In-Depth Arena

Drink of death: How Christmas revelry turned into mass tragedy

Published 20 Feb, 2017 09:58pm
A woman mourns the death of a relative lost to poisonous liquor | Reuters
A woman mourns the death of a relative lost to poisonous liquor | Reuters

Shakeel Masih could not hear the rumble of the train approaching from behind. He was taking a stroll on December 26 last year on the railway passing by his Mubarakabad neighbourhood on the outskirts of Toba Tek Singh town in central Punjab. The train struck him and tossed him away — resulting in his immediate death. When the police delivered his body to his family later that afternoon, according to his mother, earphones were firmly placed in his ears.

Shakeel, a daily wage worker around 36 years of age, was also intoxicated. He was too inebriated to get away in time before the train coming from Faisalabad and going to Khanewal hit him.

Mubarakabad – an all-Christian locality – was abuzz with excitement and festivity the night before. Young men decorated one of the street crossings with lights. They danced to the music blasting from big speakers placed in the street. The revellers also consumed some intoxicants. Others, mostly women and children, watched from the sidelines. “This went on for some hours,” says Sajida Bibi, a 33-year-old local resident.

Her husband was among the drinking-and-dancing crowd, as were Shakeel and his two brothers, Amjad, 38, and Sajawal, 31.

The booze was arranged – manufactured, in fact – with great difficulty. According to a Christian member of the local union council as well as the local police, the district administration had all but shut down illegal brewing and selling of liquor in the area in the run-up to Christmas. Factory-produced brands were too costly to afford for the residents of Mubarakabad, almost all of them living hand to mouth.

The hospital received 122 patients between December 26 and December 29 but it was ill-equipped to treat them.

But no one, says local priest Samson George, wanted to have a ‘dry’ Christmas. Scarcity led to ingenuity.

A local resident, Sawan Masih, siphoned off some confiscated liquor from a nearby police station where he worked as a janitor, media reports say. “At around 5 pm on December 25, I saw Sawan taking off a [jerry] can from a rickshaw,” says Sonan Bibi, a local resident.

The liquor was not sufficient for about 125 men in Mubarakabad who wanted to drink that night. Iqbal Masih, who lives next to the lighted crossing in a single-room house, came up with a trick. He rushed to a nearby warehouse where toiletries are stored and cajoled the proprietor into selling him 20 litres of aftershave lotion. He brought the lotion home and mixed it with Sawan’s heist, as well as some water. Soon, he was selling the concoction at a throwaway price to anyone wanting to have a good time.

Kalu Masih, 42, a donkey cart operator, was one of his customers. “I paid 200 rupees and got half a jug of the liquor,” he says. He gathered a few others and they started drinking together. The liquor tasted different and its colour was bluish, says Kalu. It also produced foam when poured into a glass, he adds. “But we paid no attention to this.”

Anjum Yaqoob, another local resident, was entertaining his relative Samuel Masih who had arrived from Faisalabad to celebrate Christmas. Samuel, too, complained about the colour of the liquor and its taste, as well as the foam it was producing, says his wife Parveen Bibi.

Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy

Sajid Masih, a 36-year-old janitor who worked in the police department, was the first to report sick. He was rushed to the District Headquarters Hospital in Toba Tek Singh where he was declared dead at 1 pm. An hour later, the train hit Shakeel.

In the next three days, the adulterated liquor took 44 lives and afflicted many others with impaired eyesight, even blindness. Iqbal was among the dead, as were Anjum, Samuel and Shakeel’s brothers Amjad and Sajawal.

Asif Hameed Saleemi, medical superintendent at the District Headquarters Hospital, was at home having lunch when he received a phone call. The caller told him about three patients brought to the hospital with the same symptoms – they had stomach ache and were drowsy rather than drunk. “I rushed to the hospital,” says Saleemi. As soon as he examined the first patient, he knew he was dealing with cases of toxic liquor consumption.

Saleemi immediately sent a local Christian to Mubarakabad to urge everyone who had drank the mixture the previous night to get to the hospital without wasting time. The mixture they had consumed contained methanol, the basic ingredient of an aftershave lotion. Its consumption, according to the United States National Center for Biotechnology Information, “can cause severe visual dysfunction and death”.

The heirs of the victims consist mostly of women and children, left with no means to make ends meet.

The hospital received 122 patients between December 26 and December 29 but it was ill-equipped to treat them. The first four hours after the consumption of any poisonous substance are crucial, says Saleemi. If the stomach of the patient can be washed within that time, the poison does not enter the blood stream, he adds. “But those patients were brought to the hospital more than 18 hours [after they had consumed the liquor].” The poisonous substance had sunk into their body tissues by then. “We could provide only symptomatic treatment.”

Those who were comparatively stable were immediately sent to Allied Hospital and the Civil Hospital in Faisalabad where they received effective treatment.

Most people in Mubarakabad could not afford to go to a hospital in Faisalabad on their own. The neighbourhood was set up in February 1979 on a piece of land measuring 28 kanals and five marlas that was purchased by the church and then given to local Christians without houses of their own on easy installments. It consists of 100 households — all extremely poor.

Their inability to go to a better-equipped hospital as the first resort was one reason why the death toll from toxic liquor was so high. Some survivors allege the local hospital treated the patients the wrong way by giving them intravenous saline drips. “My brother was given an intravenous drip but he did not survive,” says Shahbaz Masih, 40. He says he refused to be treated the same way — and was shifted to the Allied Hospital. We were given some red syrup in a cup at the Faisalabad hospital, says Parvaiz Masih, another patient. “[That] helped us regain strength.”

Pakistani customs officials watch over bottles of liquor before destroying them in Lahore | AFP
Pakistani customs officials watch over bottles of liquor before destroying them in Lahore | AFP

The red syrup could have been a mixture made from ethanol, the basic ingredient of drinkable alcohol. Another medicine, Fomepizole, also works as an antidote to methanol poisoning but, Saleemi claims, it is available only in the United States and, there too, it costs 1,000 US dollars for a complete dose. Unavailability of the medicine does not console Sosan who has lost three of her sons to the toxic concoction. “I was planning their marriages,” she says, holding back tears, and demands that justice be done.

“Four people have been arrested; Sawan Masih is one of them,” says Usman Gondal, District Police Officer in Toba Tek Singh. He says a joint investigation team has been set up to “ascertain how all this took place”.

The heirs of the victims consist mostly of women and children, left with no means to make ends meet. Lt Col (retd) Sardar Ayub Khan Gadhi, a member of the Punjab Assembly from Toba Tek Singh and a provincial minister, says he is aware of their financial problems. “The government is trying to provide jobs to the young members of the families of the deceased.”

That may not help 70-year-old Hameedan Bibi. Her two sons died in the incident, leaving her in charge of four grandchildren who are all too young to be eligible for a job.

Rukhsana has a similar problem. At 30 years of age, she is much younger than Hameedan, but she will not find it easy to hold a job while simultaneously taking care of four small children left behind by her husband Yousuf Masih.

Death and poverty are not the only forms of misery in Mubarakabad.

This article was originally published in the Herald's February 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is currently pursuing his MPhil in public policy and governance from Forman Christian College in Lahore.