FOUR years ago, on a leap day, a young man of 28 walked out of Haripur jail to his freedom. Now when he looks back at this great event in his life, he describes his feelings on the occasion as ‘confusing’. It felt surreal, he said to me, as he looked back to that day. “I was asking myself, ‘Is this really happening to me?’”
Sohail Fida was hauled into prison in 2000 when he was only 16 years. Allegedly false charges of murder were brought against him and a confession extracted by torture.
Despite his incarceration for 12 years — five of them on death row — Sohail did not lose hope. His story is one of grit and courage. It is a story that inspires.
Sohail Fida’s love of books kept him going during his years in jail.
It would appear strange that a person should have mixed emotions of fear and elation on the day for which he had waited for years. An exceptionally insightful man, Sohail Fida realised immediately as he stepped out of Haripur jail that he had changed. Twelve years of seclusion had left him uncomfortable in people’s company. “I had forgotten how it felt to be in public. I felt intimidated by people and disturbed that I could not remember the right way to behave in their presence,” he told me.
For him the transition from total anonymity to such exposure became a challenge. Reintegration into society was complicated and tough. Yet he has not become totally cynical.
How did the misfortunes in his life strengthen Sohail’s resilience as he claims they have? Two important factors sustained him through his adversity during incarceration and his post-prison rehabilitation. One was his love of books and education. The other the humanitarian nature of his job. He is coordinator in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of the Customs Health Care Society (CHCS). This NGO is working to alleviate the sufferings of the poor through model health facilities to address the needs of distressed humanity.
Sohail derives deep satisfaction from his work as he is aware of the relief he provides those in need.
In prison his studies — he passed five examinations in 12 years of imprisonment — and books (Intizar Husain was a favourite) gave him solace. He has words of praise for the prison officials and the numerous volunteers who visited the jail and facilitated his studies. His love for learning is as strong as ever and for two and a half years he has been a volunteer visiting lecturer at a college in Bahrain, Swat. Recently, he earned his BEd degree and will shortly be joining the MEd programme. His commitment to the teaching profession is strong though Sohail realises that it “cannot make him rich, popular or powerful”.
After his initial anger at his misfortune had subsided, he did a lot of introspection which changed his perception of his tragedy. He came to believe that something good would come out of it. “Everyone has problems. What makes a person different from another is his response to adversity,” he remarked, going on to quote a verse, “Two men looked out from the prison bars. One saw the mud, the other saw stars.”
What is the good that has come out of his suffering? “If this prison interlude in my life had not occurred, I would have been a simple graduate, filling gas tanks of buses at my father’s petrol station and arguing with bus drivers and conductors!” he remarked.
But disillusionment is beginning to set in. Like Rip Van Winkle who woke up to a changed world after a long slumber, Sohail finds the innocence he hoped for has vanished. The level of honesty, integrity and truthfulness has fallen dismally though his family’s support has been invaluable. He had scathing comments on the education system in Pakistan; “It encourages copying and cramming culture and is destroying the minds of the youth. Our children can never compete internationally as education has become a business enterprise and students chase paper degrees.”
Sohail Fida is now working on his second book Dream Shattered which is about his own experience of society and the ‘odd people’ he has met since he has been out of prison. His first book Soul Unshackled was written in prison and has been translated into Urdu. It has won a number of awards. May Sohail live to read and write many more books.
But it is also time for civil society to revisit the issue of capital punishment in Pakistan. Many became the hapless victims of miscarriage of justice when the moratorium on executions instituted by the PPP government in 2007 was lifted last year. Another death-row prisoner who devoted his prison years to passing examinations and teaching his fellow prisoners, Zulfiqar Ali, could not escape the noose. If nothing else, there should be a law that book lovers should never be sent to the gallows. We do not have enough of them around.
Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2016