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LAHORE: Hafiz Usman and Akram Shah are visibly shaken by the look on their faces. They sit in the SHO office, motionless, eyes downcast, barely audible when they speak. Akram sits with his hands folded across his chest, a posture of self defence. Usman seems as if he has no idea what is happening with him.

About a week ago, an incident took place inside a school bus where two deaf and mute children were physically abused by Akram and Usman – the conductors.

In the erratically shot video by one of the commuters, six-year-old Saif was made to hang from his arms on the overhead rod of the bus. Hafiz Usman then proceeded to tickle the child’s underarms and face, making light of the situation. What is even more disturbing is that the child was squealing in fright but he was not let down until he fell down himself. He was manhandled a little more (Usman held him upside down) but eventually let him go.

In the second video, Akram is seen being rough with Anees, a 12 years old, who’s eyes have filled up with tears. Although the background of the video is not clear, Akram is seen behaving roughly with the boy, and questioning him in an intimidating manner. “What are you going to tell your father?” he demands threateningly, and even forcibly turns the boys head towards him. Another boy tries to come between the two to stop Akram.

Both Akram and Usman claim that the incident meant nothing much except ‘disciplining the children’. But the bravado that was there in the video is now gone, and in its place meekness has settled in.

‘Hafiz’ Usman - as he is called for memorising the Holy Quran - has spent 12 years of his work life as a permanent member of the Special Education Department. “Others have no idea what these children do,” he mumbles. “They were swinging inside the bus, they were crawling under the seats. They are being naughty and we were only shouting at them. I hung him like that so he would know how dangerous it is.”

In front of the video evidence the excuse sounds flimsy and Senior Investigating Officer Taimur Abbas Khan scorns at their attempt to appear clean.

“Is this the way to tell children to behave?” he asks rhetorically. “Would they do this to their own children?”

Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry, King Edward Medical University (KEMU) Dr Nazish Imran believes that it is a high likelihood that they could, because such behaviour does not occur in isolation. “There are so many factors affecting bullying behaviour or tendencies. Mostly it is people who have been bullied themselves in their lives. At times, because of their experience of society and schooling they believe it is a correct way to show authority,” she explains.

“On top of everything there is no fear of the law either so such cases happen a lot,” she adds. “But it is important to also note if the accused has done this because of lack of awareness. In any case they should definitely be rehabilitated and taught proper social behaviour so they do not become repeat offenders.”

The accused say they never received any special training to handle the children.

“We have always cared for these children more than our own,” says Akram. “It is difficult for us to communicate with these children because their sign language keeps changing and we do not know it. Sometimes it is hard to handle.”

They say they have repeatedly asked Goong Mahal School Principal Chaudhry Mushtaq to help them regarding the issue.

“It’s not just behaviour inside the bus. Occasionally they raise a hue and cry because they want to get dropped off at a different location,” says Usman.

The Ghalib Market SHO instantly condemns the two saying they are a disgrace to the country. “These men are even known to sexually harass the schoolgirls as well. Someone made a video of them but did not share because they did not want to ‘dishonour’ the girls,” he says.

SIO Taimoor Khan says the accused would be sent on physical remand for 24 hours and so they would be presented in court today (Sunday). “They have been registered under Section 35 of the Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children’s Act, under which the offence is non-bailable and they can be given Rs50,000 fine and/or jailed for three years for assaulting and ill-treatment of children,” he said.

Khalid Mehmood, secretary of the Special Education Department, said the principal and the contractor had been suspended after the incident.

“It is not a question of lack of training as this is an isolated incident,” he says. “We have given SOPs and instructions to all principals, and they should be following them.”

Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2017