Asia

Pakistani doctors angered by failure to halt abductions

Medical staff held protests, demand government to do more to tackle kidnappings
Image caption Medical personnel in Quetta want the government to tackle the wave of kidnappings

On the evening of 17 September Dr Abdul Manaf Tareen, a renowned heart specialist in Pakistan, was about to go home when a group of armed men appeared at his hospital.

When the doctor resisted their demand that he leave with them, he was hit on the chest with the butt of a rifle and dragged away. He was then shoved into a vehicle waiting outside and driven away.

The kidnapping took place at a short distance from the well-guarded headquarters of the main security force in Balochistan province, the Frontier Corps.

Image caption Dr Tareen is the latest victim of rampant kidnappings in Balochistan

Access to the area is also protected by numerous police and army checkpoints, while entry and exit points into Quetta are guarded by Pakistani troops and security service personnel.

Yet, as it turned out, none of them could prevent the abductors spiriting away their latest victim.

Growing lawlessness

Dr Tareen is a well-respected cardiologist. Colleagues describe him as a self-made man, who despite his humble origins, worked hard to become one of the best doctors in his field.

Patients come to him from all over Pakistan, and even Iran and Afghanistan. In Balochistan, he is seen as an inspiring figure who has touched many lives.

His abduction has outraged the medical community, already reeling from growing lawlessness in the province.

Doctors angry at the alleged apathy of the authorities have organised almost daily protest rallies, gone on hunger strike and partially boycotted government-run hospitals.

Image caption Naqeeb Ullah Achakzai says the government needs to provide adequate security

Their actions do not seem to have had much of an impact on the authorities, but have added to the misery of patients from remote and impoverished areas waiting at clinics without doctors.

"How can we serve people and practice our profession in this lawlessness?" asks Dr Naqeeb Ullah Achakzai. "We are not safe. We want security from the government."

'Everyone looked on'

Dr Tareen's case is only the latest medical practitioner to be kidnapped.

"During the last five years, 26 of our highly qualified doctors and professors have been kidnapped," says Dr Aftab Kakar, a spokesperson for the Balochistan branch of the Pakistan Medical Association. "A majority of them returned after paying huge amounts in ransom money."

Among them was Dr Ghulam Rasool, head of psychiatry at Bolan Medical College in Quetta. He was abducted from a crowded street in the city centre by six armed men.

"Everyone looked on, but no-one dared do anything," he recalls. Soon after, he was blindfolded and driven for about five or six hours to an unknown location.

He does not like to talk about what happened next, only that he was freed after 17 days in captivity.

"The ransom money my family had to arrange was big enough that nine months later, we are still paying for it," says Dr Rasool.

He adds that it was a painful experience and one that shook him and his family psychologically and emotionally.

Private guards

"Because we are educated but weak members of this tribal society, we are seen as wealthy professionals and therefore have become a soft target for easy money," explains Dr Rasool.

But it has not stopped him from going about his business.

"I am a consultant psychiatrist, a professor, a trainer and an examiner. I am still trying to get on with life," he says. "The only difference is I now have to carry private armed guards for my protection."

Image caption A bomb attack in Quetta last month killed six, amid growing violence in the region

Balochistan has a seen growing violence in recent years.

An extremist Sunni militant group has launched large-scale attacks against members of the Shia Hazara minority community. Criminal and militant groups allied to the Taliban and al-Qaeda have kidnapped and killed scores of people.

These groups have seemingly operated with impunity while thousands of Pakistani troops have been busy fighting a long running separatist Baloch insurgency.

The Frontier Corps stands accused of enforced disappearances, torture and killings of suspected Baloch separatists. It is widely despised as an oppressive arm of the Pakistani state.

And in Quetta, increasingly, the force is also accused of not just tolerating, but protecting criminal gangs.

Maj Gen Ejaz Shahid, the inspector general of the Frontier Corps Balochistan, dismisses such allegations.

He blames "terrorist and "sub-nationalist" groups" for the rise in kidnappings. But he insists that his force is taking new measures to tighten security and ensure better coordination with police and other security agencies to bust criminal gangs.

"I can assure you we are part of the solution, not part of the problem," Gen Shahid adds.

Image caption Dr Ghulam Rasool says medics are an easy target

'Turning a blind eye'

But for doctors protesting on the streets of Quetta, these are assurances they have heard before.

"Officially, they tell us they are trying their best [to recover kidnap victims]," says a physician leading the doctor's rallies in Quetta. "Privately, they encourage the families to cut a deal with the abductors."

He says there is growing evidence that security forces often turn a blind eye to kidnappings allegedly because they get paid off by the abductors.

The Pakistan Medical Association estimates that during the last five years, about 82 of Balochistan's best doctors and professors have left the province. Many of them are said to have moved to Europe and the Middle East.

Some of them were friends and colleagues of Dr Rasool.

I ask him if he has considered leaving.

"Yes," he says. "But then I ask myself if all of us leave, who'll be left here to help the people of this province."

For now, Dr Rasool is busy supporting colleagues as they plan their next protest to press the authorities to ensure the safe return of Dr Tareen.

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