The Cop Who Threw Himself at a Suicide Bomber

Afghanistan’s reputation as a lawless, war-torn place is perhaps surpassed only by its reputation for rampant corruption (which doubtless accounts for the intractability of many of its other problems). Yet millions of Afghans risk their lives everyday in the hopes of creating a better society for themselves and their children, and tens of thousands more have died toward that noble and seemingly distant end.

One of them was 25-year-old Afghan Police Lieutenant Sayed Basam Pacha. He was a hardworking and ambitious cop who despised corruption and the widespread distrust of the country’s security services. He even dreamed of being a high ranking police officer or government minister so as to do more good for his country. He ultimately gave his life in accordance with his noble and virtuous goals. 

As the New York Times reported on November 16, 2017:

At [Lt. Pacha’s] back was a crowd of civilians, many of them dignitaries, leaving the hall he was guarding. Around him were officers from the police company he commanded. The suspect had just approached their heavily guarded gate, the only way in or out of the compound around the hall.

Broad-shouldered and heavily muscled, Lieutenant Pacha shouted at the suspect to halt, but instead the man started running. The officer stopped him, throwing his arms around him in a bear hug.

A second later the bomber detonated the explosive vest hidden under his coat. Fourteen people, including Lieutenant Pacha and seven other police officers as well as six civilians, were killed; 18 others were wounded, seven police and 11 civilians, said Basir Mujahed, a police spokesman.

There was little doubt the death toll would have been far higher without the lieutenant’s body blunting the blast, Mr. Mujahed said

“He’s a hero, he saved many lives,” he said. “All seven of those policemen are heroes but especially him. Just think if that suicide attacker got past the gate, what would have happened — you cannot even imagine.”

Lt. Pacha, who had studied abroad and obtained a degree in political science, had only been on police duty for a year and a half,  for which he had already earned an official commendation. He was proud of his work and took his job very seriously; indeed, it was his discipline that kept him from nearly missing the attack.

The hall had been rented for a political meeting by supporters of Atta Muhammad Noor, the governor of the northern Balkh Province, said Tahir Qadiry, an aide to the governor. Governor Noor has been in a protracted dispute with the government of President Ashraf Ghani.

During the long afternoon event, Lieutenant Pacha had gone into the hall to drink tea with some of the guests, but then said he wanted to return to the gate as people started to leave, a witness said.

The owner of the hall told him to finish his tea, but he said he had to check on his men, according to the witness. Lieutenant Pacha returned just as the suicide bomber arrived; people saw him challenge and then bear hug the attacker.

Despite all the violence and instability that regularly claims the lives of so many of his countrymen, Lt. Pacha was neither discouraged from helping his nation nor despairing in his overall disposition. By all accounts, he was a patriot and optimist to the very end.

“He wanted to make changes here, he had an opportunity to leave and go live abroad, but he rejected it,” Mr. Asil said. “He really hated corruption, and felt bad when people assumed that all policemen are corrupt.”

Lieutenant Pacha was not someone who would have faced death fatalistically, as his friends told it.

“He had very big dreams for himself,” Mr. Asil said. “He wanted to be a general like his father, and maybe one day a high ministry official.”

The characteristic his friends most noted, though, was his cheerfulness. Every week or two he and his friends had a party together. “He was always the cheeriest guy in the party, making everyone else happy,” Mr. Asil said.

In the face of so much evil and corruption, how does someone retain hope for a better day, let alone be driven, against all odds ,to make that happen? What compels someone with so much to live for to reflexively throw themselves in harm’s way to protect others? This is a level of courage and conviction that is alien to me, and I can only hope, however selfishlessly, that I never have to test it out.

It is also something that is too often overlooked by outsiders, who judge troubled countries like Afghanistan by its worst actors — venal politicians, gangsters, militants, and religious fanatics like the one that Lt. Pacha tried to foil — rather than by the normal people who display superhuman perseverance and bravery in the face of untold horror.

One can only hope that these often-forgotten and underappreciated sacrifices (at least to the outside world) are not in vain.

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