Sabar Gul, 27, still remembers the fateful day nearly four years ago when the coal mine he was working in deep underground in northwestern Pakistan collapsed.
Days later when he regained consciousness, the lower half of his body was paralyzed. He never walked again. “From that day, my life has been confined to a bed. I cannot walk, and now I can’t even control my bladder,” he told Radio Mashaal.
Gul is one of thousands of disabled miners in Shangla, a picturesque but impoverished mountainous district in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province that supplies most of the country’s tens of thousands of miners. Young men from Shangla flock to mines across Pakistan in the hopes of cashing in on the slightly better wages offered the industry.
But dangerous working conditions, lax safety regulations, and a lack of emergency services mean hundreds of miners from Shangla are killed in mining accidents every year. Hundreds more are injured in mines or are afflicted by diseases after exposure to dangerous chemicals, gases, and dust. In the absence of comprehensive government assistance, families and communities often scramble to look after incapacitated miners.
Gul says his life as a paraplegic is a living hell. “I can’t do anything and just lie in bed thinking of things that makes me very depressed. I feel like I will soon go mad.”
His wife and three children have no source of income since the accident, and their extended family of 25 now lives off a small field where they grow crops.
“My brother was born with disabilities. I was the only breadwinner,” he said. “Successive governments have done nothing for me. Whatever little help we get comes from our relatives and our community.”
Hussain Ali, another former miner in his late 20s, is now wheelchair-bound after a spinal-cord injury in 2016. He spends his days teaching his five children and kids from his neighborhood.
“I’m lucky to have brothers who look after our family. But I am trying to collect information about other miners suffering from disabilities and diseases,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We have miners here who have been disabled for decades.”
Ali says the only real help they get is at a rehabilitation clinic for paraplegics in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s capital, Peshawar, some 200 kilometers away. “I know someone who has been forced to beg to survive,” he noted.
Fawad Ashraf oversees the government’s social welfare department in Shangla. He says they are trying to register disabled miners so that they can receive assistance. Once the paperwork is completed, they can qualify for an intermittent monthly grant of nearly $20 from the government.
“For now, our resources are very limited. We only have two current programs to help the disabled,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We have registered nearly 5,000 people as disabled in Shangla. But I cannot say with certainty how many of them were miners.”
Tashfeen Haider, the deputy commissioner or senior civilian administrator of Shangla, says the plight of disabled miners is heartbreaking and the authorities are now reaching out to international and nongovernmental organizations and local philanthropists for help.
“It is really painful to know the circumstances of these people, particularly the suffering endured by widows and small children,” he told Radio Mashaal. “I am also urging local politicians and lawmakers to do something to help people struggling with disabilities.”
Gul, however, sees no end to his misery. “Our only hope is Allah,” he says.