Hundreds of Peshawar doctors are living with the daily threat of being killed or abducted for ransom by Taliban militants or criminal gangs. The doctors' association in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of which Peshawar is the capital, estimate that in the past three years around 12 doctors have been killed and more than 30 kidnapped, while up to 3,000 have fled in search of a peaceful life elsewhere.
The problem is not confined only to the northwest. The medics' association in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, says 20 doctors have been killed in targeted attempts in the past 14 months while 10 have been kidnapped in two years. Doctors are seen as relatively easy targets in Pakistan as they are well paid, and often lack the protection of influential connections that wealthy businessmen might enjoy.
Kidnapping leaves most of the medics deeply traumatized after their release and unwilling to speak about their experiences for fear of retribution from their abductors. Dr. Amir Taj Khan, senior vice president of the Provincial Doctors Association, said, "They stop interacting with others and restrict themselves to their homes and clinics as the kidnappers tell them they will find them if they ever reveal any details at all. They don't even come to our meetings."
He averred that doctors do not tell their stories publicly even if they're paid $1 million. "Of the 32 doctors who had been kidnapped, only two had confided in me what had happened to them. Most doctors in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa now simply pay off the Taliban and criminal gangs making the extortion and kidnapping business a hugely lucrative revenue-earner for militants. Almost 100% of senior doctors pay extortion to avoid kidnapping and killing, they know there is no other way to survive," he rued.
Dr. Hanif Afridi, a successful eye specialist with clinics in several cities, pays $2,500 every month to Mangal Bagh, a feared warlord in Khyber tribal region. He said, "I am paying extortion since 2010. I know I am doing wrong but there is no other solution, security forces are unable to protect us."
He added that he has to keep the Taliban happy and that he pays them an additional 5,000 when the latter demands more money for special assignments. "I am sometimes taken to the tribal areas for the treatment of the Taliban commanders. Militants pick their targets carefully, carrying out sophisticated undercover surveillance before striking. They know everything about everybody. Many Taliban visit our clinics in the disguise of patients and assess how rich we are, so we have to abide by their demands," he explained.
After surviving one murder attempt and one kidnap bid, Dr. Mehmood Jafri, takes no chances with his personal safety. He puts his AK-47 in the car when he leaves for work in the troubled northwestern city of Peshawar with his most trusted relative beside him as an escort. He also has armed guards at his home. But, at times even the best-laid security arrangements do not always work.
"The pressure has become too much for many doctors and a steady stream have left Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, putting further stress on an already weak healthcare system serving an extremely poor part of Pakistan. They have migrated to the Gulf, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, UK, USA, Canada, Islamabad and Punjab. Up to 20 doctors are moving out every month. I think around 3,000 have left (the province) within three years," Khan said.