Several thousand Pakistani soldiers lost their limbs fighting terror groups. With the help of the local community, they are slowly rebuilding their lives.
One chilly afternoon in April 2012, Muhammad Ali, a Pakistan army soldier had a close shave with death. His platoon fought a close-range gun battle with the militants in the country’s mountainous region in the north that borders war-torn Afghanistan.
As the party headed back, weaving its way across the steep ridges, he stepped on a landmine. The explosion knocked him unconscious.
"When I regained my senses my right leg below the knee wasn’t there anymore,” he says. “It was a terrible moment for me.”
Coming to terms with a severed limb was painful, but Ali had one consolation: he wasn’t the only one to receive injuries in a brutal war that has claimed thousands of lives in Pakistan.
He’s among 2,000 Pakistani soldiers who have received treatment in the Armed Forces Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, a 120-bed facility in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, where amputees are treated.
Ali was discharged with a prosthetic leg after one year of treatment.
Pakistan has often blamed its neighbouring country Afghanistan, where a Taliban insurgency still rages despite the presence of the US.
Though the US backs the Afghan government financially as well as militarily, Pakistan says it has suffered much more in terms of loss of human lives and damage to the economy ever since Washington waged its "war on terror" after the 9/11 attacks.
In the last 17 years, the US and its allied forces have suffered 3,555 casualties in Afghanistan, where many soldiers have been victims of IEDs and mines.
Pakistan’s military says it has lost 25,000 soldiers fighting the terror groups in the country. At least 80,000 civilians have also been killed in bombings and gun attacks, as terror groups have targeted schools, mosques and government installations.
Islamabad says it has finally succeeded in decreasing violence by disabling militant networks both in cities and rural areas.
On the other hand, the Taliban continue to control large parts of Afghanistan despite the presence of heavily equipped foreign forces.
Major Omer Jamshed Khan, an army doctor, is a classified specialist in rehabilitation medicine. He was first posted at the AFIRM in 2008 when the institute was lacking some basic resources. But now Mr Khan says they have trained enough doctors to serve the needs of the patients. “These patients are different than other people. They have different issues; that’s why even the doctors require special training. We are aiming to expand the hospital to 200 beds soon.”
“Seventy percent of the amputations are lower limb and below the knee that are caused by the IEDs,” he says. Even the cheapest prosthesis generally costs around $3,000. “Apart from some small component, Pakistan is importing most of the items from Europe and Turkey,” says Mr Khan.
Pakistan’s army is spread over a vast expanse of the country's borders. To the east, it guards a long border with India. To the west, it is protecting the vast and porous border with Afghanistan. It also fights the militants in its tribal areas.
Besides medical treatment, the rehabilitation centre also imparts vocational training. And in some cases, such as Ali’s, encourages the amputees to take up sport.
Being a commando in the military, Ali had kept himself physically fit. That’s why at the AFIRM, he developed archery skills. Now, he isn’t doing it solely for his personal fitness but also participating at national and international levels.
“My aim is almost 70 percent correct. I won a gold medal in the inter-departmental 2015 games,” he says.
“These people might not be able to join their units for active duty. So we help them to improve their skills and offer training courses in computer and mobile repair work etcetera, making them physically and financially self-sufficient,” says Khan.
“We consider someone completely rehabilitated when they start joining sports activities,” says physical therapist Shahid Riaz. Initially the patients only focus on their treatment. But with the passage of time, when they see other players, it also motivates them, he said.
“Sport clears their thoughts, [and strengthens them] physically and mentally, which also helps them heal quickly,” said Riaz. He says the centre has produced quality players in the field of crutch racing, mountain climbing, volleyball, athletics and archery.
Amputation doesn’t just affect the body, it can also lead to discrimination, which is what Ali experienced when his fiancee left him following the news of his disability. He is the only son of his parents and has five sisters. Ali didn’t immediately share the news of his injury with his parents. He revealed it to them after 10 months, once he got his prosthesis intact.
“We have to adjust ourselves; this is the way forward,” says Ali, adding that he does feel proud that his sacrifice contributed to the current level of stability.
Recounting the initial days of the soldiers at the AFIRM, Ali says, no doubt they were shaken to see themselves paralysed. “Man forgets, but body remembers,” he says. Sometimes a soldier would fall from his bed, forgetting he no longer has feet. Neurological connections are attached to the body and the brain always generates impulses, even in connection with missing limbs.
“But still there are some problems that one can’t heal. A soldier’s life is a continuous struggle, but when they see their coursemates scaling up — it starts hurting them. Sometimes they don’t even want to face the mirror, as the body doesn’t forget,” says Ali.
At the centre, former army commando Ali begins his daily routine of archery practice in the afternoon with his physical trainer Riaz. He takes his equipment and with a steady hand fixes the arrow in the bow, aims at the target and shoots — it’s a bullseye.