A Pakistani student recalls the day her closest friendship was blown apart Every week is like 7/7
Dispatches: City of Fear
Amber Ilyas was a grim statistic waiting to happen. Last year as an introverted but smart 18-year-old she was adjusting to her new life as a first-year student at the Islamic University in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Her best friend was Aqsa Malik, whom she had known since junior school, a chatterbox and raconteur who was never short of friends. Barely a month into their first term as software engineering undergraduates, their heads were filled with worries about timetables, boys and coursework. On 20 October 2009, they and all the other students paid little attention to police announcements of an imminent attack on one of the city’s educational establishments. The intelligence was imprecise and the Islamic University is a conservative, religious institution. It stayed open, regarding itself immune. And yet later that day, as Amber and Aqsa sat in the women’s cafeteria, contemplating whether to have some sweets or a stagnant-looking chicken biryani, a young, male suicide bomber of a similar age to them strolled in and detonated his explosives-laden jacket beside their table, sending showers of ball bearings and shrapnel scything through the air. “Aqsa and I were both texting when the blast happened,” Amber recalls with a shudder, when we meet her at home in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s twin city. The café was ransformed into a swirling mass of flames, smoke and body parts. Amber woke up on the floor, covered in blood. “There was this smell of flesh,” she says, her face darkening. Of the 60 female students in the café, three were killed outright, along with a cleaner. Another 25 were maimed. Listening to the screams, Amber struggled to comprehend what had just happened: “We came here to have lunch; Aqsa was sitting beside me. Where was Aqsa?”
Eventually, able to rise, Amber spotted her friend slumped on her chair: “I just pushed her, shouting, ‘Come on Aqsa get up, Aqsa get up.’ She was unconscious.” Then Amber heard someone tell her to run. Another suicide bomber had blown himself up elsewhere on campus. “The only thing I could see was the sunlight, which was the signal that this was the door to the outside.”
A stranger drove Amber to hospital where she received treatment for 38 blast injuries. Her best friend survived, too, although she was in a coma. Both spent the next few weeks in intensive care and a relationship based on constant communication – texts, emails and chatting on Facebook – was reduced to silence. A month later, Amber finally spoke to her friend on the phone. “Aqsa’s father called from her hospital bedside. He said, ‘She can’t speak, she just wants to hear your voice.’ So I said to Aqsa, ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to go back to university together.’ ” Two weeks later, Aqsa came to her in a dream. “She said: ‘I want to meet you.’ I just said, ‘Aqsa, I also want to meet you.’ She said, ‘We will meet again.’” The next day, 6 December, barely three months after her 17th birthday, Aqsa died. Amber could not sleep without a light. “I was frightened because Aqsa was in darkness.” She stills wakes up at night thinking her bedroom is “filled with fire, smoke and blood”. And because she encouraged Aqsa to apply to the Islamic University instead of another college, Amber is struggling to rid herself of feelings of guilt. Amber’s account shows how hard an entire generation is trying to come to terms with their grief and fear, as their country fights to get off its knees. The figures are daunting: in just three years more than 3,500 men, women and children have been killed in suicide bombings in Pakistan. However, details of the incidents and the voices of the survivors are seldom heard in the West. But this week’s Dispatches follows the citizens – including Amber – and police of Islamabad over the course of a year, as both struggle to deal with the unprecedented blood-letting.
Like many Pakistanis, Amber has turned to religion for comfort, even though those who attacked her probably did so as part of a so-called Islamist war aiming to destabilise the secular civilian government. Previously Westernleaning and the first to admit she was lazy about her prayers, Amber now goes to the mosque regularly and wears an abaya, an all-in-one black gown covering the head and body. “Before this blast, I was rather childish,” she says. “But it’s a second life that I’ve got now and I pray to God for help.” A year on, Amber is back at the Islamic University and top of her class, with plans to become a computer programmer. She walks with us into the cafeteria, too. The wooden tables have been revarnished, the pitted ceiling replastered. Pakistanis have become accustomed to dealing with what amounts to the equivalent of a 7/7 London bombing every week. Amber notes that the café is once again packed with girls, laughing, sending texts, innocent as she once was. However, her sharp eyes soon focus on the deep gouges caused by the shrapnel that eventually killed nine. “Life is moving on,” she reflects. “But Aqsa will always be in my memories. I cannot ever forget.” Cathy Scott-Clark Cathy is the producer of this week’s Dispatches.