Wed, Mar 25, 2015 - Page 5 News List

Pakistani medics turn to arms amid kidnap glut


When Pakistani physician Mehmood Jafri gets ready for work in the morning, the first thing he does is put his AK-47 in his car.

Then, after briefing the armed guards at his home, he sets off for the hospital where he works in the troubled northwestern city of Peshawar with his most trusted relative beside him as an escort.

After surviving one murder attempt and one attempted kidnapping, Jafri takes no chances with his personal safety.

He is one of hundreds of Peshawar physicians living with the daily threat of being killed or abducted for ransom by Taliban militants or criminal gangs.

The doctors’ association in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, of which Peshawar is the capital, estimates that in the past three years about a dozen doctors have been killed and more than 30 kidnapped, while up to 3,000 have fled in search of a peaceful life elsewhere.

Guns have become as important as stethoscopes at clinics, while guards watch over doctors’ homes.

Doctors are seen as relatively easy targets in Pakistan. They are well-paid, but often lack the protection of influential connections that wealthy businessmen might have.

“I was lucky that I survived two attempts because I sensed the threats moments before they tried to attack me and I escaped,” Jafri told reporters as he finished surgery at Peshawar’s main hospital.

“Many other colleagues were not so lucky and they were either shot dead or kidnapped,” he added.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province Minister of Health Shehram Khan Tarakai confirmed the kidnapping of 30 doctors and the killing of “a couple.”

The problem is not confined to the northwest — the medics’ association in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, says 20 doctors have been killed in targeted attempts in the past 14 months, while 10 have been kidnapped in two years.

The names of all the doctors in this story have been changed for their own safety.

Kidnapping leaves most of the medics deeply traumatized after their release and unwilling to speak about their experiences for fear of retribution from their abductors.

“They stop interacting with others and restrict themselves to their homes and clinics, as the kidnappers tell them that they will find them if they ever reveal any details at all,” Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province Doctors Association senior vice president Amir Taj Khan said.

“They do not even come to our meetings,” he added.

“It is impossible for them to tell their stories publicly, even if you pay them 100 million rupees [US$980,000],” Khan said.

Khan said that of the 32 doctors who had been kidnapped, only two had confided in him what had happened to them.

They spoke of being tied up with ropes and taken to North Waziristan, for decades the stronghold of al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, Khan said.

One detainee was moved repeatedly, Khan said, until finally an US$80,000 ransom was agreed upon for his release.

Even the best-laid security arrangements do not always work. One doctor said his kidnappers simply disarmed him and he ended up paying US$130,000 for his release.

Most doctors in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa now simply pay off the Taliban and criminal gangs, making the extortion and kidnapping business a hugely lucrative revenue-earner for militants, Khan said.

“Almost 100 percent of senior doctors pay extortion to avoid kidnapping and killing; they know there is no other way to survive,” Khan said.

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