With more than a hundred ambulances damaged in last three weeks, ferrying injured to the hospitals is getting risky for drivers. Ubeer Naqushbandi reports
A speeding ambulance comes to a quick halt outside Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital’s emergency ward.
Before Nasir Ahmed, 27, the driver of the ambulance, could park his vehicle, volunteers swung into action and rushed injured inside the hospital. A tall boy, in his early twenties, raised his arms in air and shouted: hum kya chatee?
Others reciprocated: Aazadi…Aazadi.
As Nasir finally parks his vehicle, a small crowd of other ambulance drivers, circles him. “Were you stopped anywhere by the forces?” they asked him.
“It was difficult, but I managed,” he answers.
As he settles down on a wooden chair, Nasir narrates how he had narrow escape on July 9, a day after Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter in south Kashmir’s Bamdoora village. “I was taking a dead body to Bijbehara town. He had succumbed after suffering a cardiac arrest,” recalls Nasir.
On way, Nasir came across people offering gaiyabana nimaz-e-jinaza (funeral prayers in absentia) for Burhan. “After dropping the body home, I headed back to Srinagar,” said Nasir.
At around 2:30 pm when Nasir reached near Awantipora police station, he stopped, as protests taking place at some distance. “They (CRPF) were very angry. I could sense that,” said Nasir.
Suddenly, one CRPF personnel started firing directly at the protestors. “I was chaos, I thought nobody would be spared,” said Nasir who saw one young boy getting hit by a bullet. “He fell on the ground.”
Before Nasir could have turned back towards Bijbehara, protesters circled his vehicle. They wanted Nasir to rescue the injured boy from CRPF’s clutches. “He was lying on the ground with blood coming out of his abdomen. They (police and CRPF) were kicking him ruthlessly,” said Nasir.
After taking a deep breath, Nasir hit on gas and negotiated his way through CRPF and STF personnel, stopping close to the injured boy.
“An ASI rank police officer, who was continuously kicking the boy, suddenly stopped and bundled the boy inside ambulance,” recalls Nasir. “I don’t know what made him do so.”
The policeman ordered Nasir to “take him to the hospital else they (CRPF men) will kill him.”
Within minutes the policeman was proved right. “CRPF men attacked the ambulance as the boy was helped in,” said Nasir.
Somehow Nasir managed to drive past forces and drove towards nearest hospital in Pampore. “I was stopped outside Pampore by CRPF. They dragged the boy out and beat him again,” said Nasir.
After five minutes of mayhem Nasir was allowed to move. “His wounds were bleeding badly,” said Nasir.
At Pampore hospital, Nasir saw another 45-year-old person, who was hit by a bullet in his lower back, being treated.
After plugging their wounds, Nasir was told to rush them to SMHS immediately. “Be quick, or they will not survive,” a doctor told Nasir.
After locking ambulance doors, Nasir drove towards SMHS.
As Nasir reached Kadalbal chowk, it appeared like he was driving through a ghost town. “Only CRPF and STF men were visible on the roads,” says Nasir.
To avoid CRPF’s wrath, Nasir took an alternative route via Lasjan, Tengpora to reach SMHS. “At SMHS amid sloganeering duo were rushed towards operation theatre. Thankfully both survived,” says Nasir.
Nasir’s colleague, Sajjad Ahmed Lone, 30, had same story to share. On July 15, Lone was instructed to bring two surgeons from home in Srinagar outskirts. “They were needed at SMHS to manage the rush of injured,” said Lone.
When Lone reached near Natipora, there were clashes going on between protestors and forces. “Protestors made way for ambulance,” said Lone.
But, when Lone reached in “forces territory”, they stopped him, asked for his identity, and began checking his ambulance. “They were angry. They were not in a mood to let me go. So I sped away,” said Lone. “They (CRPF men) smashed tail lights and threw stones using catapult. There was every chance they could have fired at me,” said Lone.
On his return Lone changed route to avoid confrontation with CRPF men again.
Abdul Rashid, 40, a senior ambulance driver, who was listening keenly to Lone and Nasir’s experience said, “We face hostile situation from both protestors and forces. Nobody understands that we are here to save lives.”
He is seconded by Mohammad Shafi Tantray, 48, another ambulance driver. “Protestors accuse us of ferrying force personnels, which is not true.”
On July 11, Dawood Ahmed Mir, 27, was heading back after dropping eight patients home from Lal Ded hospital Srinagar.
At around 10 pm, when Mir reached near Gagarpora (Jawaharpora) RR camp, he was stopped by the forces. “There were clashes going on a few miles away,” recalls Mir.
After stopping him, Mir was asked to switch off the headlights, cabin lights quickly. “Then after loading their guns, they got into the ambulance,” said Mir. “They wanted to reach the protesters and catch them in surprise.”
Realizing it would result in to a bloodbath Mir began pleading with the soldiers. “They didn’t listen,” recalls Mir. “I was sure it would end in a massacre. So I didn’t move an inch.”
After five minutes of cohesion, threats, and abuse, Mir was finally let go. The next challenge for Mir was to cross the territory held by protestors. “They could have mistaken ambulance for an army vehicle in the dark,” said Mir. “It was extremely dangerous.”
While approaching the protestors Mir began shouting at top of his voice, “Yeh ambulance hai…Yeh ambulance hai (It’s an ambulance).”
It worked. “I was allowed to pass peacefully,” said Mir.
But Mohammad Ashraf, 37, was not so lucky. On July 16, after dropping an elderly women’s dead body at Kupwara, Ashraf was rushing home, when he was stopped by protestors. “They got angry and started abusing me,” said Ashraf. “I asked them why are they so angry with an ambulance driver.”
Their answer shocked Ashraf. “An hour ago, forces alighted from an ambulance and beat everybody around,” Ashraf was told. Similar incident was reported by another driver, who was caught near Soura (Srinagar) by protestors, because an ambulance had dropped CRPF men in the midst of a crowd. “They (CRPF men) had ransacked everything and beaten people ruthlessly,” said Ganie.
A research involving 35 ambulance drivers from three major hospitals in Srinagar states that 83 percent of the respondents have experienced threat of physical harm. The research carried by Dr Shabbir Dhar states that around 54 percent of drivers have experienced physical assault. According to a Jammu based newspaper 110 ambulances were damaged by CRPF and police in last three weeks. Most of them while ferrying injured from south Kashmir.
Before Nasir leaves for another journey into curfewed city to transport injured, he looks at the gravestone of Ghulam Nabi Bhat, who lies buried inside SMHS.
Bhat was killed in the line of duty on July 20, 1992, when he was answering a distress call from city outskirts. “He was shot by BSF and killed instantly,” said one of the drivers.