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Picking up the pieces

One of the rooms in the court complex devastated by the March 3 terrorist attack, Islamabad.  

Note: This blog post contains graphic descriptions of a crime scene.

It was the firing I heard first a little after 9 am on Monday (March 3) and then, a loud explosion. More firing and then a deafening blast which shook all the glass windows at home. There was nothing yet in the form of breaking news on TV and it was till a later that reports came of an attack on the district court in sector F 8 Markaz.

The court complex is a ramshackle group of small shops and buildings which serve both as judges' chambers and lawyers' offices, located in the main market area of the sector. Desultory policemen guard its many entrances and there are no CCTV cameras. The Anti Terrorism Court (ATC) is located in one of the two buildings there and it is unguarded. The 26/11 case terror attacks case used to be heard there till recently before it shifted to Adiala Jail. On that fateful day the ATC and its judge were not present.

Though the media is not allowed to enter the ATC there is no one who can stop you really. As in India, even though the premises was sealed off with tape, media crew and policemen and officials tramped around everywhere. People were eager to talk and relive the nightmare they had undergone. Some barely escaped being killed and one of the lawyers watched his colleagues being shot while he lay supine.

That the district and sessions court was targeted, not for the first time comes as no surprise, seeing how easy it was, but the brutality of the attack coming after some years in the heart of the capital, which was declared safe a week ago by the interior minister, stunned the country. The narrow lanes of the courts were full of blood and bits of flesh stuck stubbornly to the pathways. Your feet crunched on a carpet of broken glass and a small crater pointed to where one of the suicide bombers had blown up. Many offices had pools of blood and body parts and policemen with plastic gloves tried to clean up the mess.

Photo: Meena Menon

Photo: Meena Menon

One of the policemen pointed to a large lump of flesh stuck high up in the electric wires which run untidily everywhere. An official pointed to a bloody portion of the wall screened by a white cloth which bore marks of blood. That was the suicide bomber's head, he said. A pair of legs lay neatly arranged nearby outside the chamber of additional sessions judge Rafakat Awan. Mr. Awan's chamber and two others in a row were wrecked but there was no blood anywhere.

He was shot by the terrorists, say the police, but the interior minister had another story: he was shot by his guard who panicked and pressed the trigger of his pistol when the suicide bomber went off. This version is hotly disputed now as the case continues in court. A tall bearded policeman went about with a plastic bag picking up the pieces. He would examine each blob of flesh and put it into his bag carefully. Another policeman showed me a large paper bag brimming with unidentifiable body parts and blood.

A stall selling fried food lay in disarray while a Ranger solemnly stood behind with a gun. Lawyers who helped with taking the bodies away had bloody shirtsleeves. Officials were interviewing eyewitnesses as the media too was doing and it became apparent that were more than three or four gunmen. Two suicide bombers detonated their deadly belts but two escaped was one version. Later the police said there were three gunmen, two died while one escaped. Orders to search for the men who escaped were given in hushed tones but there is no news of anyone being caught.

Lanes stained red

The thought came to my mind that they could be still hiding somewhere in the vicinity. Eyewitnesses said the terrorists drew up in two SUVs, stopped their vehicles in the parking lot and coolly walked into the various bylanes of the court and started shooting. They shot everyone in their way, these young bearded men, some say wearing chadars. The calmness with which they walked in took everyone by surprise and there was chaos as people tried to escape.

Mohsin Akhtar Kayani, who heads the Islamabad high court bar association, had a narrow escape but his associate young Fizza was killed and two of his staff. Almost everyone knew Mr. Awan and pointed to his bravery in not running away when he was told of the attack. In the end, he paid with his life. Lawyers, litigants, court staff were among the 12 dead and 28 injured in the attack which lasted for about 30 to 40 minutes. The police, people say, arrived much too late.

Mr. Kayani and other lawyers told the Supreme Court, which took suo motu notice of the attack, that police refused to fire saying their guns were not working or that if they fired, then the terrorists would come towards them. Only one brave cop defied this pattern and fired at a suicide bomber, it is said, who fell down and blew himself up. The policeman too was killed. The apex court ordered CCTV cameras and walk through gates at the court but nothing seems to have changed.

The rains that day may have washed off much of the evidence that was being gathered in a perfunctory fashion. Belatedly security has been stepped up in the city but the dismal court complex is stamped forever with the mark of that bloody Monday morning when innocent lives were wrecked in a meaningless attack that stained its lanes red and scattered body parts all over the place.

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 2:23:52 PM |

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