Torched lanes, tortured people tell untold tales
LAHORE: Michael Masih winds his way inside Joseph Colony. The lanes are flooded with dirty water, blackened even more by ashes and muddy shoes. He is walking towards the two destroyed churches, to see the level of damage done.
It is the second day of the horrific attack on the Christian community in the Badami Bagh area. Many of the residents have returned and are picking their way to their destroyed homes, trying to accept what they have lost. Along with the houses, two churches have also been attacked and destroyed, leaving only bare walls inside. A huge chunk of the ceiling in the Catholic Church is missing making a kind of absurd skylight. From inside, a contraption is found: three bottles tied together with red cloth, with some kind of chemical inside. It is a chemical bomb, they say. Every new realization that sweeps over them makes them angrier and fills them with open hatred for the Punjab government and police.
Michael’s shop has been completely destroyed. There are other shops in the colony still intact but made clean sweep of. Egg trays lie overturned, but no eggs lie broken anywhere: a sign that they were obviously stolen. A trunk lies outside in the lane, with its locks broken.
“They broke into shops, stole everything, then broke open locks of houses, took whatever they could, and then set fire,” he says deadpan.
So much strife has made him feel dead too. In fact the whole area resembles a kind of mourning procession, or in the words of another resident, the place is a graveyard.
There is a large tent where some women are sitting, but most are moving about: things have to be done and there is no time for rest. Preparations must be made for the night but till now, they know they can only sleep outside in the open. This is after the government has sent some people to clear the houses of whatever is left inside, so that they can be demolished for renovation. But this does not please the residents.
“He came for a few minutes,” says a woman referring to Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.
“Then he announced a compensation package which we have all decided not to accept and then he announced that he will rebuild the houses within four days. This can never be rebuilt so soon. And where will we sleep till then?” she says.
One church official stands in a small house leading the mourners through prayer. They are sitting huddled on a tattered charpoy. “We will not strike in vengeance,” he says. A woman’s eyes are closed but her tears run freely down her cheeks. Even a two year old boy sits praying, his eyes closed. “The Lord is with us,” she says.
To turn the other cheek, they say, is the biggest of the Christian principles taught. But how long can this go on?
“They burn our churches and our holy book, which is sacred to them too, and they are not blaspheming? Are we the only ones to be accused of this?” he says.
“It is the second day and no one from any of the political parties has been here to actively help us,” says Aijaz Masih. Although some MQM workers are seen on the fringes and by evening the PPP’s Minority wing has also arrived in small numbers. “There is no medical camp. We cannot even find a pill for pain relief anywhere; there is no system of sanitation or washroom provided. Where will our women go? Food was brought in by some friends of ours, but from the government only lip service we have got.”
Many claim that most of the media reports have whitewashed the truth and have shown the news as if help is actually on its way. But this is far from the truth. There is no rehabilitation work being done and no relief teams present at the scenario.
“Unfortunately the authorities are much more interested in having their Fun Festival on a day of mourning,” says Akram Masih, who is covered in soot from head to toe.
“It is indeed disheartening and disappointing that this festival could not be postponed for what has just happened.”
He shakes his head in dismay. “I cannot believe the level of indifference that we have been treated with. And the truth is there are more than 250 homes destroyed and a mob of only thousands could have done this.”
Protests in reaction were held at the Lahore Press Club followed by one at Charring Cross and even in the Badami Bagh area. Earlier in the day, some protestors decided to compensate the attack on their houses by breaking windows and furniture of the newly built Metro Bus.
“If they can’t hear us in the ordinary way, they will have to see this as a result,” says a Christian party worker.
At the press club, Centre for Human Rights Education (CHRE) with Abid Hasan Manto’s party, and Pakistan Minorities League supporters gathered for a rally.
“The sitting MPA of the area has started a hate campaign and given ideas of blasphemy accusations to the miscreants,” says Samson Salamat, CHRE executive director.
“He with the merchants and traders union of the area has done this together. It’s a case of land grabbing and has nothing to do with blasphemy. Even if there was such a case which we believe is not, Saavan should have been treated according to law. We are sorry to say the government has given patronage to a kind of militancy and radicalism against minorities.”Allama Tahir Ashrafi who represents the Ulema Council, came to the protest and said that this act was a disgrace to all humanity.
“If our Prophet (PBUH) preached protection for minorities, these attackers are not his followers,” he said. “And I say this again, if the government and the State cannot give them protection than we Muslims will have to do so,” he said.
Ashrafi says that if in Rimsha Masih and Gojra incidents culprits had been brought to fair trial, this would not have happened again.
“We should admit that we are not strong enough to fight these mainstream radicals,” says Zanobia Richards. “We are not politically organized and we are somewhat divided. Also we have little representation in the assemblies. And our minority representatives are always under pressure. All the same we feel that this may be a turning point as this has become a nationwide protest.”