In the last one year, a makeshift tent settlement has cropped up in a sea of squalor, almost hidden from the rest of Islamabad’s opulence.
Following the infamous blasphemy case involving young Rimsha Masih, over 400 Christian families were forced to flee Mehrabad. Though the mentally-challenged girl was acquitted last November after it was found that the cleric who accused her of burning pages of the Koran had planted evidence, the residents of her former neighbourhood were terrorised and forced to leave.
While Ms. Masih and her family found asylum abroad, her accuser was acquitted of all charges last month. No appeal is likely by the state, says Ms. Masih’s lawyer Tahir Naveed Chaudhary.
If last week’s bombings targeting a Peshawar church drew international attention to the plight of the Christian minority in Pakistan, the tent settlements tell a story of hate and discrimination.
Bilkis Bibi, in her forties, moved here a year ago after the Masih case. “We were threatened and the men were beaten. The landlord hiked the rent to Rs.5, 000 a month and also the electricity charges. We had no choice but to leave,” she said, sitting outside her tent. Her daughter had to drop out of school as a result of the move and her husband ekes out a living here as a vegetable vendor. There is no light or cooking fuel and toilets are the nearby forest. At night the mosquitoes render any sleep impossible.
“Sometimes we eat, there are days when it is difficult, we live in the open — the beds are all out. It’s been raining and everything is so wet,” she said.
Living in Mehrabad became impossible for them because of constant abuse. “The shopkeeper used to throw things at us. Once the landlord threw all my belongings outside and asked us to leave,” Ms. Bibi said. They complained to the police who did nothing. The Capital Development Authority (CDA) did agree to resettle them in another sector but local people didn’t allow that, she said.
“When I first came here, I used to cry every day. We had lived Mehrabad for 15 years and I used to work as a house help. Now with Hepatitis-C I am weak,” she adds.
For walls there are endless stretches of cloth or plastic all tied together. The pathways are clogged with water and mud. There is a small bore well for water and a giant red cross in a square of sorts where the people plan to build a church.
Maria, one of her neighbours, survives on a pension after her husband died; she has five daughters and can’t afford treatment for one who suffers from cancer.
Nadeem, unemployed at present, used to be a sanitary worker in a private company. He got sacked after the Rimsha incident. His child had to drop out of school. Now the CDA is threatening them with eviction. “We don’t know where we can go,” he said.
People who moved here have no livelihoods — like Shamim, who is a tailor but can’t find any work in the settlement.
Arif John who claims to be Rimsha’s neighbour, says it was all a ploy. “They wanted to evict the Christians from the area and they even announced it once during prayers. Before that they attacked a Christian convention and broke the mikes.”
Mr. John and others have tried to rent houses but everywhere they are refused. “We are happy here in these tents. We can pray safely — in Mehrabad they didn’t give us permission to play music during prayers and once they tried to burn the church,” said Mr. John. Now the residents have filed a case in the Islamabad high court and have got a stay on their eviction. Some families continued to live in Mehrabad but they too may join the tent settlement soon, he said.
Tariq Masih, a social activist said Christians were discriminated against in jobs, promotions and housing. In the 11 slums or kachchi abadis as they are called here, where mostly Christians live, there is no water or light and sanitation is non existent.
In Hansa colony water is a big issue and schoolchildren are the ones who can be found filling cans in their free time.
Faisal Zulfiqar says that in school, his classmates abused him a lot after the Danish cartoons on Prophet Mohammed. In the government schools, Christian children are called the children of chudu or sweepers. Salamat Masih works as a sweeper but has to go over two km to fetch wood for his family. Standing outside his house, he chops up huge logs for the day. You can see people filling small cylinders with LPG in a most unsafe manner for Rs.100 at a time.
In Hansa colony some attempts are being made to improve matters and there is some bonhomie with the local Muslims gifting a water-cooler to the church and attending joint iftaar parties. But lasting peace for the community could be elusive.