Islamabad, Pakistan — On a bitterly cold December morning at 10am, Shah Bulbul loaded his two suitcases on a bus, and, along with his wife, Bibi Roshan, and two children Umaima and Arsalan, bid adieu to his hometown of Ghizer in northern Pakistan.
They were about to undertake a 30-hour journey to Karachi, the country’s largest city situated in the southern province of Sindh, with the hope of restarting their lives.
By the time it was evening, an hour after the sunset, a tired Bulbul had dozed off, with five-year-old daughter Umaima in his lap, when he was jolted violently by his wife, screaming at him.
“She yanked me up and our daughter and yelled at me to get down, get down,” Bulbul recalled. It was at that moment, Bulbul said, that he realised that the bus was under attack as he could hear a rattling burst of firing.
“My wife, who was sitting by the window, had placed our two-year-old boy Arsalan on the bus floor and forcefully pushed me and Umaima under the seat, and shielded us by lying on top of us. As I was struggling to make sense of what is happening, she told me she had been hit with bullets, and that I must take care of our children.”
‘An hour from hell’
Bulbul and his family were among the 45 passengers of a transport bus that was targeted by a group of attackers on December 2 in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan, an autonomous region in the country’s north near the border with China.
The bus was making its way down the Karakoram Highway, the 1,300-km (807-mile) stretch of road that connects Pakistan with China through the Karakoram Mountain range, when it was attacked near Chilas town.
The attack resulted in the deaths of at least 10 passengers, including two soldiers of the Pakistan army, while more than two dozen people were injured, including Roshan, who despite being struck by six bullets, survived. The police are investigating the attack, but more than a week later, no group has so far claimed responsibility.
Reminiscing about the attack, Bulbul termed it “an hour from hell”, saying he felt certain that his life was going to end.
“It was pitch dark. There was a barrage of bullets. People behind our seat got hit. I was holding my children tightly, as my wife tried to shield us, even though she was bleeding profusely herself. People were shouting and moaning in the bus, screaming for help,” Bulbul told Al Jazeera on Thursday night.
When the firing started, the bus was on a steep road, but as the driver tried to speed up the vehicle, a slope came which made it difficult to control the vehicle as it went out of control, while the driver also got shot.
“I was just holding my breath, wondering if the bus will fall off the road into the river, or it will turn over, when we hit another vehicle that was coming from the opposite direction,” Bulbul recalled. “From the first bullet fired till the bus stopped, it all took less than 10 minutes, but it felt like 10 centuries to me.”
With a history of sectarian violence in the Chilas region and other areas of Gilgit-Baltistan where previous attacks targeted Shia Muslims, Bulbul said he wondered if the gunmen would enter the bus to finish off everybody. The Gilgit-Baltistan region consists of roughly equal populations of Sunni and Shia Muslims, including Ismailis, a Shia sub-sect, and Sunni armed groups have targeted them in the past. Bulbul and his family are Ismaili.
“As the bus stopped, my wife told me to take the children out and kept asking me to take care of them, to forget about her and just protect the children. She just repeatedly said don’t worry if she dies, just look after the children,” he said.
Carrying his two children in his arms, a petrified Bulbul tried to get off the bus. He saw people falling off their seats, with some of them dead, and others calling for help.
‘A chance at second life’
With mobile connectivity extremely difficult in the mountainous region, Bulbul said they were lucky that there were some locals who had heard the firing, and arrived at the scene and brought some aid.
Bulbul said his family and some other injured were taken to a nearby hospital in Chilas town in a van, situated half an hour away, where the doctors informed him that Roshan was hit with six bullets on her back and the hospital did not have the required amount of blood that matched her blood group.
“I call it a stroke of luck that one of our relatives works as nurse in the hospital,” Bulbul said. “It was she who managed to arrange some blood somehow.” Doctors performed an emergency operation and his wife’s life was saved.
Bulbul and his family eventually left for Gilgit, the main city of the Gilgit-Baltistan region situated roughly three hours away from Chilas, where his wife was operated upon a second time on Tuesday.
“The second surgery lasted five hours. The doctors said her internal organs were mildly damaged while her ribs were broken as well. She still has three bullets in her spine,” he said.
The 35-year-old Bulbul used to run a grocery shop in his hometown of Ghizer, where he lived with his family.
However, he said, the country’s faltering economy and rising inflation meant it was hard to support his family of four, as well as his parents and siblings, on the income from his small-town shop.
Roshan’s parents live in Karachi. “They asked us to relocate there and that they will help me find a job. So, we decided to pack up our lives here,” Bulbul said.
They had never imagined their journey would turn into a desperate survival battle. Now, Bulbul said, he feels blessed to be alive.
“This is a miracle. When I was on the floor of the bus with firing going on, I was just waiting for my turn to die,” he said. “I wondered if I would get hit first, or my children, and if both my wife and I die, who would look after them. But God has given our family another chance at life, thanks to my wife’s bravery and courage.”