Shahrag, the Pakistani town where boys aren't safe from men

Published February 17, 2019
Growing up ought to be a time of innocence but for these children, it is a time of torment. ─ Photo by author
Growing up ought to be a time of innocence but for these children, it is a time of torment. ─ Photo by author

Sometimes, in some places, wherever you look, you can only see wolves pretending to be human.

The town of Shahrag is one such place.

Situated in a valley in Harnai district in Balochistan, Shahrag boasts “300 to 400” coal mines that are mined by “over 30,000 men.” There are children working the mines, too, but an official count does not exist.

The district is predominantly populated by Pashtuns but a sizeable population of Marri Baloch are also scattered across its mountainous areas. Pashtuns own the majority of tribal lands in Shahrag and also live in great numbers in the town. The southern part of the Shahrag tehsil is where coal-laden mountains exist. And it is also here that the Marris live and work.

“In Shahrag,” in the words of a local Pashtun dweller, “one cannot remain jobless thanks to these mountains. If someone brings 200 men to me this very instant, I can appoint them straight away at the coal mines.”

This is why most workers here are from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. There is also a chunk of workers who come from across the Afghanistan border. Together, these constitute about 80 percent of the workforce while the remaining 20 percent workers are locals and Baloch, especially from the Marri tribe.

Shahrag in Balochistan is known as a coal-mining town. But it also hides an ugly secret

On the face of it, Shahrag is a traditionally patriarchal society and fairly religious, too. Women hardly come out of their homes and men tend to rule the roost around here.

But Shahrag is also completely cut off from the rest of Balochistan. Nobody there quite knows what is happening in the rest of the country. Nobody in the rest of the country cares much for Shahrag either.

In this isolation, Shahrag has managed to hide its big, ugly secret: its boys are not safe from its men.

In the name of 'responsibility'

When 13-year-old Kaleem* reached the coal mines from Dir earlier this year, he didn’t expect much fanfare upon his arrival. But a colony of miners was waiting for that day to arrive.

And as soon as he set foot on the Al-Gilani branch of the mountain, where some eight coal mines are situated, the excitement became tangible. News that Dir’s coal miners had brought in a new guy to the mines spread like wildfire. He became the talk of the town and even miners from other coal mines arrived to take a look at the new boy. Kaleem wasn’t quite the new bride but quickly became the new boy that many men were lusting after.

Nestled in the mountains are cottages housing miners. ─ Photo by author
Nestled in the mountains are cottages housing miners. ─ Photo by author

I left Shahrag city to head to the mountains early one day to meet Kaleem who I had been told about by locals. Along with about 20 others, including two boys around his age, Kaleem is housed in a mud-and-stone cottage at the top of a mountain. There are only two bedrooms and one kitchen. In the room where we sit down for a chat, there is no light other than whatever little comes from the burning stove.

Kaleem is wearing a black shalwar kameez over a yellow sports shirt. Fortunately, he is alone in the house at the time, around 3pm, because his elder colleagues are working “probably 1,700 feet below surface inside the coal pit.”

There is a big, black teapot on the stove filled with water which is boiling. He tells us that, over the last week, the weather has become frigid in Shahrag. Sitting alone next to the stove, he looks neat and clean, his black hair combed through the middle. After welcoming us, he does not utter a single word; instead, he goes out to wash two cups. Without saying a word, he pours black tea to serve us.

Kaleem is quite shy. He evades almost all questions put to him. After a series of monosyllabic answers, he blurts: “I do not have a father. I have come here to work to financially support my family back in Dir.”

What kind of work?

“I am a cook here,” he replies with a grim smile.

[Parents] turn a deaf ear to any complaints on the basis that these children are earning money ... This is why Shahrag’s children have “friendships” with people as old as their parents.

Kaleem has come to Shahrag to replace his brother. They are four brothers. According to him, they belong to a very poor family. He studied till primary back home but had to leave school because the family was reeling in poverty.

“All children, including me, work here because we either do not have elders [parents, uncles] or they are disabled and senile,” Kaleem adds. “I am paid 10,000 rupees monthly.”

Herein lies the ugly reality of Shahrag’s coal mines.

Children such as Kaleem are brought here from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and even from Afghanistan for the sole purpose of sexually abusing them. They are used as sexual partners by mature coal miners — these boys are either unable to say no to unwanted advances or need the cash offered in exchange for providing sexual services.

At first, even Kaleem does not want to talk about his situation. When asked if his body is used for sexual services, he does not reply. He simply leaves the room.

Miners return from their shift. ─ Photo by author
Miners return from their shift. ─ Photo by author

The first shift at the mines ends just after 3pm and the miners begin to emerge. All of them come to sit with us and we quickly change the discussion. The talk is now about the vulnerability felt by the coal miners in the mines. As we are about to leave, I spot Kaleem sitting on a big rock and chatting with a tall man.

“He [Kaleem] is their special guy,” relates a local miner accompanying me. “The monthly payment he is given is remuneration for satisfying their lust, not to work. They do not let him in the coal mine because he will get blackened.”

Such treatment is not meted out to Shah Farman*, a 16-year-old who arrived from Swat in 2017. Since then, he has been working as a coal cutter against a monthly salary of 35,000 rupees. But while he is at the mines, he has been routinely raped by adult men. Nobody bats an eyelid at what happens to Shah Farman almost every day. They tell me, “It’s all normal.”

Abuse as a way of life

Sexual abusers come in all forms and sizes. But they present themselves as ordinary human beings with an ordinary lifestyle.

For example, take Saqib*, a local coal miner in his early 40s. He is a tall man. There are white patches in his black beard and moustache. On the day we meet him, he wears a white cap and an old chador with which he has wrapped himself up. He has been in the mining business for the last 15 years.

Saqib meets us at a playground situated away from Shahrag city, near the Harnai road.

“The information you want to extract from me is strange,” he shouts when I ask him the question. “How can I tell you that we sexually abuse boys?”

But once he has settled down, he begins talking.

“Yes, I have had sex with boys in coal mines and even outside,” says Saqib. “This is not new. Swatis and other Afghans have chhothus [young sidekicks] who are their sexual partners. I do not have one because I am a local. I cannot afford that.”

The coal mines are approximately up to 6,000 feet deep. According to Saqib, children are also not spared there.

“We do have two to three children working inside the coal mines with us,” discloses Saqib, “At the time of coal cutting, deep inside the coal mines, we, the elder coal miners, have had sex with them, too. And [all this] is routine.”

He pauses to stare into the distance.

“The more you work inside the coal mine, the more you start hating it.”

He seems to imply that abuse is a form of escape.

The Red Cat and the mutkuli children

Central to most activity in Shahrag is a bus stop — those bringing coal from the mountains into the town or those leaving the town all tend to make a stopover at the adda for tea and refreshments.

We are seated at a restaurant in the adda. Around us are dozens of trucks, big and small. Some have already made the trip to the mines while others are about to embark on the journey. Amidst the bustle, we are waiting for a man known as Sira Pishi or ‘Red Cat’.

Boys volunteer their services at the Shahrag bus stop. ─ Photo by author
Boys volunteer their services at the Shahrag bus stop. ─ Photo by author

Sira Pishi is actually a 56-year-old man who is a notorious child abuser in the area. In the adda, he is known as Red Cat because he is red-skinned and has a red beard and moustache. He emerges out of a corner, wearing a black chador, a red Afghani cap and a beige coat. He greets us and then says nothing. I put my cup of tea in front of him which he refuses. Instead, he retrieves a few almonds from his kameez pocket, breaks their shells one by one with a stone, and starts munching on them.

“Do you think I am a lunatic that I will speak to a man holding a pen and notebook?”

Sira Pishi kept on eating his almonds as he waited for me to put the pen and notebook back into my bag. Eventually, like Saqib, he too confesses to having sexually abused children.

“Sometimes children come themselves,” claims Sira Pishi. “If not, then I can smell which children can be lured [into having sex.]”

Although children, by and large, get some kind of work at the adda, but when they don’t, sex work is always available as their fallback option.

A teenager is the centre of attention for adult miners. ─ Photo by author
A teenager is the centre of attention for adult miners. ─ Photo by author

His line catches me off guard. There are scores of children at the adda. As we find out later, most are aged between seven and 18 years. How many of them are vulnerable?

If Sira Pishi is to be believed, almost all these children have been sexually abused by someone or the other. One of his victims is nine-year-old Zulfiqar, who works as a mutkuli separating clay, sand and stone from the coal. He has been working since he was six years.

“This [sexual abuse] is nothing new,” Zulfiqar waves the question of abuse away. “Because all that we want is money. Our parents send us here to earn money, no matter what it costs.”

Zulfiqar has four brothers and one sister. His father is unable to work in his old age.

And he ended up at the adda because his mother wanted him to start earning a wage as soon as possible.

“My mother once saw a neighbour’s children going out to work,” describes the nine-year-old. “She saw that these kids would hand their mother money for whatever work they could find at the adda. And so she also started sending me to work.”

Zulfiqar’s main job is to help load trucks — everyday, he carries at least 60 kg of coal on his little shoulders.

“I do so all on my own. Sometimes, I load four trucks along with other children,” he claims, while wrapping himself up with a chador to save himself from the cold.

“There are four children required for each and every truck. Against it, we are paid 400 rupees per day.”

But such jobs require the boys to mingle with the men. In most cases, they are supposed to work with mature men. This often means that they give up their agency over their body as the men tend to inappropriately touch them and spank them. This is the least of it; the more extreme form is rape.

“I want to become a truck driver,” shares Zulfiqar, “not more than that.”

More probing into the whys of this dream reveals an uglier reality: truck drivers tend to travel with a young sidekick who they can molest and abuse at will. Twelve-year-old Faqir*, for example. All day long, he sits in the driver’s seat of a truck and is only used as a sexual partner by the men. He gets 400 rupees per day as compensation.

Although children, by and large, get some kind of work at the adda, but when they don’t, sex work is always available as their fallback option. Sira Pishi claims there are children who come to him themselves because they know he will pay. Interviews with about 20 of these boys also suggest that due to the fear of returning home empty-handed, they agree to get raped. In some cases, children are shown greener pastures or given the promise of a gift. ‘Red Cat’ claims he regularly ‘used’ a boy in exchange for a cell phone. Other incentives for these boys include drugs.

Background interviews with Shahrag’s children suggest that their parents, in most cases, are aware of their children’s sexual exploitation. But they turn a deaf ear to any complaints on the basis that these children are earning money. And they desperately need this money to make ends meet. This is why Shahrag’s children have “friendships” with people as old as their parents.

Meanwhile, Sira Pishi tells us he accosts children standing near trucks. One boy is his favourite; he invites him over often during the afternoon. Intercourse takes place in the confines of Sira Pishi’s home where the boy can be made “to feel special.”

Mine to mine

Legend has it that 12-year-old Nasir was “attractive and handsome, as most Afghan boys are.” His family had fled from Afghanistan and sought refuge in Pakistan. To make ends meet, Nasir would sell everyday items to coal miners. According to some accounts, coal miners would try to sodomise him. He would refuse sexual favours but often had to go back to the same men to financially support his family.

Nasir’s worst nightmare came to pass one day.

He went to one of the mines on his own but on his way back, he was kidnapped, allegedly by two Afghan coal miners. After brutally raping him, they killed him out of fear of reprisals and the police. They buried him in a nearby mine so that the police and family members could not track him down. Before anyone could find his grave, the culprits had already fled to Kandahar, Afghanistan, and they could not be arrested.

The story is used by some locals to claim that most of the sexual abuse is happening in and around the mines and not in Shahrag town proper. Others explain this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Situated next to Harnai Road in Shahrag town is the Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation (PMDC) office. On its website, the PMDC claims to have leased over 6,551 acres of land in Shahrag. Over a cup of black tea, young office assistant Shah Abbas Shah claims the department owns between 300 to 400 coals mines in the town but only just over 500 of workers are registered with them.

The school saving boys from sexual abuse. ─ Photo by author
The school saving boys from sexual abuse. ─ Photo by author

Although Shah tells Eos that they monitor safety measures in the mines on a daily basis, as well as look after the protection of children working at the coal mines, the reality in the mines is obviously different. One measure taken by the government is that it runs a school for coal miners’ children. Although it is a high school, it wears the look of a primary school in a dilapidated state. The building’s walls are cracked. It neither has water nor a bathroom (either for children or the teachers). Yet, it is a ray of hope for children — in large part due to the efforts of Islamiat teacher Hafiz Basheer.

Basheer wears a black waistcoat over white clothes and a white turban. Among his colleagues, he is known as a “principled” teacher. He goes to the coal mines and asks the parents to send the children to school, instead of sending them to work. Sometimes, the parents relent; at other times, he is shooed away.

“More than anything else,” says Basheer, “the sole purpose of his asking children of coal miners to come to the school is to protect them from social evils.” He acknowledges the fact that these children are routinely sexually exploited. This is what always perturbs him, too.

Shahrag is among the places in Balochistan where children seem to have been desensitised to the intimacy associated with sex. Intercourse seems to be something to profit off of or a source of employment to forget some other worry. And among the children, sexual exploitation has been normalised to the extent that boys themselves show the same desires of lust and rape. This is even before they have turned 16.

“When they first get admission here,” relates Basheer, “they arrive not knowing anything. They know nothing about the outside world or what is considered civilised. It is somewhat like living in the Stone Ages. Through education, we are trying to get them to understand right from wrong. We are trying to teach them their rights.”

The Government of Pakistan has also set up schools in Shahrag for both boys and girls. Other than these schools, there are also madressahs in the town. Having interviewed some parents about why they send their children to a madressah instead of a school, the near-unanimous response was that only religious education could help their children to heaven on the Day of Judgement. This is the foremost reason that their children seek education in madressahs, not in schools.

Basheer himself, despite being an Islamiat teacher, has been unable to convince parents to send their children to school instead. One major reason why parents are reluctant is the case of a student from Dir named Abid Siddique.

Siddique was a position holder in his school till 2008 and completed matriculation from there. Although his teachers had big dreams and expectations of him, he is now back at the same coal mine, in the Al-Gilani mountains, where he used to work as a child.

Between the lines, the teacher alludes to the psychological damage that has been dealt to boys in Shahrag. Those raised on abuse will abuse someone else, just as they were abused when they were children. There is ample research that suggests that child abuse will repeat itself from generation to generation. This cycle of abuse gravely impacts those who have been at the receiving end of prolonged abuse because, once grown up, they are likely to become the abusers and prey on children.

But there is no psychological or law-enforcement help at hand in Shahrag. In fact, Quetta-based Chief Inspector of Mines Engineer Iftikhar Ahmad Khan tells Eos that, “there are no children working at the coal mines in Shahrag.”

Without acknowledging that a crisis exists, how can there be any remedy?

Sexual abuse of boys and young men is not just a phenomenon particular to Shahrag. Sahil, an Islamabad-based NGO that works with child victims of abuse, notes in its 2018 report Cruel Numbers that as many as 3,445 children — 2,077 girls and 1,368 boys — were sexually abused in Pakistan in 2017. Balochistan reported only 139 cases of sexual abuse. These incidents were all reported in the press but the number of unreported cases might well be higher.

The report makes the claim that among reported cases, 467 cases were reported under rape, 366 under sodomy, 158 under gang rape, 180 under gang sodomy and 206 under attempted child sexual abuse. It also describes that 29 boys and 36 girls were murdered after being made victims of sexual abuse. Around 961 victims fell in the age bracket of 11 to 15 years while 640 cases of sexual abuse surfaced where the survivors were aged between six and 10 years. In the 16 to 18 age bracket, 351 cases were formally reported.

Perhaps what sets Shahrag apart is the normalisation of child abuse. Consider government records, for example. While the mines department has recorded the number of adult miners working in Shahrag, the figure is under-reported. These estimates have, in fact, not recorded the number of children working in the mines or those working as house help etc.

On the other hand, the law in Pakistan does provide some safeguards for children. The Pakistan Penal Code, for example, was amended back in April 2017 to include stipulations against crimes aimed at children. Section 292-A criminalises any exposure of children to seduction. Similarly, Section 328-A describes the offence of cruelty to a child and its punishment. Sections 377-A and 377-B are explicitly about the offence of child sexual abuse and its punishment.

The problem comes at the implemen­tation end.

Desolation and desperation are accepted in Shahrag as justifications for the practices of child labour and child abuse. The government neither keeps a record of children working at the mines nor as support staff. And any notion of child protection seems out of place because of the prevalence of the practice.

“Sometimes, as teachers, we also become hopeless,” laments Hafiz Basheer. “I thought Abid Siddique would be a role model for other children of coal miners and he would be an officer somewhere in a government sector. Contrary to expectations, he has started working again as a coal miner. This is why children of coal miners always give me his example when I request them to come to study in the school.”

** Names changed to maintain anonymity and privacy*

The writer is a member of staff.

He tweets @Akbar_Notezai

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 17th, 2019



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