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India: violence in Kashmir turns life upside down for Red Cross ambulance driver

24-09-2010 Feature

Since 11 June, violence across the Kashmir Valley has claimed hundreds of casualties. Strikes, demonstrations and continuous curfews disrupt daily life. Irshad Ahmed, an ambulance driver for the Jammu and Kashmir State Branch of the Indian Red Cross, explains how his job has changed.


  ©ICRC/M. Khan    
Irshad Ahmed, an ambulance driver for the Jammu and Kashmir State Branch of the Indian Red Cross.    

Repeated clashes pitting protesters against police and other security forces have led to a significant rise in demand for urgent medical care, while simultaneously making the movement of emergency vehicles more difficult. Nevertheless, ambulance drivers like   Irshad Ahmed have not been deterred from carrying on with their jobs and continuing to bring hope to victims and their families. Together with his colleagues, Irshad has helped shift more than 1,000 patients to and from half a dozen hospitals since mid-June, of which many had been injured in protests. White Red Cross ambulances speeding through deserted streets scattered with bricks, stones and burning tyres have once again become a common sight.

 Every second counts  

" In emergency situations, where seconds can mean the difference between life and death, the main challenge we face is avoiding delays, " said Irshad. " While the red cross emblem is usually respected by all parties, ambulances have sometimes been stopped for security checks or at roadblocks set up by protesters. Depending on the severity of the patients'injuries, the delays can have serious long-term health consequences or even prove fatal. "

The frequency of street protests followed by violence has resulted in increased workloads and unpredictable schedules for ambulance drivers. " When my mobile phone rings, my heart starts to pound. I know it's probably another distress call. I start running towards my ambulance right away, " said Irshad, who on any given day never knows when, or even if, he'll be able to return home in the evening. Due to the length of imposed curfews, people like Irshad often have to sleep at the workplace or in public places away where they are blocked.

 Remaining calm not always easy  

While Red Cross workers are rarely in danger of direct physical harm, Red Cross vehicles have sometimes been damaged during protests. After an incident in which a stray bullet grazed his windscreen, Irshad strengt hened his resolve to always be mentally prepared for the worst-case scenario.

The possibility of physical injury is not his primary concern, however. Irshad believes that psychological and emotional stress poses a greater threat in his line of work. Ambulance drivers are frequently confronted with horrific situations and often have to deal with distressed and frightened victims, which requires a high degree of resilience and strong coping skills. " I have sometimes had to pick up people from a pool of blood, " said Irshad. " Remaining calm in such situations is not always easy, but it's absolutely essential. "

 Low wages but a high degree of commitment  

Irshad points out that intermittent curfews and shut-downs in Kashmir have disrupted distribution and delivery systems, resulting in shortages of many essential items, including medical supplies. At the request of the local Red Cross chapter and State hospitals, the ICRC airlifted some 9,000 kilograms of medicine and other essentials from New Delhi to Srinagar, which were subsequently distributed by the Jammu and Kashmir State Red Cross to various hospitals and health-care centres across Kashmir. Nonetheless, Irshad says he has occasionally had to pay for equipment and medicine out of his own pocket. The fact that he cannot have his ambulance regularly serviced, as car repair workshops often remain closed owing to curfews, is also a concern.

As if ambulance drivers didn't have enough problems in their everyday work, the wages they receive do not reflect the long hours and other hardships they experience. Irshad's continued association with the Jammu and Kashmir State Red Cross is an impressive demonstration of the degree of voluntarism, commitment and dedication required to carry on in his profession.