Wednesday, October 01, 2014


Pakistan

Doctors Without Order In Balochistan

Doctors and their supporters protest in Quetta following the kidnapping of Dr. Ghulam Rasool in August.
Doctors and their supporters protest in Quetta following the kidnapping of Dr. Ghulam Rasool in August.
By Abubakar Siddique and Niaz Musakhel
Ghulam Rasool bears psychological scars from trying to practice psychiatry in Pakistan's Balochistan Province.

For his efforts, the 52-year-old doctor found himself bound and blindfolded for more than two weeks in his kidnapper's remote hideout. He had been kidnapped in broad daylight in a busy market in Quetta, the capital of the restive southwestern province, and held for ransom.

"I feel lucky that I was not physically tortured during the 17 days I was in captivity," Rasool says. "As a psychiatrist, I can tell you if I were to confine someone even in heaven they would not be at peace for a minute. Socially, it caused great stress to my family and my community.

Rasool was targeted because of his profession, and he is no exception. Dozens of doctors working in Balochistan have been killed or kidnapped in recent years amid the lawlessness of secessionist violence. Doctors make easy targets because of their perceived wealth, the openness of their profession, and the lack of alliances to prominent tribal leaders who could provide protection.

For the past two weeks, doctors like Rasool have joined ranks by going on strike throughout the province, and calling on the authorities to do more to protect them. If their demands are not the consequences could be fatal for health care in the province. Hundreds of doctors have already prepared their resignations, and threaten to add to the many doctors who have already fled the region to take jobs in Europe and the Middle East.

Rasool, who would not reveal how his release was secured, says doctors are easy prey. "It is very easy to kidnap doctors because their schedule and their pattern of movement can be easily traced by everyone," he notes. "They [kidnappers] are also aware of doctors' wealth because they can monitor their business. This makes them potentially a good target for kidnapping."

Doctors Demand Protection

The current strike was precipitated by the shooting deaths of two doctors in remote regions of the province and the abduction of a prominent ophthalmologist. Saeed Ahmed Khan was kidnapped as he returned home from a Quetta hospital on October 16, and has not been heard from since.

Dr. Ghulam Rasool (right) speaks to a patient.Dr. Ghulam Rasool (right) speaks to a patient.
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Dr. Ghulam Rasool (right) speaks to a patient.
Dr. Ghulam Rasool (right) speaks to a patient.
The doctors vow to continue the strike -- which affects all medical care with the exception of emergency services -- until they see action.

Aftab Kakar, a senior leader of the provincial doctors association, says 27 doctors have been killed and 12 more kidnapped in the past five years. "Doctors are being threatened across the province. They constantly receive threatening [phone calls] and messages," he says. "Our doctors are facing a very difficult situation here."

The flight of doctors has had a visible impact on health care in the province, Kakar says, which is considered the most impoverished of Pakistan's four provinces and was already struggling to provide adequate medical services. "If these problems continue you should realize it will be difficult to find good doctors even in Quetta," he says.

Local Action Needed

Much of the criticism has been leveled against provincial authorities, who have been ordered by the Pakistani Supreme Court to do more to protect doctors.

Kakar says that senior officials have privately told him that the authorities know about some kidnapping gangs but are reluctant to move against them for unexplained reasons.

Officials say they are actively trying to combat the problem. Asmatullah Kakar, the most senior bureaucrat in Balochistan's Health Ministry, notes that authorities recently met with doctors to work out a plan to improve security. He says the government is ready to deploy police officers and paramilitary units. "God willing, we will do whatever we can to protect doctors," he says.

However, no concrete steps have yet been taken, and Rasool claims the provincial government has failed doctors. "So far, the government has not arrested a single culprit. The government has so far failed to assert its authority or show its resistance to such incidents," he says. "Why is this happening? This is a big question here for people from all walks of life."

Comprising nearly half of the country's territory, Balochistan is Pakistan's largest but poorest province. Thousands of civilians, soldiers, and rebels have died in a worsening separatist conflict perpetuated by ethnic Baluch nationalists. Sectarian clashes, targeted assassinations, and unchecked criminality have added to the woes of the province's 8 million people.
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