This article originally appeared on VICE India.
M. Ahtesham Anwar, a 39-year-old doctor who runs the Al-Hind hospital, was not in India’s capital city when the riots broke out on February 22. “I reached New Delhi at around 11 p.m on February 24. I was tired, so I had slept off. But I began receiving SOS calls at around 3 or 4 a.m, and a little later, scores of injured people started walking into my hospital.”
The Al-Hind Hospital is a three-storeyed private hospital in the Old Mustafabad area of Northeast Delhi, which had witnessed communal riots in the last week of February. When the riots were ravaging the area, most general physicians shut down their practices. Pharmacists shuttered their shops too. Al-Hind, though, was one of the few hospitals that remained open. “There was no hospital staff present,” says Anwar. "I asked my brothers to help me and we started first aid. A hospital administration staff member, Razia, responded to my calls and we got to work.”
Anwar worked tirelessly for two consecutive days and nights. “In my entire medical career, I had not seen such disastrous conditions before. With every case, I would think that this would be the worst thing that I would see, but then another case would come in and that would be even worse than the previous one. People with bullet injuries had shrapnel all over their bodies. There were stabbing victims, and people who had been severely beaten up by mobs. A man’s scrotum area had been split in half. The visuals were devastating.”
By the 26th, Anwar had treated almost 600 people. “We had also received two dead bodies. We didn’t have the capability as a hospital to store dead bodies. We had just wrapped them in old bedsheets and kept them in a corner.”
To add to it, the main entry to Old Mustafabad had been shut down by the Delhi Police when the violence was still on, which meant that essential services such as ambulances couldn’t enter. The doctor tried calling the helpline number for ambulances, but on mentioning the area they were being called to, they refused to come through. “We were also told that the police had barricaded the main road and they were not letting the ambulances come in. There were excuses flying all around. I asked my doctor friends to send ambulances but these too were stopped at the police barricade.”
When we chat with Anwar, he displays all signs of sleep deprivation, such as slight irritability and fatigue. He is constantly on his feet. His nervous laughter, when describing the details, is an indicator of his state of mind. “People asked me to sleep but I couldn’t. At one point, I just stood in a corner staring. I felt like I was nothing, and I couldn’t do anything. But then I jolted back to reality. I was constantly afraid that many would die here. As doctors, we are taught that we need to keep the spirit of living alive in our patients. When patients here would begin to lose hope, I would repeatedly tell them that things would get better, that ‘we have all the facilities to help you’. I kept giving them false promises because of course, I didn’t have everything I needed. I knew a lot of them wouldn’t stay alive, but I kept them alive till the time they were here. Many died later, at other hospitals, due to the extent of their injuries.”
It took petitions filed by civil society organisations to get the Delhi High Court to order Delhi Police to open the road to Mustafabad so that ambulances could enter. In fact, Anwar himself testified to the court on the phone during the midnight hearing urging the courts for help. “When the Delhi high court judges passed the order allowing ambulances to come in, I knew that there was some hope left yet. That order was like god’s blessing.”
Justice S. Muralidhar, at whose residence the midnight hearing had taken place, was transferred to Punjab by the end of Wednesday, February 26.
“No one should forget what their duty is—whether you are a doctor, a judge, or a cop,” says Anwar. “I would get screamed at by the patients. Everyone wanted to get treated first, and I cannot blame them. People would pull me from all sides. My shirt was soaked in blood. There was blood all over the floor. Body parts were strewn around. There were so many injured people here that we had to put up temporary tents on the second floor of the hospital.”
Apart from providing medical services, the hospital also became an informal relief camp for people fleeing the violence, with Anwar’s social media posts with his contact numbers helping people connect with him.
Mehsar Jahan, a resident from the Shiv Vihar area close to Old Mustafabad, is one of the many with gratitude for the doctor. “I had sent my sons out of the area because of the disturbance but I was sure that nothing would happen, so I didn’t leave,” she tells us. “But when things got out of control, our Hindu neighbour dropped us here. My daughter-in-law gave birth to her son here, at Al-Hind Hospital. We have been given food and shelter. Dr. Anwar didn’t even charge us for the medicine and my daughter-in-law’s delivery.”
There has been a lot of criticism of the Delhi government because of the way in which they handled the situation. Emergency services in the riot-affected areas were too late to arrive. Multiple accounts have stated that the police categorically didn’t respond to SOS messages. They also state that hospitals such as GTB Hospital and LNJP Hospital, which fall under the management of the Delhi government and were assigned with the job of managing the inflow, were discriminatory in their approach. Anwar, himself, is critical and angry about the events. “Is Arvind Kejriwal scared that he will lose this majority support base if he steps up to speak on behalf of the riot-affected people here?” he asks. “I don’t care if he doesn’t issue a public statement. But he could have at least ensured that systems such as emergency health services would function. They knew that the situation was tense. It’s not like the riots happened overnight. They should have had the foresight to gauge that in case of violence there would be injuries and casualties.”
Even now, Al-Hind Hospital is buzzing with activity at all times, even though they’ve stopped receiving critically injured patients. All of them are now sent to the government-assigned hospitals. The small set-up doesn’t allow for specialised treatments, and the few beds can only house up to 30 patients on a daily basis. Patients pay if they can, and then too, whatever it is they can afford. In an area scarred with communal violence, it’s a relief that no one here asks for your religion or caste. The neighbourhood citizens pitch in what they can to keep it functioning, and now, other doctors in the area have stepped in to help out.
“Earlier I wanted success—a big hospital, more patients,” says Anwar. “But now, after seeing all of this, I believe that the first thing all of us need to do is heal old wounds. We have to use this tragedy to build bridges, not make more gaps. Laying blame on Hindus or Muslims will not get us anything.”
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