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Footprints: The killing streets

Updated November 21, 2017
A SANITARY worker sweeps up a section of Murree Road in full rush-hour traffic.—Mohammad Asim / White Star
A SANITARY worker sweeps up a section of Murree Road in full rush-hour traffic.—Mohammad Asim / White Star

RAWALPINDI: At 8am, the rush-hour traffic in Sadiqabad is at its worst. Van drivers ferrying students to school make a death-defying dash for every available nook, while annoyed office workers who are fed up with having to take a detour around Faizabad honk angrily.

Into this fray steps Boota Masih; without the signature high-visibility jacket that sanitation workers now wear or the massive brooms that they carry, he is almost indistinguishable from the young hands who are cleaning out storefronts and raising shutters in the bazaar. To everyone, that is, except for the owners of these stores.

“Work fast. Get this rubbish heap away from my shop.”

“Sir, just two more minutes...”

Boota moves fast, hurriedly sweeping both the road and the sidewalk, collecting the rubbish into a small heap and dumping it into a nearby skip.

He didn’t always have to do such a rush job; sanitation workers usually came out at the crack of dawn, sweeping up the streets long before most people are even stirring in their beds.

Equipped with wheelbarrows and modern brooms, workers from the Al-Bayrak company — the firm that handles sanitation in Rawalpindi and other major cities of Punjab now — would swarm up and down roads like busy bees, their orange jackets glinting in the rising sun.

But all that changed on Nov 11, when assailants gunned down three sanitation workers early in the morning. Asif Masih, Saqib Hussain and Mohammad Irshad were killed on the spot.

This was not the first time something like this had happened. In August, two Al-Bayrak workers were killed and one was injured by shooters in the same area. On June 3, Ashir Asif was killed by gunmen near Chandni Chowk.

The latest spate of murders has spooked the workers’ community and their employers. Uniforms and equipment have both been taken away to make workers less conspicuous, while duty timings, which used to start at 5am, now begin at 8am, when more people are around.

“Despite all these precautions, we are still concerned about the security of our people,” says George Masih.

Using two bamboo sticks to lift a dead rat from the side of the road and into his waste trolley, he doesn’t skip a beat as he explains how people like him are easy targets for anyone who wants to spread panic in the city.

Another worker, Suhail Akhter, recounts how terrified his family was in the aftermath of the killings. “My mother calls me twice a day now and my wife calls me every hour,” he says, jokingly lamenting the burden on his phone bill.

“We make Rs17,000 a month, and that’s not enough to feed all the mouths at home. On our old timings, it was easy for us to work evenings elsewhere to make some extra money. But after the shift-change, we have no time or energy left to do anything extra.”

Fearing for their lives and livelihoods, workers from the Rawalpindi Municipal Waste Company and Al-Bayrak banded together to stage a protest a couple of weeks ago, demanding that police trace those responsible for murdering their colleagues.

At the time, acting Commissioner Talat Mehmood Gondal had promised them that the provincial government would pay Rs800,000 to each victim’s family in compensation, and said the amount would be matched by their employers as well.

But Shakeela, the wife of slain Asif Masih, has been unable to shake her memories of his final goodbye. “He was in a hurry and forgot to wear his jacket while going to duty in the morning. I remember calling after him asking him to wear his pullover. An hour later, I heard he had been killed,” she says, fighting back the tears.

Shakeela now finds herself running back and forth between the local police station and the Al-Bayrak offices, in the hopes of getting some support that will help her raise her four children.

Her brother-in-law, Abid Masih, describes his sibling as a gentle soul. “We are a poor family and have no enmity with anyone. He worked from early morning until late at night, he didn’t have time to quarrel with anyone,” he says; emotionally.

“My elderly parents have not been the same since he passed away; my mother weeps whenever she sees her orphaned grandchildren because she is worried about their future,” he says.

But he is clear on whose responsibility it is to ensure justice is done. “He died on duty and it is the government’s responsibility to provide compensation. But all the claims made by the authorities are eyewash, as there hasn’t even been any effort to arrest the killers so far,” he laments.

A brief chat with Chaudhry Zulfiqar, the Sadiqabad police station house officer, confirms Abid’s suspicions. “Local police and the Counter Terrorism Department are both working on the case, but there has been no headway so far. We are interrogating some people and have sought CCTV footage of the incident,” he says without much enthusiasm.

When pressed to elaborate, he merely says: “It is a blind murder”, as if that explains everything.

Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2017