Survivors have been forgotten and forsaken
A short while after the Christian community began trying to pick up the pieces after twin suicide attacks on Christchurch and Saint John’s Catholic Church in Youhanabad, two men were burned alive by a mob. The narrative then spiralled into a Muslims vs Christians competition with no emphasis on what happened to those that survived the fateful attacks in the Christian colony.
Two days after it all happened, Christians were terrorised by a new kind of threat. Doors were broken and locks were busted. Where the doors were too strong, ladders were used to climb over the walls. Men in the house were abducted in the middle of the night. This was not done by any terrorists, rather by members of the police force and intelligence agencies. The ladders were carried to the houses in official police cars. While uninformed men stayed back, officers in civilian clothes did all the dirty work.
Ashar Waseem Bhatti is a name in a list of several dozen men that have been abducted without reason. Sources told Pakistan Today that he is being tortured to make a false confession of involvement in the burning of the two men. The story of the poor man, who is the father of a 15-day-old baby girl, is unfortunately not unique.
Aftab* who is just a teenager was abducted by three policemen Akmal, Balla and Razzaq at 2 am in the night.
“I have pain in my heart because of a breathing problem. They took my brother but let me go when they realised I couldn’t handle the torture. Then one of the officers told the others to let me go because if I ended up dying it would create a problem. But they made me lead them to my brother and took him instead,” Aftab said, still visibly disturbed from the episode.
The alleged crime? So far the police hasn’t offered one. They take the men they want without warrants or evidence. No civil discussion has taken place with any of the families of those they’ve taken.
“The people who did the burning are all gone, their pictures were taken and they knew they would get caught. The people they are now taking away in the middle of the night are innocent. They bring no warrants and no evidence with them and listen to no one,” he added.
Aftab’s sister-in-law Rebecca* has been looking for her husband from the moment he was taken and she’s yet to find out where he’s being held. “When they were taking him I was crying and begging them to let him go. They thought it was funny and kept laughing at me,” she said.
“They are harassing the women and children in these homes. They break in without worrying about our pardah and sharam. After they take all our men what are the women to do to protect themselves?” Rebecca asked angrily.
Shehnila* is another woman whose husband was ripped from her bed in the middle of the night. “They came in like thieves. They found a tablet and cell phones on charge and took them along. The money we had from the shop was also stolen. I don’t know where my husband is, he was one of the six men in the house that were taken that night. Only women are left in the house,” she said.
“Our father is old, he begged them to leave one man back because he would need help but no one listened to him. These people are inhuman. I was sleeping with my husband when they broke in, they don’t care about the women that are in the houses they break into, they don’t care about what we’re doing or how we’re dressed in the confines of our homes, they’re disgusting,” she added angrily.
Shehnila’s husband was seriously ill at the time he was taken to the extent that he couldn’t get up. “He was dragged out like an animal… they didn’t even let him put his shoes on. They didn’t even say anything to us, they could’ve asked us that they’ll be searching the premises, would we have stopped them? We weren’t given the opportunity to cooperate. No one asked us,” she remembered bitterly.
So far every home the police has entered has two things in common: men have been abducted without a warrant or evidence of any crime, and valuable items have been taken from the homes.
The markets in Youhanabad have shops owned by both Muslims and Christians. In the days after the blast, and the burning of the two men, any Christian that opened his shop was taken by the police. Most of the shops are closed, and the ones that are open are predominantly run by Muslims.
It’s no secret that a social boycott is plaguing the Christians of Youhanabad, and shopkeepers in Nishtar Colony have been ostracising people they think are Christians. Some have resorted to checking ID cards and others refuse service to anyone that “looks” Christian enough.
What’s alarming is that the burning incident almost repeated itself in Nishtar Colony only a few days after two men were burned alive. Two boys were mercilessly beaten up in Nishtar Colony, according to Aftab. “People were ready to set them alight as well, then someone had the idea of checking their ID cards, and they turned out to be Muslims,” he said.
Reverend Irshad Ashknaz of the Christchurch in Youhanabad feels that the focus has unnecessarily and unfairly shifted.
“I have been saying from day one that whatever happened to the two men was wrong. It was entirely against humanity and we will apologise a thousand times for it. It is a well known fact the mob was not made of Christians only, it had Muslims too. But this fact is not being highlighted by the media at all. Our dead have been forgotten,” he said.
“Terrorism aside, people are now sitting scared here. They aren’t afraid that Muslims will attack them to exact revenge, they’re afraid of the police that is coming in the middle of night and taking whoever they want. The actual issue of terrorism is lost between the weird Muslim-Christian tussle that has started. People aren’t bothered or worried about that anymore, and perhaps that is what the terrorists would have wanted, that we all focus on something else and no one thinks of them,” he said.
“Youhanabad is still in danger, the men that came definitely didn’t come alone, others must have come with them. Why are we not even thinking about that aspect? The people who gave them the material, places to live, information about the churches and what not, need to be found and brought to justice. They knew when to attack and how to attack, they came well planned,” he added.
The security in the area isn’t all that promising either. Instead of feeling secure because of police presence, people only feel harassed and cornered. “Security in the area is such that people who walk-in, or people on bikes are stopped, and cars can enter and exit as they please. Why aren’t they checking the cars? Till last week they were stopping everyone but now they refuse to check anyone except the obvious poor — that make up the majority of people =- in the area,” the pastor informed.
“The policemen were placed here for our benefit… humein tu leine ke deine par gaey hain, they’re causing us more grief then making us feel secure,” he lamented.
The Christian community is not capable of mass violence. Lent, a period of fasting, is currently underway and Easter is coming but the community is too caught up in fear to be able to even think about these things.
While people are talking of a Christian retaliation, the reality couldn’t be further from it.
“These are poor people, they can’t do anything. The shopkeepers that are orchestrating the boycotts and turning them away have the upper hand. These people have neither the will nor the resources to lash out or fight back,” he explained.
Shunila Ruth, a woman minority MPA of PTI, has been in touch with the people of Youhanabad since the blasts happened. “I don’t know what the government is doing and why they’re allowing people to be abducted in this manner. Only yesterday I met a woman who begged the police to let her son go, he had an exam and she showed him his slip but they took him away anyway,” she said.
“The abductions aren’t restricted to Youhanabad, they’re happening in Hamza Town, Atif Colony and other places too,” she informed.
“This is Shahbaz Sharif’s constituency. At the time of elections they made all kinds of promises, they said they would turn Youhanabad into Paris. Between 150,000-200,000 Christians live in the area and it isn’t just a large population in Pakistan, but it is one of the largest in South Asia, why have these people been left without help like this?” she asked. “Mob violence is the result of the government and the police’s failures. People, when so many injustices keep happening against them, will react. They can only be oppressed for so long before something like this happened,” she added.
The survivors and their dilemmas
Reverend Ashknaz lamented the fact that while the dead were given cheques for Rs500,000 no provisions had been made for the survivors of the blasts. The government seems more interested in making sure that the community knows that the two men that died were more important than all the dead and injured of Youhanabad.
He was present at the ceremony where cheques were given out to those that lost their lives. “While they gave cheques for Rs500,000 to those martyred, the ones injured were given nothing and we’ve been told nothing in this regard,” he said.
A lot of the people that were admitted on the day of the blasts were immediately discharged. This included many that had harrowing injuries that required detailed and extensive treatment. Sikandar is one volunteer who lost a lot during the attack. He stood firm in defence of the church he was meant to protect and came out of the ordeal with a leg riddled with bullets, and an eye that will never work again.
He had been working as a volunteer for the security team for the St John’s Catholic Church for a long time. While Akash Bashir died tackling a suicide bomber, it was men like Sikandar on the inside that made sure the doors never opened for the terrorists.
“We were sitting and talking when the blast happened at Christchurch. We thought it was a cylinder that had burst. We had only ever heard of terrorism or seen it on TV, none of us were prepared for what happened. We were only talking about that when someone yelled ‘cover the gate’ and I rushed to the gate with my friend Shahbaz. When the bomber exploded I didn’t know what had happened, I didn’t hear a gun go off,” he recalled.
Sikandar has been waiting for government help since day one, but help never came. “The government has not tried to help us at all. My friends are the ones helping me right now. Father Francis and others in the area are helping me with my medical treatment. From Kamran Michael to Shahbaz Sharif, no one has tried to help us.”
MPA Mary Gill of the PML-N, however, claims that help is being given to everyone. That few people that are left out of the loop is not intentional, she said, contrary to claims from a majority of the people in the area who say that no help has ever been offered.
“I won’t ask any of them for help, can’t they see the state we’re in?” Sikandar asked pointing to his bullet-riddled leg, most of them are yet to be removed. The only thing that Sikandar did get was a note from the hospital on which they said Sikandar could be reimbursed. “But when I asked where I should submit it no one had any answers. I was told the government would find me and deliver the money on its own,” he said with a sarcastic smile.
He was also turned away from the medical stores who told him quite frankly that there was no subsidy or free medicine for him despite him being a blast survivor. He then went to a Christian medical shop where the bills were handled by Father Francis.
“We only got special attention on the first day. We couldn’t even find a stretcher for him today,” Sikandar’s friend Bhatti said. “No one cares that he’s hurt or that he can’t stand because both his legs were injured. They make us sit and wait in a line irrespective of how badly injured anyone is,” he added.
The young man shares his home with his father. Before the accident he was the only one supporting the family by driving a Rickshaw. After the loss of his eye in the attack, the likelihood of him being able to do that is very slim.
The future is bleak for Sikandar and help doesn’t seem like its coming. If not the government then perhaps NGOs could help the survivors, but apparently that doesn’t seem to be the case.
“NGOs come and take our pictures and leave, no one tries to do anything to help people like me,” Sikandar lamented.
Of the three friends helping him with his trips to the doctor, not one feels safe. “Three of my brothers have already been taken from our homes, I was here helping him and wasn’t taken. None of know what will happen to Sikandar if they take us too,” Bhatti said.
On what the government’s official stance is regarding the method through which men are being taken from their homes, MPA Gill said, “The method of picking up the men has been denounced by the CM. So far 17 people have been released. Even though more than hundred people were taken, there is an investigation underway. Based on the footages that we have a list has been provided, any innocent person will be released,” she said.
She went on to compare the incident with Kot Radha Kishan where Shama and Shahzad Masih were burned alive by an angry mob. “When Kot Radha incident happened more than 3,000 people were picked up as suspects. That’s how things are done here,” she said.
The Kot Radha Kishan case itself has been stuck in limbo ever since it began with no progress until now. The police has yet to provide concrete evidence or do anything that can lead to any convictions.
Gill further said that the problem isn’t the treatment of the survivors, rather everything is being viewed through a victimisation lens.
“The situation is worse for Youhanabad because the two men that were burned ensured that there is no support from civil society. And the Christian leadership is weak. The religious leadership is not doing the work they need to be doing — there’s a vacuum,” she explained.
“Other places have blasts too, so many issues don’t come up there. Just because we, the Christian community, are now being affected by it we feel like all the things that are happening are because of our faith,” she added.
The survivors, according to Gill, have not yet been given any money by the government because there are too many of them and more data is needed before a Rs75,000 amount can be released to them. On being told about the many that are still suffering because of no help from the government, Gill was adamant that such a scenario could not exist.
“I don’t know many people who are suffering like this. If you know anyone who is in this condition then share their information,” she said.
When asked whether she has a list of the people that have been successfully helped by the government so far she said, “All of them were given medical aid properly, it’s the state’s responsibility and the hospital’s responsibility. No one is going out of their way, but efforts have been made. If extra efforts are needed for anyone then they should reach out to the government,” she said. “There are no issues with the treatment being given by the hospital,” she added.
The Rs75,000 figure itself seems inadequate. How will such an amount be able to cover the expenses for people like Sikandar who have lost a leg and an eye to the attack? Sikandar was told that the expenses for his eye would be covered by Father Francis and Gill doesn’t offer much hope in the matter either.
“The money… this amount, it is just a gesture from the state. You have to see that we are fighting a war against terrorism. The aid given in the hospital is free — as long as they’re in the hospital everything is funded by the government,” she said.
“If someone has lost their leg then even Rs7,500,000 is not a good enough amount. Can the Rs500,000 bring back the martyrs? No amount can justify it. The money we’re giving isn’t supposed to last a lifetime. This is just a thing the government is doing because they have to take such measures in these situations. The amount cannot be used to judge anything,” she said.
The survivors of Youhanabad have been forgotten and forsaken. The government has failed them on several fronts, from being unable to provide them the security needed to stop a terrorist attack, to using augmented security against the very people that were affected, to failing the survivors once more in terms of their medical issues. No one knows what the future holds in store for the people of Youhanabad — the only thing that the people in the area know for sure is that things will only go downhill from here.
*Names have been deliberately changed to protect people’s identities for security reasons.