April issue 2013

By | Special Report | Published 7 years ago

Syed Altaf Hussain worked as a salesman in Khairpur, frequently commuting to Abbas Town, Karachi where his wife and five children had been living for four years. This March, when he came to visit his family, he hoped to stay permanently. He had barely been in town for 10 days, during which time he was looking for employment, when a bomb blast took place a couple of lanes from his home in the Iqra City flat complex. It was early in the evening on March 3, a Sunday, and his family was at home. The impact of the blast caused the windowpanes to explode, carpeting their home with shards of glass. His wife and children survived but Hussain was not so fortunate. He had been on his way to meet a friend and was just a few meters away from the explosives when they detonated.

“He was just leaving for his friend’s house when my youngest daughter asked him if he would take her to Khairpur soon. His last words were, ‘Nothing is certain,’” said Tanveer Zohra, Hussain’s wife, when I met her for an interview three weeks after the blast. “I had just finished my Maghrib prayers when I heard the most horrifying noise. It was as if the sky itself was falling to pieces.”

Tanveer Zohra went on to relate how she and four of her children — her younger son, 16-year-old Baqar, was at a shop on the other side of town where he had recently began work as an apprentice — were covered with glass.
“As soon as the noise of the blast stopped echoing in our ears, my youngest daughter shrieked, ‘Ami, my Abu!’” continued Tanveer Zohra. All three daughters then began to scream for their father but unsure whether it was safe to leave the house to look for him, Tanveer Zohra made her children stay at home and recite the Ayat-ul-Kursi.

As time slowly passed, Tanveer Zohra began to suspect the worst. She tried to make her way to the site where the bomb blast took place — a narrow yet busy lane flanked by stores and the Rabia Flowers and Iqra City flats. The buildings were on fire and it was impossible to go near. Her oldest son Zain, 20, consoling his mother and insisting that his father was not in the area at the time of the blast, made her return home.

As Tanveer Zohra remembered the events from that night, Zain sat before us, not saying a word and with his face turned away from us, even though he was the one who helped me arrange the interview in the first place.
“Then Baqar came running in. He too insisted on seeing the site for himself but after witnessing the charred bodies, many of them in pieces, he came back crying. He started beating his head against the wall, exclaiming that there is no way his father could have survived,” Tanveer Zohra remembered. Her voice quivered but she never broke into tears and went through each detail of the night as if she had been reliving it in her mind every day since then.
Zain and Baqar then left the house together to find their father’s body. They made the rounds of various hospitals where they found many critically injured patients and even more corpses, but not their father. It wasn’t until two in the morning that Zain, accompanied by an older cousin, went to Jinnah hospital where he identified his father’s body. The cousin later told Tanveer Zohra that Zain had collapsed upon seeing his father’s body and had to be brought back to the neighbourhood in an ambulance.

Zain could not eat or drink for the next few days. He could not walk properly since pieces of glass were lodged in his feet and it was not until his mother discovered the injuries two days later that a doctor was called in to remove them. Tanveer Zohra never saw her husband’s body, but she heard that he was missing multiple limbs and his entire body was burnt. Her daughters only saw their father’s body once it was shrouded in cloth and ready to be buried, but they asked her, “Our father used to be so big, how is his body so small now?”

“I can keep going on,” said Tanveer Zohra, “but I have to say that so many people, both Shia and Sunni, have come forward to emotionally support our family, especially the children.”

As soon as news of Hussain’s death spread, family and friends came from all over the city to offer condolences and the children’s grandmothers also moved in with them. Organisations such as the Jaffria Disaster Cell Management (JDC) and the Shaheed Foundation immediately responded to the tragedy and provided all affectees with rations and helped foot the medical and funeral expenses. Tanveer Zohra revealed that she, along with other families of the deceased, has received Rs 15 lakhs from the government — a surprising act of generosity considering that often in the case of wide-scale tragedies the government does nothing but make empty promises or even when checks are distributed, they often bounce. Rs 15 lakhs for families of the deceased and Rs 10 lakhs for those critically injured are sizable amounts of money and KESC has announced that residents of Abbas Town will be exempted from electricity bills for six months. The JDC has also offered a year’s worth of rent to all families, including those who have moved out from Abbas Town.

For the moment 15 lakhs seems like a lot of money for Hussain’s family, who have experienced financial hardship in the past and came to Karachi four years ago with the hope of securing a better future for the children. But with a household of seven people, including four school-going children and the rising costs of everyday expenses in Karachi, even 15 lakhs will not last forever. Tanveer Zohra and Zain, now the oldest male in the family, find themselves facing new responsibilities and challenges.

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“I have three younger sisters. When my father was alive I never had to think about their future, about getting them married one day,” confided Zain. “Now it all falls on me.”

Those were the only words Zain shared with me and soon after he walked out of the living room where the interview was taking place.

I asked Tanveer Zohra about the psychological effects of the blast on her family and if any organisation had offered therapy sessions to the residents. Tanveer Zohra did not know of any such services, even though a few organisations have set up walk-in sessions for affectees. Her lack of awareness of such facilities is perhaps symptomatic of a society in which psychological conditions are often not considered seriously.

“I have noticed a change in Zain though,” she admitted. “He gets agitated easily and can be quite rude to visitors.” She then began to talk about how her family lives in constant fear. A door slamming shut loudly immediately evokes the thunder of the blast. The children feel the need to be in each other’s company all the time, afraid to be left alone. A large poster of their father, with ‘Shaheed’ preceding his name, is taped both inside their living room and outside their house. Such posters of the deceased can be seen on the exterior walls of many of the flats.

“It was like Karbala all over again,” she continued. “Please don’t edit this out of your interview. Make sure you tell the world that we are willing to die for our religion. We will not bow down”

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“My children are orphaned. But they too are willing to sacrifice themselves.” As she continued in this emotional state of mind, she kept repeating the word ‘yateem’ (orphan). Her children, I noticed, were wiping away tears and were struggling to maintain composure. Tanveer Zohra was still talking about sacrifice and martyrdom, but I decided to end the interview then.

I took pictures of the family and asked Tanveer Zohra if they could show me around the neighbourhood.
The oldest daughter, who had been particularly quiet during the interview, went into the kitchen but the other children, accompanied by their young cousin, agreed. The three girls shyly walked next to me, answering my questions very formally. I asked if they wanted to take pictures with my camera. Immediately, they broke into smiles. With a little nudging, they each took turns at photographing rubble or dilapidated buildings. We were walking closer to the site of the explosion and the lane had been cordoned off on both sides with a tent. Baqar led us behind the tent and the girls held my hand, helping me walk around the rubble.

“They’ve cleaned it up a lot since then,” said Baqar. “There used to be blood everywhere. It reeked of smoke and blood for days.”

There was nothing but rubble around us but Mehreen went down the lane telling me what once used to be there. “That was a cosmetics shop…that was a dairy.” And then, with the same casual tone, she pointed at a spot on the ground, “That is where my father’s dead body was found.”

“That used to be a poultry shop,” said the youngest daughter, Mehreen, pointing at a structure now filled with debris. There was nothing but rubble around us — toys, torn clothes and shoes peeking out from underneath rocks and bits of concrete — but she went down the lane telling me what once used to be there. “That was a cosmetics shop…that was a dairy.” And then, with the same casual tone, she pointed at a spot on the ground near a PMT, “That is where my father’s dead body was found.” She didn’t wait to see my response and moved on to identifying the next shop.

We then walked into the Rabia Flowers flat complex to meet Fakhra Aziz, a young woman who was injured during the blast. She and her two sisters answered my questions with an ease and cheerfulness that belied the tragedy they just lived through. Fakhra had been near the site of the blast when the bombs exploded. She immediately fainted and once she regained consciousness, she was rushed to the hospital. She fractured her right arm and leg. And her finger, which incurred nerve damage, is now attached to her stomach to allow it to get blood flow and to grow back skin.
I couldn’t help but stare at Fakhra when she told me this, and with a smile she explained that both the neighbourhood children and the medical students at Aga Khan were fascinated by the unusual procedure. Before the blast took place, Fakhra used to be a seamstress. I asked if the doctors said she would regain full use of her finger. She just smiled back in response.

“I did not hear the sound of the blast itself. It’s the same with everybody who was near the area of the bomb blast. We just felt the glass hitting our bodies,” explained Fakhra. Her sisters who did hear the blast recalled how frightening it was. Fakhra’s 10-year-old nephew was sitting right beneath a window at the time and miraculously survived without any injuries when the glass exploded. Not everybody was so fortunate. A young girl, her sister Kanwal told me, was pierced with glass on her face and neck, leaving her permanently disfigured. A young child, lying in a cot, was impaled in the heart and died. In fact, in the flats facing the lane where the bomb blast took place, many children were amongst the deceased. With their houses in shambles and their lives torn apart, most of those families have moved out of Abbas Town. I ask Fakhra, whose family appeared to be financially better off than Tanveer Zohra’s, if they had plans to move. The three sisters immediately said no.

“Even if we move out, we will continue to live in a state of paranoia and fear,” said Kanwal. “You can’t let fear rule over your life.”

I asked them how they were dealing with the stress of getting the house fixed and running around to pay bills but the family had no worries. Fakhra said, “JDC is doing everything for us. So many people have come to our help that we do not have anything to worry about.”

Although they insist they have no worries, not everything has been smooth sailing. In the chaos of the tragedy, some of the charitable organisations and the government mixed up names. A cheque for a man named Mehdi Hassan, for instance, was made out to Mehdi Hussain instead. Fakhra said she had heard of such incidents and that when she was at the hospital, her name was written as ‘Fakheera Aizaz’ instead of Fakhra Aziz. When she pronounced the butchered version of her name, I heard a burst of giggles behind me.

I turned to see Baqar trying, in vain, to tell his sisters to be serious as they giggled uncontrollably. After the intense interview earlier in their home when they tried to hold back tears, it was a relief to see them act like children.
Fakhra has also received a cheque from the government. But there are complications. She does not have an NIC or Bay Form, which are needed to cash it. And because of her current condition it is unlikely that she will be able to visit NADRA offices anytime soon.

“I asked if the check could instead be made out to my mother. But they said since I’m an adult, it must be made out to me only,” Fakhra explained.

I asked Kanwal, who has three young sons, how they are coping with the tragedy and if they have asked her any questions about why someone would want to attack their neighbourhood.

“They don’t ask such things. Our children are already aware of such incidents and why they take place,” she stated.
Although they are determined to move on, their life is now on a halt. Kanwal does not let her children go to school, afraid to be separated from them even for a moment. A room in their house had been converted into a salon by one of the sisters but it lies empty now. “Who would want to come to a salon in a time like this?” said Kanwal.

My interview with Fakhra and her sisters ended and I bade farewell to the children. Two days later, I revisited Abbas Town to speak to the JDC to learn more about their efforts to help families in the area. This time, the lane where the blast took place was buzzing with activity. A cloud of dust enveloped the streets as trucks drove through the rubble and labourers, precariously perched on beams three storeys above the ground, hacked away at slabs of concrete. The JDC has turned an abandoned shop into a store for rations, where I interviewed their secretary general (see box). After the interview, I made my way back to Syed Altaf Hussain’s house, hoping to find some of the children who could introduce me to other families. I found Baqar sitting outside his house on a charpai with two men. He asked if I wanted to meet more families of Shaheed or those who were injured, but I asked if he knew anybody who used to have a shop on the street.

“I did,” said the man sitting next to Baqar, with a smile. “I also lost my brother.”
This man, Ibadat Ali, used to run a vegetable stall with his brother right between the poles of the PMT where the blast occurred.

Ibadat Ali recounted how he and his brother Rehman used to work in shifts, him in the mornings and his brother in the evenings. He smiled frequently during the interview, even as he talked about how he had initially lied to his sister-in-law to delay the news of her husband’s death. He maintained this façade of composure as he described the state of fear he continues to live in, refusing to touch his brother’s belongings.

Unlike Tanveer Zohra or Fakhra, Ibadat Ali was aware of the psychological aid various organisations have offered to the residents of Abbas Town. “My sister-in-law sent her children for a therapy session,” he added. The other young man, Faizan Ali, sitting with us turns out to be the cousin who accompanied Zain to Jinnah Hospital. He had also helped identify Ibadat Ali’s brother.

DSC00965“There were 20-25 families there. Zain collapsed when he saw his father’s body. Many others were crying hysterically. I was trying to support them, but I was on the verge of breaking down myself,” said Faizan. Both Faizan and Ibadat Ali shared their concerns about Zain’s emotional well-being.

The two soon took leave but since the Newsline driver had gone for prayers, I was left standing alone on the road. Baqar immediately invited me to his house, saying I could wait there instead.

The sisters, seeing me from the kitchen, immediately came in. Baqar flipped channels on the small television set while Mehreen and Tooba viewed the photographs they had taken earlier on my camera.

“I wish I had a picture of Zain. I got everybody else,” I said to Shireen.

“Should I ask him? You can take it now?”

Remembering how uncomfortable Zain had been during the interview, I asked her if she thought he would agree.
“Maybe,” Tooba said, but she looked unsure.

1Just then Zain appeared at the doorway. He scolded the youngest sister, and asked her to go to the kitchen since their mother had been calling her. Tooba and I exchanged smiles as Mehreen scurried off.

“Was he always like this?” I asked.

“Yes,” she shrugged. “But more so now.”

Mehreen soon returned and the girls started interviewing me about my job , when I go to sleep at night and if I’ve ever visited Dubai or, of all places, Abbotabad. Having subjected their family to so many questions, it was only fair that I replied to each of their queries. “Are you married?” They continued and did not hide their disappointment when I said no. “Do you have a father?” Tooba then asked. And when I slowly said yes, she moved on to ask if I lived with my family.

“Baaji, your car is here,” I heard someone say in a polite, soft tone behind me. It was Zain. As I stepped out of the house, I thanked him for agreeing to let me interview his family, even though he himself did not want to talk. He smiled and for a moment I thought perhaps he would agree to being photographed or to answering a question or two. But as he nervously brushed his hair back with his hands and stood there awkwardly, I realised he was still not ready to relive the night he lost his father.

Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.

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