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SITUATIONER: The killer highway in Balochistan


ON September 26, Dr Shaher Bano Sasoli wakes up early in the morning in Khuzdar district, in central Balochistan. After having her breakfast, according to her mother, Zarina Baloch, she texts ‘Good Morning’ to her fiancé Dr Aurangzaib Qambrani and sends a voice message to her brother Maqbool in Quetta, asking him to buy a shawl for her fiancé. Because her marriage has been fixed for a date in November, preparations are under way.

She performs her duty as medical officer at a basic health unit to provide treatment to locals of Wahir village in a remote area of the district where she has to travel thrice a week.

On Friday, she leaves her house, situated on Rabia Khuzdari road in the heart of Khuzdar town, with her brother Munawar in a red Vitz car (2004 Model). In less than 10 minutes, her car reaches the main RCD NA-25 National Highway, which connects the two provincial capitals Quetta and Karachi, via Arbab Complex.

Sitting in the back seat, she asks her brother to play her favourite Angels by The Wings — a 2016 song from The Eagle Huntress documentary sung by Australian singer Sia — as their car reach the Semaan area of tehsil Wadh on the single-lane RCD Highway.

Right there, Munawar recalls, a cargo truck leaves its lane in order to overtake a broken lorry parked on the road, and hits their Vitz from the front door side, throwing the car down the cliff into a dried stream channel. He manages to jump out of the shattered window before the car hits the rock, with Shaher Bano still stuck inside the car.

After regaining his consciousness, he finds out that his sister is still stuck in the back seat. Despite being injured with an underlying knee injury, Munawar breaks the window as the door is jammed to rescue Shaher Bano.

En route to Khuzdar hospital, he keeps calling their brother, Maqbool, in Quetta. On the phone, he keeps repeating in a panicky voice that they are hit by a truck and he is fine, but their sister is still unconscious. “Please call someone to help us, pick us,” he keeps asking Maqbool so that they are rushed to Khuzdar civil hospital without delay.

After that, Maqool calls home to inform the family of the accident. The family travels half the way to bring Shaher Bano to the emergency ward of Khuzdar civil hospital, but unfortunately, she is pronounced dead.

The saviours

Situated in the basement of a two-storey building of People’s Primary Healthcare Initiative (PPHI) in Quetta’s posh Jinnah Town, the Control Room occupies roughly a small area of 80 square feet.

Two telephone operators, namely Waheed and Anamnas, are surrounded by desks, sitting in front of their computer and laptop screens, as their eight hours’ duty starts in the morning.

There are 42 inches’ LCD TVs on their right and back sides, on the walls. In front of their main wall, there is a similar screen used for tracking their ambulances.

“Assalam-o-Alaikum-1122,” Waheed, attired in a white suit and a dark brown waistcoat, greets the unknown caller on a Monday morning from the RCD Baghbana route, situated in Khuzdar district, on the RCD road, where an accident has occurred.

The caller is a local of Baghbana, with a panicky voice. “Sir, a motorcyclist met with an accident, please send your team over here.”

“Where is your location?” Waheed asks him, holding a ball pen on a notebook pad. After noting down the location, he responds: “Fine. We are moving the ambulance right now.” He puts down the phone and calls PPHI’s Baghbana Medical Emergency Response Centre (MERC) to send over an ambulance. As he puts down the phone, 748 — MERC Baghbana (ambulance) appears on his tracking screen. “It has moved now to the location,” Waheed informs Dawn, putting his right hand on his red cap.

There are seven MERCs each with a gap of 70 to 80 kilometres along the Quetta-Karachi road, better known as RCD Highway. After being provided with the first aid on the spot and moved to the nearest MERC, accident victims are shifted to civil hospital in the respective district if required.

According to a report, highway accidents cause five times more deaths in Balochistan than suicide blasts.

Conceiving it, PPHI CEO Aziz Ahmad Jamali took the initiative of setting up MERCs along the highways, including the deadly RCD Highway.

Being himself a hiking aficionado, Mr Jamali travels a lot on these highways. He laughs harder.

Like his hiking passion, he is workaholic, hunched over files on his desk. He speaks to Dawn in a lucid combination of English and Urdu. Over the years, he has got predominantly a white moustache, beard, and as well as his hair are white. He looks older than his age. He shares with Dawn, “MERC is completing its first year, and within one year, our team has treated over 7,797 injured ones, saving their lives in the road accidents, remarkably decreasing the casualties.”

“Before we started over MERC, 64 people lost their lives in road accidents only in the month of January 2018,” he recalls, explaining that since the establishment of MERC in October 2019, 141 deaths in road accidents have been recorded in a year.

Dr Kaiser Bengali, in his book A Cry for Justice: Empirical Insights from Balochistan (2018), suggests that all highways in Balochistan must be four-lane dual carriageways. As for the RCD and other highways, these are single lanes, which is why these have turned into somewhat killer highways.

Although Shaher Bano has departed, her family remembers her by buying medicines for her patients from her last month’s salary. That is how they want to remember their doctor daughter.

Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2020


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