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The first of August

June 03, 2013

enter image description hereThe track from Sar Shameer meets the road from Samundri at Gojra. The city is famous for many reasons but all of them are tainted with remorse.

Before partition, a large eye hospital functioned at Gojra. India, in those days, had three ophthalmologists. The other two practiced in relatively large cities but Dr Harbhajan Singh stayed at Gojra and treated his patients, some of whom traversed almost entire India to visit him. In 1947, the doctor decided to leave. The locals tried to convince him but the new found land was far more promising than the one which had nurtured him for decades. Many eyes were lost due to tears while others went dark due to absence of treatment, but the city had an answer to blind eyes.

When Amir Ali, a 2nd year student from Gojra lost his eyesight, he did not lose his hope. Graduating from Lincoln’s Inn, he went on to become the first blind person to secure a Doctorate in Legal studies from Canada. The spirit which illuminated Dr Amir Ali Amjad’s ambition now furnishes his dream to build a large eye complex in Gojra for low income patients.

Field hockey is another feature of the city. Gojra rose to prominence as a nursery town of Hockey players, when Pakistan championed the game. As the public and private interest faded, the game also divorced itself from the city. Few kids, however, can still be spotted chasing the torn ball with improvised hockey sticks. The last reference to the city is from the first of August, 2009. The day was painted black due to carnage that resulted in eight deaths including three women and a child. Along with the sun, the hopes and the sense of security also went down. The Christians of Gojra realised that though the city had an answer to the blind eye, it could not do anything for the blind heart.

Few miles away from Gojra is the village of Korian, home to many Christians. It all started from a Christian wedding on July 29, 2009, when a Muslim guest was shown out due to his bad behaviour. After few hours, a mob started building up in front of the wedding house. The rejected guest was leading the crowd with an allegation of blasphemy. The mob insisted that Talib Maseeh and his fellows had desecrated Quran. Before Korian residents could come out bare-footed with the Bible raised above their head to plead not guilty, a church and few houses were set on fire.

—Courtesy Samson Simon Sharaf
—Courtesy Samson Simon Sharaf

Two days later, the Imams of Gojra mosques demanded the federal government to force Christians out of the city. Rallies were called and Muslims worldwide were appealed to save the religion. The appeal was instantly answered by students of seminaries in Jhang. When the crowd swelled, a political leader further instigated the crowd and directed them towards the Christian colony. The leader, who was interested in a housing scheme next to Christian colony, was recently sworn in the parliament. Militants from Jhang drove their twin cabin vehicles to Gojra, brandishing their weapons. While all this happened, police chose to look the other way. More so, when the violence picked up, they fled the scene telling the Christians to run for their lives. By then, all the escape routes had been blocked.

The mob initially chanted the slogans and then pelted stones at Christian houses. With every passing minute, the slogans picked up in tone and rage. A little later, someone shouted Allah o Akbar and torched a house. When the neighboring residences caught fire, people started running for their lives, devastated by the dilemma of what to take and what to leave. The flickering flames burnt houses, securities, pledges and safeguards leaving debris that told miserable stories. In one of the vandalised quarter, a portrait of Jesus Christ had crashed on floor. The Biblical injunction could be read through scratched frame. "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse."(Romans 12:14)

Minhas Hameed, the sole survivor of his family which lost seven lives, clearly recalls that his father was shot in the forehead. He rushed to the hospital without any idea that this was the last he would see of his house and family. After he left, the violence picked up and his scared family gathered in one room to save their lives. When the house caught fire, they could not leave the room. Around 60 houses were burnt that day. These men took instructions from mobile phones and torched houses, which were built by the meager earnings of one generation or even two.

Though the miscreants had masked their faces but the victims also deflected identities. When I looked through caskets, the faces appeared strangely familiar. The burnt corpse of 50-year-old Hameed Maseeh bore striking resemblance with Lal Din Sharaf Sargodhavi, a Christian freedom fighter who had penned an anthem and blocked Jinnah’s entourage at Mission Hospital Quetta to secure guarantees for Pakistani minorities. Forty-year-old Ikhlas Maseeh looked a lot like Sepoy Murad Maseeh, who was martyred on May 17, 2013, while fighting miscreants in Mitni, Peshawar. The 20-year-old charred body was not Asia bibi but probably Sister Martha who never forgot to wish us on Eid and never expected our greetings on Christmas. The scorched remains of 22-year-old Imamia bibi reminded me of Safia, our Christian maid and a part of my childhood memories. While I always ridiculed her dark complexion and called her names, she wore a patient smile and did not leave until I had taken my meal.

Every mourning woman of Gojra looked so familiar. I had seen them moving in our houses every morning, placing their religion and their crockery, besides the electric meter boxes (normally out of the houses) and taking care of our faith that commanded cleanliness. The displaced men looked so much like A R Cornelius and the wounded resembled Cecil Choudhary. Sitting with the coffins, these dark men had managed our schools, ran our offices, maintained our libraries and trimmed our lawns. They were partners to every refinement and accomplishment in our lives.

When the world got the word after two days, police started with raids and arrests. An inquiry commission was ordered which awaits its report to-date. The initial investigations have ruled out any incident of defiling of Quran. The men who set ablaze the church and Christian houses are hinted from Sipah-e-Sahaba (the military of companions of Prophet (PBUH)). Little did they know that one of the companions appointed by the Prophet himself was Warqa Ibn Naufil, a Christian who had endorsed prophet-hood before many of the faithful.