A cobbler began mending shoes by the edge of a Christian graveyard in Kot Addu in Muzaffargarh. Since he was making an honest living, most people did not mind his little setup near the five-kanal graveyard which had rows and rows of crosses, marking graves from the local community. Every Sunday, families including that of Waseem Shakir would make their way to pay their respects to the elders who had passed away before them.
The cobbler slowly set up a permanent shop and a vegetable seller joined him. Overnight, it seemed to the community, their graveyard was turning into a local market. By 1999, over 50 shops had been constructed over graves. The crosses were replaced with the tea and milk shops and even small houses.
“Imagine, someone’s bathroom now sits on top of my ancestral graves,” Waseem Shakir tells us as he walks through the area, pointing to shops.
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Everyone knows about it, but no one would act
Waseem has been waging this war for well over a decade. The Christian community is poor and at times scared to raise their voice.
“Everyone recognises that there exists a Christian graveyard, which is no longer functioning as a graveyard for the Christian community, but rather land grabbers have taken hold of the land,” he says. “Everyone knows this, all the public bodies as well as the people who have the power and the jurisdiction to do something about it, yet no one has actually done anything to help the situation.”
Every week, Waseem surveys the area to see how much more encroachment has taken place.
“It was very hard to show to people, because one day, the grave is there and the next day someone has built a shop over the grave. The only solution that we have is that we can excavate the graves and then give them new sites for their bodies to be laid to rest. That is the only proof that we can muster”, he tells us dejectedly.
Eight years ago, Waseem won a small victory. The land revenue department acknowledged that a portion of the graveyard has been seized by a third party and that it needs to be vacated.
But that order remains only on paper.
Abducted, threatened, poor...but not losing faith
Waseem was kidnapped a few years ago and threatened several times by men associated with the land mafia, but that has not deterred him.
“Our community is not financially strong, so they don’t have the resources to fight against such people. I am also not financially strong, but I am a part of a unit and we collect funds through which we have employed a lawyer to fight on our behalf,” he says.
The Christian community across the region is facing similar intimidation and harassment. Whether it is false blasphemy accusations or encroachment upon their lands, they know they cannot speak up because the odds are stacked against them and those who do come to their rescue do so at their own peril.
For over 500 graves, the future hangs in the balance. Occasionally, families come to the shops and stand outside to pay their respects to those they know are buried under them.
“What should we tell these families,” questions Waseem, “that their ancestors are not worth it?”
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In recent years, he along with a few others have freed three other graveyards from a similar situation, so he knows that it can be done.
“We just want the DCO Muzaffargarh to register all the Christian graveyards in the area, so that they can be properly monitored and they are safe from a legal perspective,” he says.
Two years ago, Waseem challenged the local police and authorities.
“I challenged the administration to allow us to demolish two shops, and if the shops were not built upon the graves, then I myself will rebuild the same shops. And when the shops were demolished, we saw that they had been built over two graves. The land was illegal in the first place, and the presence of graves confirmed that.”
A series of such events have not moved the local authorities to take on the land mafia, but Waseem is determined to change that.
“Lose your life, but don’t lose your faith,” says the Bible and that’s the motto he has adopted.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 1st, 2015