endemic in Pakistan left him disabled. He needed a series of painful leg operations. With no car and limited funds, the family relied on the Edhi ambulances.
Despite Safdars anger, he was impressed by the operation. I saw other people waiting at the hospital for hours for transportation, he recalls. Edhi Sahib [a term of respect] alone was trying to help. Safdar had dreamed of joining the army, but needed to stay at home because of Adils illness. So, he got a driving licence and joined the ambulance service. Now he creates trouble for us every day, says Liaqat.
On his first day,Safdar went with another driver to collect one of the unclaimed bodies frequently found on the streets of Karachi. He couldnt look. The other driver slapped him in the face. What do you think this is? he said. Its a human being. What are you? A human being. Why are you behaving like this? Safdar picked up the corpse.
It takes time to get used to this work, he says. A lot of people leave after a week or so as they cant take it. They have fear in them.
Safdar is a thin man with a meticulously stylish haircut, equally quick to laugh as to fly into a rage. His boss, Anwar Kazmi, ironically introduces him to newcomers as our most polite driver. Safdar constantly chews a betel nut derivative, which has a stimulant effect a common habit among drivers in Pakistan. He is outspoken and talks a million miles a minute, his rapid hand movements expressing a range of emotions. He refuses to enter a government hospital where the boss was once rude to him. But he cannot stand to see suffering, sometimes getting in trouble for using his siren for non-emergency call-outs, and stopping to help if he spots anyone injured or lost on the road.
His usual base is the Edhi ambulance services main control centre in Kharadar in Karachis bustling old town. The office is open to the street, with a kiosk at the front for donations.
In a city where media companies and hospitals have armed guards, this accessibility is unusual. Inside, drivers sit and chat in between shifts, the overhead fan whirring and causing the dim electric light to flicker over their faces. Their standard work shifts are 18, 24 or 36 hours. At night, some nap on their stretchers. High up on a wall, stuck to peeling paintwork, are photographs of eight drivers killed in service. The bosses sit in this room too, behind two large desks. Kazmi, the general manager and spokesman, is always stationed at the right-hand desk, two phones and a mobile in front of him.