Awaaz: Echoes of Freedom and Justice
By Ansar Burney, with Shehar Bano Rizvi and Tasneen Premjee Chamdia
Ansar Burney Trust
ISBN: 978-9692397902
292pp.

‘Riveting’. That’s the one word that comes to mind after finishing Awaaz, lawyer and social activist Ansar Burney’s memoir, chronicling his life’s work, spanning his birth to becoming a student leader, and eventually championing international human rights.

Authored by Burney and co-written/edited by Shehar Bano Rizvi and Tasneem Premjee Chamdia, Awaaz memorialises Burney’s lifelong global struggle for human rights.

Burney Sahib’s name has echoed in my head since I was in school in Karachi in the 1980s. His name evokes the same reverence as Abdul Sattar Edhi, Mother Teresa, Dr Ruth Pfau and other such philanthropic luminaries we have grown to respect.

My own personal experience with the Ansar Burney Trust was very positive, when I landed up in desperation at their Saddar offices in Karachi, about a decade ago. Trying to repatriate my Bangladeshi employee back to his homeland, I was facing hurdles from the Bangladeshi Consulate, which was refusing to issue him a visa for his own country. The Trust’s assistance was invaluable and I was eventually able to get him back to his home and family.

An autobiography of well-known Pakistani social activist Ansar Burney can serve to inspirea new generation of Pakistanis

The book is written in a tone of voice which is very approachable. Awaaz portrays Burney Sahib’s remarkable life experiences from the horse’s mouth, narrated to the co-authors who accurately transcribed the myriad achievements of a tremendous servant of humanity. I have a newfound respect for this great man after reading this critically important work, which can serve to inspire a new generation of Pakistanis to follow his path-breaking example.

While arbitrarily jailed in the late 1970s, Burney witnessed awful conditions in Pakistani prisons. This led to his advocating for prisoners’ rights and jail reform. In 1980, he established the Ansar Burney Trust, which confronted exploitation of the vulnerable, despite threats to his life.

As a lawyer, Burney worked tirelessly to address injustices.

He worked with various leaders, including Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo and army chiefs Gen Ziaul Haq, Gen Mirza Aslam Beg and Gen Pervez Musharraf, which led to the release of a million wrongfully detained prisoners.

Burney has won over 250 awards throughout his journey, including the Outstanding Young Person of the World award, the Mother Teresa Memorial award, the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, and the Hilal-i-Imtiaz.

A Pakistani child on camelback at a race track in the Middle East | Picture from the book
A Pakistani child on camelback at a race track in the Middle East | Picture from the book

“After spending a lifetime in the service of humanity and raising my voice for human rights, I have learned that everything that I have done has been because of God’s will,” says Burney in the book. “I have served God by serving humanity, His creation. At times [I was] powerless to help a detainee but, always at the 11th hour, someone would come forward to help and join hands for the cause.

“This book [has also] happened in a similar way. I can’t explain how Shehar Bano and her friend Tasneem came together to write this book with me. I just want to thank them for their relentless efforts in helping me share my story,” he writes.

The memoir recounts Burney’s 17-year struggle against the use of child camel jockeys in the Middle East, and reflects on personal challenges, his relationships and his encounters with renowned humanitarians. Burney helped in bridging divides as Pakistan’s first Minister of Human Rights and as a UN Expert Adviser on Human Rights. His storytelling captivates readers, as he shares both successes and vulnerabilities, and offers valuable insights for anyone in the humanitarian field, or on a journey of personal growth.

The reviewer is a real estate consultant based in New York, and can be reached at shehryar@sloan.mit.edu

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 14th, 2024

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