Peshawar, Pakistan - Braving sniper fire, increasingly sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and the escalating use of booby-trapped bombs, Peshawar's small band of bomb disposal experts quietly go about their business.
"To be a bomb technician, you must have heart, and the will to save lives," says Zahid Rehman, a 45-year-old police officer in this city, considered to be the frontline urban area in Pakistan's war against armed anti-state groups.
Over the course of a 10-year career with the police, Rehman has defused 71 explosive devices - most of them planted by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its affiliates.
The latest major incident Rehman responded to was a suicide attack outside the Iranian consulate on February 24 - the bomber and two paramilitary security forces personnel were killed when he detonated his jacket outside the building, after the vehicle carrying him was stopped at a checkpoint.
Rehman cleared the vehicle as being free of explosives, but then he got a call from Shafqat Malik, chief of the Bomb Disposal Squad (BDS) since 2009, who was watching a live feed of the clearance operation on one of Pakistan's numerous news channels, asking him to check again. Sure enough, a second inspection revealed that the car's floor was lined with 60kg of homemade explosives. Malik then drove down to the site to personally defuse the device.
And that, Peshawar's bomb disposal technicians and commanders say, is just another day at the office for the country's only fully equipped and trained bomb squad. Over the last five years, they have defused more than 5,500 IEDs, in a period that has seen tens of thousands of Pakistanis lose their lives to TTP attacks, both large- and small-scale.
On a wing and a prayer
Police forces are chronically underfunded - and often dysfunctional- in Pakistan, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa's BDS is no different, at least in the matter of the former.
We had nothing [when I started in 2009]. We just had our experience. We'd just show up at the spot with our pliers.
Back in 2008, when the unit was first officially formed, technicians rushed to bomb sites with little more than a pair of pliers.
"There was one incident, where there was a shopping bag full of explosives in Nowshera several years ago," says Sajjad Akhtar, 48, who has been defusing explosives for the Peshawar police for 14 years. "When I went there, I had just one pair of wire cutters. I said the Ayat al-Kursi [a Quranic verse], closed my eyes… and just cut."
"Nothing," says Malik, the unit's chief, who has spent 28 years in law enforcement and with the military. "We had nothing [when I started in 2009]. We just had our experience. We'd just show up at the spot with our pliers," he added, laughingly recalling how he and then Frontier Constabulary chief Safwat Ghayyur (killed in a targeted attack in 2010) would race to bomb blast sites to see who could get there first to assess the situation.
"We were working around the clock - we had no idea when it was day or night [back then]," he says of 2009, and one which saw a particular spike in Pakistani civilian killings (2,324 of a total of 11,704 people killed in violent incidents that year).
Rehman, who was deployed to the Swat Valley that year to clear areas of explosives during military operations against the TTP's Swat chapter, says he was clearing between one and three devices every day, back then, usually with no specialised equipment.
"We'd just say the kalma [the Muslim words of faith], and cut," he says.
Today, in 2014, things have gotten a bit better. The unit is now equipped with 20 bomb-disposal suits, four remote-controlled bomb disposal robots and a kennel of 10 specially trained sniffer dogs, as well as specialist explosives investigation and defusing kits.
The majority of that cost has been borne by aid from the US and UK, who have donated much of the equipment that the BDS uses and provided training for many of the technicians. The unit gets almost no funds from the Pakistani government, says Malik.
The provincial government has, however, now mandated an increase in the size of the unit from its current strength of 34, to more than 250, with two bomb disposal teams assigned to each of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa's 24 districts, he adds.
Even so, serious challenges remain. The officers' salaries, for example, are pitiful compared to private sector jobs - the average bomb technician, even one with over a decade of experience, makes about Rs22,000 a month ($212), with a "danger allowance" of just Rs50 (49 cents).
With salaries like that, Malik says, he's already lost several technicians to lucrative offers from private and government security agencies abroad, particularly in the Gulf.
'You need to be a bit mad'
In addition to the inherent risk of the job, there is also, technicians say, an increased threat of attacks directed against them. As the unit has become more popular for its work - "People throw roses on us when we arrive at some bomb sites," Malik says - it has also begun to be targeted by those planting the bombs.
"The situation here is that it is already a dangerous situation when you are defusing a bomb, it is 50-50 [whether you'll live or die], and then you have the threat of secondary devices, or of being targeted on the way there. Many of our people have been killed en route to a bomb site. And then you are fired upon when you are defusing it," says Malik, referring to an incident where four bomb technicians were killed while driving to a bomb site. The unit has lost, in total, 11 officers since 2008 - some to targeted attacks, others to booby-trapped IEDs.
And, while those in the unit appreciate the financial and technical support provided by international partners, and the high-tech machinery now at their disposal, the unit remains under-resourced. Bomb technicians, for example, will still use explosives packed into milk cartons as sympathetic detonators when defusing certain kinds of devices. The source of the explosives: other IEDs planted by the TTP that were successfully defused.
Only a crazy person would run towards a bomb!
Being underpaid and understaffed would be bad enough, but the unit is overworked, too. The 34-man squad responds to, on average, at least one, but often two or three, reported IEDs a day, in addition to also providing security support services for inspecting and clearing all major government buildings in Peshawar (including the provincial assembly, district and high courts, chief minister's offices and residences and provincial government secretariat), as well as the routes for VIP movements. They also, in addition to those responsibilities, serve as expert witnesses in court cases related to explosives and terrorism.
So why do it?
"This is a crazy person's job," says Akhtar, the veteran bomb technician, grinning. "Only a crazy person would run towards a bomb! But my father was a bomb technician, and I am not someone who is afraid."
For Rehman, the motivation is public service.
"I do fear death," he concedes, "but if I do [die], it won't be an issue. I will have died saving someone's life."
"I have seen many people, both in Pakistan and internationally, who, when they are going to negotiate a live IED, I've seen them shivering," says Malik. "There is no cure for that. So the basic thing here is that a sensible person's legs will shiver, so you have to be a little bit mad. Your motivation level needs to be a little bit high, and you need to be a bit mad. If you're not mad, you're not a bomb technician.
"Everyone fears death. Perhaps even I have that fear. There are things that dominate that fear, though. […] If through my actions or skill, I can save someone's life, then the happiness of that also dominates the fear of death."
And then, after a slight pause: "I was so happy when I saved [a suicide] bomber's life. He is a human, too. He is someone's son."
That atmosphere of public service, it seems, is infectious. Malik's driver, Habibullah, is a middle-aged man who has been with the BDS chief since he joined the force in Peshawar, and is not trained as a bomb disposal expert in any way. And yet, he told Al Jazeera, he often finds himself shining a torch on Malik at night - both of them operating without any protective gear - as his boss goes about his business of defusing car bombs.
Or perhaps he's chasing the kind of high-risk high that many of the bomb technicians spoke about.
As Akhtar put it: "When you cut that wire, and it doesn't explode - there is an ecstasy to that."
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim
Source: Al Jazeera