Strangers in their own country

Jhelum survivors recount their stories

It was just another day for Arsalan, who worked as a Sales Manager at Pakistan Chipboard Factory when he was informed about police arresting the Security In-charge of the factory over allegations of desecrating the Quran.

Working past his office timings, he issued a gate pass to the carriage van whose driver told him about someone from the factory burning the pages of the Quran. Staying calm, he told the driver to let the police investigate for they were to decide what happened.

Located on GT Road, Pakistan Chipboard Factory deals in Furniture, Chip Boards and Woodwork. Owned by an Ahmadi, it employs more than 200 people – mostly local. Interestingly, a majority of those employed at the factory belong to opposite sects.

Most communities publish their newspapers with the motive of voicing their concerns, issues and opinions. The Ahmadiyya community also owns one such newspaper, named ‘Al-Fazl’. First published in 1913, Al-Fazl has been consistent throughout the years with its publishing stopped only when censored by the state.

Ahmadi employees at Pakistan Chipboard are regular subscribers of Al-Fazl and they dispose of the papers after some time – a practice considered normal in every household.

This fateful day, sacks full of Al-Fazl newspapers were brought to the factory to feed the ever-demanding boiler.

Days after the papers were thrown in the boiler, an allegation for desecrating the Quran emerged.

Arsalan was tasked to oversee the loading process, as well as to look after the mosque inside the factory premises, just in case a protest erupted. The labours and dispatch in-charge requested him for a dinner break at 6:00 PM, unlike their routine time of 7:30 PM. Unsuspecting, Arsalan allowed them.

The dispatch in-charge, a local resident, invited Arsalan out of the factory to join him for lunch. Arsalan told him to go ahead because he still had some work left.

Ahmadi employees at Pakistan Chipboard are regular subscribers of Al-Fazl and they dispose of the papers after some time – a practice considered normal in every household

“You people are afraid, right?” said the dispatch in-charge.

Puzzled, he asked, “No, why would I be afraid?”

“We know you are innocent, we wouldn’t do anything to you, so don’t worry,” replied the in-charge.

Although alarmed by his remarks, Arsalan didn’t lose his cool but he sensed danger, especially when the loaders didn’t return even after an hour.

“I knew something was about to happen,” he recalled later.

He went outside the factory to check if everything was normal when around 20-25 motor bikes approached the factory. Arsalan moved towards his quarter, right next to the factory, thinking it wasn’t appropriate to face the riders. “They went back after 2-3 minutes, though,” he said.

Arsalan went to his immediate senior, Maqbool, and asked him to take the families, who had gathered at the factory guest house by now, out of the place. Right when they were talking to each other, loudspeakers at the local mosque started inciting violence against the Ahmadiyya community.

The CEO of the factory authorised rescuing of families, which created panic.

A mother of two and pregnant for the third time, Salma was unaware of the events taking place, she told while meeting me at an undisclosed location.

“We were having dinner at the guest house when my husband came in a rush and asked me to go home and pick up few clothes for the children so we could move out of the place,” said a visibly distraught Salma.

Meanwhile, Arsalan started walking towards the quarters when a bike rider stopped him to ask if this was Pakistan Chipboard Factory where Quran was burnt. Arsalan, maintaining his calm, told him that this was the factory but he didn’t know about burning of Quran.

“I don’t know what happened to the faiths of people. We have come from far away to protest the desecration of Quran but people here aren’t coming out,” the man replied emotionally.

While they both were talking, Arsalan saw two families moving out of their homes and going in the other direction. To divert the bike rider’s attention, Arsalan kept him engaged in conversation so that the families were out of sight.

Salma, along with her husband and children, walked towards GT road when a few men who, according to Salma, had long beards blocked their way and told them to go back.

Finding no other way, they threw their bags away and ran in the jungle behind the factory.

Arsalan walked towards GT road where a restaurant owner and a friend called him to ask what happened in the factory. Arsalan, out of precaution, lied that he was on a sales tour so had no clue. The owner advised him not to go in direction of the factory and pointed towards the road where people were gathering, chanting slogans. The owner offered Arsalan to hide at his place but he refused.

Arsalan recalled, “I saw Maqbool running with his family towards GT road. I picked one of his children and we hid under the trees. Maqbool had called a van and while we were sitting, few men who I know personally came and started pushing me, and saying ‘kithay chalaan aen, mirzaiya’ (Where are you going, o follower of Mirza)?”

Holding Maqbool’s baby, Arsalan, instead of stopping, kept moving – leaving Maqbool with the men. He received a call from Maqbool who informed him that the van was coming behind him with his children. “Please take them along with you and don’t come back,” Maqbool requested.

They waited in the bush, without moving, until three in the morning when ‘Khadaam’ came to take them to a safe place

The protestors had allowed women and children to leave after a deal that Maqbool and other men would go with them instead.

Arsalan, sitting in the van, told the driver to do whatever he could to take them to a safe place.

“It was a terrible night,” Arsalan recounted. “It was hard to believe that those were the people who played cricket with Maqbool since their childhood and they had become his enemies now. Being a Pakistani citizen, it was disappointing to say the least,” he added.

It was pitch dark in the forest with voice other than their heavy breaths as Salma walked on.

“We hid in thorny bushes because we feared they would come for us,” Salma said.

She added, “We were scared. We sat in the bushes for hours, without moving.”

The mob came looking for them in the forest. A guard from a nearby town had seen them hiding in the bushes and told the mob.

“I could hear them, searching the bushes with their sticks, calling out names. We held our breath, anticipating for something to happen,” she recalled.

They waited in the bush, without moving, until three in the morning when ‘Khadaam’ came to take them to a safe place.

“It was the worst experience of my life. We were hiding in our own country, from our own people. I could see the flames rising from the factory and wondered what it was that made us so notorious in the eyes of our fellow Pakistanis,” Salma concluded as her voice broke.

Although living at a safe place, they are uncertain of their future.

“We cannot go back. There is nothing left there,” says Arsalan.

Gripped with paranoia and unsure about their future, these displaced families mourn their destroyed homes – awaiting justice to be served.

Note: The names have been changed due to security issues.

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