Do you remember the ill-fated Shama and Shahzad Masih, the Christian couple from Kasur’s Kot Radha Kishan district in a brick kiln village called Chak 59?
The husband and wife – who was pregnant at the time – were falsely accused in 2014 of blasphemy, then lynched by a mob who first paraded them naked and then set them on fire.
Four years have passed since that terrifying ordeal.
As their legacy, the couple left behind a woeful tale of mob brutality, of the extreme misuse of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws – and even the question of the cruel treatment meted out to brick kiln workers who are modern day ‘slaves’.
But they also left behind three little children, who have now moved to the city, away from the horrors of the dusty, smoky brick kiln where their parents once worked.
Remembering Shama and Shahzad
Ten-year-old Suleman, the eldest of the three, was the only one to have seen what happened to his parents on that cursed day. His relatives, who are now the guardians of the children, say he was utterly shaken and deeply affected by the tragedy.
Poonam, who was just two years old at the time, had fallen down. Quick to act, their maternal aunt had picked her up and the other two children and had fled the scene before the mob turned on them.
“Suleman had bad dreams for a long time. He would often wake up screaming for his parents,” says Shama’s father, Mukhtiar Masih, who now has full custody of the three.
Even now the children are a little apprehensive when meeting strangers.
As if to prove a point he turns to them and asks blatantly “You remember Mama and Papa?” The children nod.
Something stirs in them. Suleman goes to the the cupboard, climbs to the top most shelf and takes out a banner with photographs of his deceased parents. It is the only picture he has of his father.
“That’s him, that’s my father,” he says pointing to the picture of a thin, gaunt man, with a mustache and the trace of a stubble on his face.
“Ae Mama ni ai (This isn't Mummy),” says Sonia, her face falling slightly, as she looks at the woman. All three children speak only in Punjabi.
The media has erroneously been using a picture of Shahzad and another girl, captioning them as pictures of the couple. But the woman in the photo is Shahzad's niece, who is alive and well.
Ironically, it was the cruel end of their parents that helped break the shackles of bonded labour for the children.
Today, Suleman, 10, Sonia, 8, and Poonam, 6, go to school and try to live their lives like ordinary children — but forever haunted by the brutality of the day their parents were lynched.
A helping hand
The rehabilitation of these children would not be possible without the help of a small organisation working in Lahore known as the Cecil Chaudhry and Iris Foundation (CICF). Named after the veteran air-force hero Cecil Chaudhry and his wife, the organisation is run by their daughter Michelle Chaudhry.
Out of the several that flocked to help after the couple's murder in 2014, CICF was the only one that stayed aboard and continues to help the children to this day.
“At first we gave them counselling because they were so afraid they would not go to anyone at all,” says Michelle Chaudhry.
“Later we helped them enroll in our school in Youhanabad. We gave them uniforms, stationery — literally everything that parents give their children. There was no one else.”
She says Suleman is now slowly gaining momentum, but despite everything, even now there are times when he goes into a daze.
“We have tried our best to help him emotionally and otherwise. He is doing much better, but because he actually witnessed the incident it is inevitable that he recalls it from time to time.
“They are all progressing well,” adds Michelle. “The other two children were only two and four years old, so they do not remember the loss of their parents as such. But when we first saw them, Sonia kept repeating the same sentence from time to time “Mummy papa nu saar dita” (they have burnt Mummy and Papa). Even for us, handling this was a heart-rending ordeal.”
Picking up the pieces
In school, the children are doing well.
“They have been getting top grades in class,” says Alyssa, who works in CICF.
“We are really very proud of them. And no one should be fooled by their shyness! These kids can be rowdy.”
“Suleman in school is one of the naughtiest boys around,” she says affectionately, glancing at him do his work. “He loves performing on stage.”
It is reassuring to see them get their academic life on track, but as time passes, the children’s needs will have to be reconsidered and this will pose to be an even bigger challenge for Michelle.
“They are people not a project,” she says. “If we took responsibility for them, we should continue with it.”
Right now the house they are living in is the property of the church, and has been given to them. It is not in their name.
“In any case we will be sending them to a boarding school eventually,” says Michelle, without taking the name of the school. “We want to groom them as much as possible. It has taken them four years to be accustomed to city life, but even now, they do not have the know-how that they should.”
This boarding school run by foreigners is located a little out of the city and Michelle is certain it will be good for Suleman.
“We are thinking of sending Suleman first as he is the eldest,” she says. “The girls are too little right now.”
Michelle says that she has to keep reminding people of them. “It’s only been four years and still people have more or less forgotten the incident, but I have to keep reminding them of the children. We get some donations which help.”
“It is an uncertain future, but we are with them all the way,” says Alyssa.
The reality is that Michelle has been paying for everything out of her own pocket.
“We are not getting any formal donations from anywhere,” she says. “We have to make sure that these children get their food, their clothes, their medical expenses, everything. It’s all done by us.”
According to one version of the story making rounds, the trigger point was when eight months pregnant Shama began to question the status of their peshgi, which she argued with the contractor, had already been paid. Peshgi is a kind of 'earnest payment' that labourers pay to take a loan; this often keeps them indebted to their employers. Peshgi is a system of bonded labour.
It was the same contractor who then lured the couple on the pretext of talking and locked them up in his office.
On the directions of the kiln owner, he told the neighbourhood cleric that Shama had been caught burning some Quranic verses. In reality they had been burning some documents that belonged to Shahzad’s recently deceased father who was a faith healer (aamil).
The cleric made an announcement that they have committed blasphemy, and within half an hour a mob of hundreds had collected at the kiln. The mob pulled the couple outside the locked room, and dragged them to the flames of the brick kiln.
Some reports say that it is unclear whether the couple had been alive when they had been burnt. But one thing is certain: there was nothing left of them to bury.
The case dominated national news and sparked a global outcry. A top Vatican official described the lynching as a "humiliation for all of humanity".
The case was instantly sent to an anti-terrorism court (ATC), and a total of 103 people were charged. In November 2016, five men were sentenced to death, including Yusuf Gujjar the kiln owner – sentences that are currently under appeal in the ATC – while 10 others were given varying jail terms for playing a supportive role in the killings.
The same court also acquitted 93 suspects in the case in 2016.
The lawyer for the family Riaz Anjum said that the five people who were awarded the death sentence were involved in dragging, beating and burning the couple.