SOCIETY: HOME FOR CHRISTMAS

Published December 20, 2020
Youhanabad is home to the largest population of Christians in the country | Murtaza Ali/White Star
Youhanabad is home to the largest population of Christians in the country | Murtaza Ali/White Star

Youhanabad, an area in the south-east of Lahore, houses the largest Christian population of Pakistan. It is also one of the most run-down and neglected areas of the city. Yet its state of neglect cannot overshadow the spirit of cheeriness in the neighbourhood as Christmas approaches.

It is a Sunday but all the shops in the colony’s bazaar are open, selling Christmas trees and decorations; toy stores have hung Santa Claus dolls that bob up and down with the breeze outside; barber shops are offering haircuts; women are buying groceries; young men are whizzing along in the lanes on their motorbikes.

Families dressed in their Sunday best walk to church — the men are seen in snazzy suits and the women decked up in shimmering clothes and costume jewellery. As the service finishes at Christ Church, the congregation disperses and filters outside to head to the shops.

On a Sunday in March 2015, the residents of Youhanabad colony had dressed up similarly for Easter service, just before their lives were changed forever.

As the Sunday service was finishing at Christ Church and St John’s Catholic Church that day in March, two Taliban suicide bombers detonated themselves at the main entrance of the churches, killing 15 people — including two policemen, and injuring at least 70 others. Grief and mayhem took hold of the community of around 100,000. A gruesome retaliation from the community turned fierce. There was vandalism of public property and burning of tyres. The protesters attacked two bearded men on a bike who seemed suspicious and things went out of control.

It was never ascertained whether the two men were killed first and then set on fire, or if it were the other way round.

When police investigations began, a number of videos, made on mobile phones, of the mob attack emerged. Almost anyone and everyone who could be seen in the videos was deemed suspect. Some of them were wielding rods and standing close to the burning bodies, shouting slogans. But others were just part of the crowd that had gathered.

After languishing in prison for five long years, the innocent bystanders to the Youhanabad Easter attacks are home with their families for Christmas

Eventually, many of them were arrested on being suspected of lynching the two Muslim men in the mob attacks that ensued as a result of the blasts.

On the outer wall of Christ Church, hang framed pictures of the 15 members the Christian community lost in the 2015 blasts. Everyone who passes by remembers them; their surviving family members have reached some kind of closure over the years. But the pain of the Easter tragedy still lingers in the lives of those families whose male relatives were taken away in the wave of arrests made by the police.

Pictures of those who lost their lives in the 2015 Easter attacks hang outside Christ Church in Youhanabad, Lahore | Murtaza Ali/White Star
Pictures of those who lost their lives in the 2015 Easter attacks hang outside Christ Church in Youhanabad, Lahore | Murtaza Ali/White Star

An anti-terrorism court (ATC) charged 42 people in 2016, all of whom were imprisoned. They were charged over various offences, but all related to the same incident. Two of them died in prison thanks to a lack of medical care. Many of those who were released now claim they were tortured while under police custody (physical remand). They did time in jail only to be declared innocent later.

In January 2020, the ATC announced the verdict, acquitting all the suspects, including those who had passed away, after recording the statements of the victims’ families — who told the court that they had arrived at an agreement with the suspects and would have no objections over their acquittal. Now, the ones that have been acquitted look forward to spending Christmas with their families, although their lives have changed after being inside the prison walls.

All of Parvez Masih’s four sons were taken by the police in the dark of the night. “They stole into our home like robbers and dragged them out,” he says. “The boys were sent to jail under judicial remand but then were acquitted a few months later.” The acquittal was not the end-all. The case stretched on and they spent the next five years going to court.

Parvez can barely walk despite the support of his walker. He enters his small milk shop through a side door and limps towards a stool to seat himself. Pointing to his foot, he says, “My toes had to be cut off after my sugar [levels] spiked because of stress.” Unlacing his shoes, he shows the stump that is now his foot. “All four of my boys were picked up by the police on wrong charges, and I had to take care of everything. After I lost my foot, I was bed-ridden for nine months. Now I can’t even walk properly.

“We have spent hundreds and thousands on the case, including for the lawyer [fee]. Now we are touching the poverty line,” says Parvez. His eyes water and a tear rolls out. “When I heard my sons had been indicted, I collapsed on the floor.”

In this situation, where finances are so scarce, Parvez cannot imagine decorating his house for Christmas. The entire family lives in just one room behind their milk shop. Unemployed, especially after the pandemic, they have no money to spare for celebrations.

His son Nadeem has been minding the shop, giving his parents some reprieve from household responsibilities. Nadeem still seems shaken and ‘shell-shocked’ when he recalls his time in jail.

“We spent around three months in jail, but the time spent in the police station was the worst,” he says. “They tortured us to such an extent that one of my brothers has a permanently swollen leg, and his nerves are damaged. They did everything from hanging us upside down to beating us with a stick so hard it felt like the stick would break.”

At least the hard part is over.

Of course, money matters are a daily concern for Parvez, Nadeem and the rest of their family, but they want to look beyond that. “We spent much too much only in trying to prove that my sons are innocent,” Parvez says. “But, today, I am grateful that my sons have reunited with the family. This year, we will spend Christmas together without any case hanging over our heads.”

Decorations are being put up for Christmas celebrations at St John’s Catholic Church| Murtaza Ali/White Star
Decorations are being put up for Christmas celebrations at St John’s Catholic Church| Murtaza Ali/White Star

Shabana Javed, a mother of three small children, had accompanied her husband Inderyas from Bahawalpur to Youhanabad to attend a wedding when the blasts took place. Two years of living inside the prison walls exposed Inderyas to infection and he contracted tuberculosis and died because he did not receive immediate medical treatment. He was only 35.

“Each time I think of what he went through, of his last days, my heart breaks,” Shabana says. “His last words to me were that I was a good wife and mother and that I must not waste any more money on a lawyer. I told him not to talk like that — that I would do anything to help free him. The next night, I received news that he had died in hospital — alone,” her voice cracks. She begins to weep as she recounts what her children went through.

“We spent years being hungry all the time and neglected by everyone. No one helped us. My children literally roamed the streets while I tried to find work. People only tried to tarnish my reputation, but no one came forward to help — not even my own mother. She comes to visit now. My in-laws tried to throw us out of the house.”

Looking away, she ponders for a moment and then says, “One thing is for sure. A woman without a man has no acceptance in society.”

Things improved after Shabana remarried, a year ago, to a government servant with children of his own. She is happy with him, but even today she has kept Inderyas’s belongings locked away in a chest, along with a faded picture of him that she takes out to show me.

Shabana Javed, a mother of three small children, had accompanied her husband Inderyas from Bahawalpur to Youhanabad to attend a wedding when the blasts took place. Two years of living inside the prison walls exposed Inderyas to infection and he contracted tuberculosis and died because he did not receive immediate medical treatment. He was only 35.

“Our Christmas is going to be a modest affair,” she says, looking fondly at her daughter, Angel. “We all know that Christmas is for children. We haven’t had a Christmas celebration for a long time. This year may be different as we are better off financially.”

Zeeshan and his young wife | Photo by the writer
Zeeshan and his young wife | Photo by the writer

Ten-year-old Angel giggles shyly. “I can’t wait to wear my new dress,” she says with a grin. “I shall wear it to church so that I can dress up like the rest of my friends.” Her older brother, Harry, is quieter and serious-looking. “It’s always fun when family drops in,” he says. “I like to spend time with my aunt and uncle. With my father gone, it’s my uncle I look up to.”

“Bit by bit, things are coming together for us. We are healing slowly,” Shabana says. “Christmas will be a good time for us to bond.”

A reason to live again

Zeeshan, a young man in his mid-20s, spent five years in jail until he was acquitted. He wasn’t convicted, but still did time for nothing. If he had any self-confidence before, jail has leached that out of him. He is a quiet man. After five long years, he came home to a mother who had become bed-ridden after a massive stroke had left her paralysed, and a huge gaping vacuum left behind by his father’s death.

“I could not even attend his funeral, or quell my mother’s worries,” Zeeshan says. “Some things cannot be undone.”

His sister says their father would stand outside every day, looking down the street, hoping against hope that he would see his son walking home one day. “It had become a habit with him by the end,” she says. “The stress killed him, and left my mother like this.”

“My father, who never even got a fever as far as we know, was so worried about everything all the time,” says Zeeshan. “He did not know much about the case, what it was about, how to handle it, the travelling to and fro and not even being able to meet me. How we were tortured … it all got to him.” Zeeshan himself suffered from severe depression while on the inside.

“We were abused and beaten like every other suspect, but it all had a religious tinge to it,” he says. “We were told ‘You’re a Christian, a choorra, and to beat you is our religious duty.’ I felt like I would go crazy. I was what they call a ‘madman’. I would do strange things, beat my head with my hands, cry out loud, shout. I would feel so claustrophobic, it felt like I was drowning in darkness, unable to breathe. I feel better now after the medications.”

Readjusting to life at home was difficult for Zeeshan. He was stereotyped as a suspect for terrorism, despite being declared innocent by the court. He could not find any work — especially where it was a requirement to show your ID card. “There were too many changes. Many people were lost forever. There are many things to tell, but when you begin, it just ends up breaking one’s heart,” he says.

Inderyas’s widow, Shabana, holds up his photograph | Photo by the writer
Inderyas’s widow, Shabana, holds up his photograph | Photo by the writer

Zeeshan recently got married, and now has a new purpose to look forward to in his future. He calls his wife — who is also a distant cousin to him — into the room. She enters shyly and sits next to him. “She has been my rock solid support, consoling me whenever I am depressed, and always helping me look on the brighter side of life,” he smiles affectionately at her.

“Yes, I keep telling him that there is so much to life and that he is young,” she says quietly. “He has a lot to live for.”

Despite his father’s absence, Zeeshan’s family is close-knit and the house is full, with babies squealing and children running around. A nephew he met only when he returned home after his acquittal has made him a favourite uncle and clambers over him.

“My brother has tried to fill my father’s shoes,” Zeeshan says proudly. “I am always surrounded by my siblings and at least I am here to care for my mother.” He kisses her on the forehead. This family may be strapped for cash, but their home is overflowing with warmth and love. One can easily imagine the bustling, cosy atmosphere here on Christmas day.

Sohail Yafat, who works with Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) as an investigator, is independently fighting for prisoner rights and prison reform. He has been putting aside some of his personal savings to run a Christmas drive for families like Zeeshan’s. He empathises with their troubles, especially on an important day like Christmas.

“Wrongful convictions are so painful for everyone,” Yafat says. “For one, no one can seek compensation for being wrongfully convicted and spending such long and hard years behind bars. These years just destroy your life, and by the time you are released, you realise you are left with nothing. Your personality changes. The only thing that can salvage you is hope. But very little of that is left.”

So Yafat visits such families, attempting to spread whatever Christmas joy he can, by distributing groceries and gifts. “All the money comes from my own pocket or whoever wants to donate. For each family, the cost comes to about 30,000 rupees. This includes groceries for a month, sweetmeats, toys for the children and new clothes for everyone,” he says.

Yafat himself was arrested in 2001 and imprisoned for 10 years over a wrongful conviction. “When you are about to leave prison, you want to do so many things, but when you actually walk out, the world’s expectations weigh down on you further. Now your family wants you to become the breadwinner, or your children want you to be a good father. Either way, you have no time to even think things over, or be alone for a moment.”

Yafat says the Christmas season is a good occasion to focus on the families of those who are in jail.

“I give out gifts, especially to the children,” he tells Eos. “Last time, I distributed gifts to a family at a brick kiln and told the children that their father had sent the gifts. Nothing can compare to the delight I saw on those children’s faces when they heard that.”

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 20th, 2020

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