When I think I’ve finally gotten into a routine of studying, something always happens that breaks the mental schedule I have set for myself. For example, before this week had even started, I had decided that I would spend my free time in the library, trying to catch up on all the work that I had gotten behind on when I had went to Karachi. Things seemed to go great until the middle of the week when some very freaky rumors started spreading in the institute..
This story of sorts unravels on the morning of 20th January, 2016. There are three main events that I will relate to you. I hope this doesn’t alarm you, I just want to convey what kind of things tend to happen in my country.
The First Incident
Imagine a classroom with a strength of students numbered between 90 and 95, sitting in silence as the class representative takes the attendance, reading off names from the list and searching for raised hands indicating their presence. As soon as the last name is called, the class dissolves into loud, rambunctious talking and bustling as students get up to greet the friends they couldn’t greet before class and make their way outside with their cliques. Until one student gets their hands on the mike.
“Guys, this might sound like a joke, but it’s not a joke” she starts, standing in front of the class. No one really pays attention and all the loud students are making their way outside. Once there is some semblance of hushed silence, she continues, “If you see anyone strange or suspicious, or if anyone threatens you in the hospital, please call this extension and have the guards come to that place immediately. Thanks”
She’s put down the mike and I wait for her to walk down the aisle where several curious girls wait to hear what that announcement was all about. What could possibly have triggered her to make such a vague announcement, denouncing it as a joke? She stops and begins to tell her tale on our insistence.
I wasn’t there when this happened, but I heard it from a few girls in third year. They were in the hospital when this guy walks up to them. Apparently he’s wearing a shalwar kameez and has this beard and walks up to them saying something along the lines of “Rejoice, for I am Osama and we are here”. Nobody takes him seriously at first until he repeats “Rejoice, for we are here” once, twice and then thrice. By this time, the girls are freaked out and he can see that they are scared. He walks away, leaving them alone.
“That sounds threatening” one girl beside me says. “Does the hospital know this happened?”
“Did the security camera catch him on tape?”
“What are we going to do? Are the guards here even suited for this?”
“Relax” one of the male students says from the back. “Just don’t walk around alone and stay in a crowd. If anything weird does happen, call over your friends”
That sounds like a ridiculous plan, I think to myself. Most terrorist attacks are suicide bombers and having more people around someone suspicious would just add to the casualties, if there would be any such event. I don’t voice this out loud though.
The girl who had made the announcement talks again. “Take this seriously though, everyone. There’s an attack going on in a university right now. We could be next”
I don’t voice my own thoughts out loud- the atmosphere sounds perfect for developing mass hysteria. What were a bunch of scared medical students going to do? Start calling the police on every man they come across wearing a shalwar kameez with a beard? I make my way to the library with my books, settle into one of the single desks, pulling out my phone to check up on this university attack that she had spoken of.
Bacha Khan University. A professor and a couple of students dead. My connection is too slow to get any more information and I shut my phone and try to focus on the anatomy in front of me. Whether consciously or unconsciously, I find myself thinking, “What would I do if someone barged into the library right now and wanted to kill everyone?”. I can already see myself ducking under the desk I sat at that very moment, pulling out my phone and calling my dad, telling him not to worry about me, to please stay away from the hospital, and that if I would die, I would die a Muslim and I’d see everyone in Heaven.
I mentally slap myself out of that depressing vision and almost angrily blink away the tears that hadn’t fallen out just yet. My focus is hard to direct and I am disrupted again by voices coming from outside the library. I can hear my classmates, talking loudly, almost urgently about Bacha Khan. As if they could do anything except fuel fear and hysteria. They stand outside and talk for five minutes, about 40 casualties, university students, dead professors and yet those five minutes span an eternity.
When they are gone, I focus on my book and am disrupted again by my friend, tapping my shoulder.
“Can you come out for a second?” she whispers, not wanting to break the silence of the library.
“Sure” I said, getting up and following her outside.
The Second Incident
“What’s going on?” I asked, finding a group of my friends outside.
“What’s going on at Bacha Khan?” is the answer I receive when our discussion is interrupted by the class representative and one of our friends. The class rep has a story to tell.
There are these two guys sitting in the cafe right outside the lobby. They’re both big and with shalwar kameez and I heard one of them take out his phone- it was a gold iPhone, mind you- and say “I’m here”. And then he stared at me with this really creepy look on his face- I think he’s really suspicious.
The first question I ask is “Did you call security?”
“The security staff is lazy, they’re going to say everything is okay”
“I really think you should tell someone about this-“
“Why are you worrying? Come on guys, repeat after me. Ashhadu… Allah… Illaha…” he says, reciting the kalimah for us to repeat after him. When everyone gives him a deadpan stare, he gets the message and stops.
(Before dying, a Muslim’s goal should be to recite the Kalimah, “I bear witness there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”. Basically, he’s implying that dying isn’t so bad if you prepare for it right now).
Just as this discussion goes on, the class rep stops and says with a hushed voice “That’s them”
I look to see two large men wearing shalwaar kameez and dress vests, one man carrying a blue shopping bag. All I can see is their back as they turn the corner and make their way towards the main hall that leads to the entrance of the hospital.
Before I can say anything else, the class rep says “I’m going to go follow them” and runs after them, joined by the friend who had been accompanying him.
“That’s something really stupid to do” is all I can say, still unable to process what had just happened.
“Our class rep is stupid- and what will happen if he gets into trouble? [Our friend] is smart, she’s going to have to save him in case something happens!”
Someone else gives a brilliant idea. “There’s a television in the hospital lobby, there’s got to be something on the news!”
There’s a large group of students- all wearing white coats and appearing more as junior irresponsible doctors than anything else. We’re crowded in the middle of the patient seating arrangement in front of the screen with the news on but sound off.
“What does it say?” I ask. My Urdu reading is decent but I cannot read as fast as the television scrolls. “Read it out loud for me”
“It says the terrorists took advantage of the fog and got in. They’re holding the place hostage. The authorities have the place surrounded and snipers have already shot two terrorists”
That’s all that is on the news for now and everyone retreats back to the college. I’m walking with my friend who has been getting phone calls from her relatives- she has come from outside the country and those outside tend to be more fearful for loved ones inside. I want to say something comforting to her but her phone rings and she is busy again. The class rep and my friend are back safe with nothing substantial to say of their attempt of playing the hero and getting glory from spying on suspected terrorists.
The Third Incident
It’s 22nd January 2016 and I’m early for class. As soon as I walk in, I greet the first person in front of me who in turn greets me with “This could be my last day on earth”
“Why’s that?” I asked, thinking that she might be joking, that perhaps she was just in a mild depressive phase or perhaps she had a lot of studying to do.
“Don’t you know about the threats? Islamabad is on the list. And remember the third year girls who were approached by that stranger? They’ve got security footage of him and they’re going to try to track down who he is. And you know what else? One of those girls was outside the library when two men went up to her and asked if you needed to show your college ID to enter the library”
“Stop it” I find myself saying sharply. “That’s enough. You’re freaking me out”
“You should freak out” is all she says as we settle for class.
As soon as the session is over, the discussion I had had is wiped clean out of my mind and I’m hurrying down the hallway to the library to study again. I stop outside to dig through my bag and I notice that there are very few bags outside the library- that meant very few people were sitting inside and the chances of finding a good seat was pretty high. That’s when I remembered what I had been told this morning.
“I can’t go in there” I said out loud, driving myself in reverse, straight outside and back down the corridors to where I had came from. The library almost always had a large population inside, students and doctors alike, studying for exams like the USMLE or reading medical journals or just generally studying. The more I thought about it, the more dangerous it seemed.
The conclusion I reached at the end of the week was that I need a new place to crash my books in and study. The library, despite the silence, the reference books and the free wifi, sounds like a place I’m going to have to avoid for a few days now.
That’s a precise summary of things that happened to me this week. I know it sounds freaky or scary, but that’s just how things are.
How has your week been going?