In the past five years, Pakistan’s only fully equipped and trained bomb squad has defused more than 5,500 IEDs.
Every time the phone rings, it’s bad news. An improvised explosive device (IED) has been found, or worse, it has already gone off.
The crackled message is relayed on walkie-talkies across Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (KPK) and the men of the KPK Bomb Disposal Unit (BDU) spring into action.
Braving booby-trapped devices and targeted attacks, the 34-man team risk their lives to make their region safer. The danger they face is exacerbated by underfunding and a lack of equipment, with the unit almost completely dependent on international donations.
Bordering Afghanistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), KPK is one of the regions most-frequently targeted by armed groups in Pakistan, with 2,165 civilian deaths from attacks between 2011 and March 2018.
Here, two BDU officers and their commander share what drives them to do one of the most dangerous jobs in Pakistan.
Shafqat Malik: ‘At the gate of the warzone’
Shafqat has been the commander of the Bomb Disposal Unit since 2009. Each year, he promises his family that he’ll retire after just one more year.
“I have compromised my family life. And there is a big gap – now, I’ve started feeling it. But I don’t want my family to live here. They’ve been living in a different city because this is a warzone.
“In the early 2000s, countless armed groups started to operate here in the KPK province. We are at the gate of the warzone.
“After 9/11, the US began its ‘war against terrorism’. NATO forces and international forces began fighting in Afghanistan, and Pakistan became coalition partners with them. So, the terrorists started to treat Pakistani security forces as their enemies.
Our unit is still standing, and will always stand here in this warzone with the people.
“Their objective is to destabilise this country. And give people a message: ‘We can penetrate anywhere. You people are not safe.’ Al-Qaeda, Pakistani Taliban – they’re the major stakeholders. And then there are various local sectarian groups. And to curb all this damage, I have only one bomb disposal unit.
“We have to foil their mission. They’re trying to demoralise us but, thank God, we won’t be demoralised. Our unit is still standing, and will always stand here in this warzone with the people.
“Only those who want to serve their people will work for the bomb disposal unit. [The] Prophet Mohammad preached that when you save one person’s life, you save all of humanity. What can be a bigger contribution than that?
“As long as there is poverty and helplessness and there are breeding areas available, terrorists will keep getting recruited. I don’t see a chance of terrorism decreasing in the next 10 years. Counterterrorism is a long road, it’s not going to finish anytime soon.
“We must protect our own lives along with the lives of others. Bravery is not about getting yourself killed. Fifteen of our officers were already [killed] fighting this war. I can’t deal with losing another one of my boys. Now if someone is [killed], I will leave this unit.”
Abdur Rahim: ‘We’re scared of our own people’
Abdur is an officer in the BDU. His village, in a rural Pashtun community, borders the Tribal Areas. He is under pressure to leave the unit and find a more highly paid job to support his young family.
“When I was younger, I was very interested in showbiz. I’d see films and hope that, one day, I’d play the hero in one. In high school, I had a friend that used to take me to the television studios and they started giving me minor roles in some TV dramas.
“But my family has always been very strict, especially my father. He would make me swear I’d never do it again. I’ve been beaten up over these dramas quite a bit. I can’t make my parents upset, so I have placed a rock on my passion.
“In 2009, I finally left that work and joined the true heroes of the bomb squad.
“If you make one mistake defusing a bomb, it’ll be your first and it’ll also be your last. We’ve seen our friends die with our own eyes, we’ve collected them in plastic bags and brought them back.
“People say ‘Don’t work in the police force, they’re being targeted.’ Everyone is scared. We’re scared of our own people.
“Whenever I go out to defuse a bomb, I immediately see my children standing before me, as if they were blocking my path. And I think about what will happen to them if I die. But I trust their fate is in God’s hands, so I go ahead.
“When I sleep in the station, I dream of bombs. When I’m home I focus on my wife and kids and all my responsibilities towards them. God willing, I’ll give my children a good education. Although Pashtuns don’t allow it, I believe women should pursue higher education. Things change with time, but my Pashtun community doesn’t let go of traditions very easily.
Everyone is scared. We're scared of our own people.
“Many of my friends are going abroad to look for work. And if I get a chance, I may leave, too. My family wants me to leave this work and my father said I should go to Saudi Arabia. There are good job opportunities there and the salaries are also very good. I won’t be worried about blasts happening every other day. I’ll be at peace.
“I really don’t want to leave the BDU, but what can I do? The situation is such that I cannot cover my household expenses or educate my children on the salary I get here. It’s a tough decision, but it must be swallowed like a gulp of poison.”
Inayatullah “Tiger” Khan: ‘We fight with our passion and faith’
Tiger is an officer in the BDU. He has been serving in the unit since 2000 and was awarded Pakistan’s highest civilian honour for bravery for his work.
“I was born and brought up in KPK. I belong to a family of very little means. Our school didn’t have walls or a roof. We were taught under the shade of a tree. But, despite its shortcomings, it taught me a lot. I was taught morals and respect for humanity, that’s made me who I am today.
“Since I started serving with the BDU, we’ve destroyed over 7,000 explosives. We barely have any equipment. We fight with our passion and faith.
“Once, a suicide bomber tried to blow himself up, but his jacket did not detonate. He was lying injured and I approached him and took his jacket off. I’ve taken so many jackets off suicide bombers. Some are so young that they have no idea what’s going on. One day, he is calling out to his mother; the next day, he puts on a vest and blows himself up in a crowd.
“They are people like us. We’ve let them down. They have no access to education. They see US drones coming into the country and destroying everything; the strikes kill children, women and the elderly. They don’t have the resources to get to the person flying the drones, but we are within their grasp, we are closer to them. We suffer the brunt of their helplessness.
“I treasure my time with my son. But whenever I’m around kids, and especially when my kid’s hands are in mine and I am playing with him, at that moment, a certain scene comes to my mind. I cannot forget it, it is a very painful memory.
“There was one blast where the victims were little kids playing cricket. When I reached the location, a child covered in blood ran towards me and asked, ‘Uncle, where were you when the blast occurred?’ What could have been a bigger regret than that? Or a more horrible scene? When you are picking up tiny little hands and fingers … whenever I look at my son’s hands, I think about those hands.
“In this country, even little children aren’t spared. There is no sign of humanity anywhere.”