Tracing the footsteps of Zainab's predator

Updated Mar 21, 2018 12:21pm
Posters protesting Zainab’s murder hang above a street in Kasur | Feryal Ali Gauhar
Posters protesting Zainab’s murder hang above a street in Kasur | Feryal Ali Gauhar

It is quiet here, in this lane, at this hour. I have spent the morning with her parents: Muhammad Amin Ansari and Nusrat Bibi, dignified even under the weight of an unbearable calamity. Ansari has large, grey eyes. Behind the spectacles, they seem to be brimming over with sorrow. Perhaps it is just a reflection, for otherwise he is composed, speaking softly, alert to the arrival of guests and relatives, members of the media, neighbours just checking up with a family suddenly catapulted into the middle of a story of colossal loss.

His wife appears to be considerably younger than him. She is in her room, veiled, a blanket crumpled and turned aside, the bed unmade, as if she was not expecting to get up and to start the day, as if she did not want to relinquish the space she shared with her youngest child, her youngest daughter, a child of striking beauty, her grey eyes clear and expectant, like the summer sky just before the rain.

I am not sure how to justify my presence amidst such profound emotions, the outrage held back, dammed behind walls of what could be, at times, brimming anger, or withering resignation or just the state of shock that numbs one, paralysing the heart in order to bear the anguish of what has happened. The house is clean and orderly; a well-used washing machine squats in a corner, an ironing board in another.

In the space where Ansari receives largely male visitors, a young child’s school uniform hangs from one of the shelves that house religious books. It is her uniform, possibly washed in that machine, clearly ironed on that board, lovingly cared for by a diligent mother who wished the best for her children, the eldest a son, followed by three girls, all beautiful, all capable, all striving to better their lives.

Zainab was the youngest, born after an agonising delivery that almost cost her mother’s life. “She was a gift, an angel gifted to us,” Nusrat Bibi whispers, her eyes dry, face still, hands clutching at some invisible thing: a ghost, a memory, a fragment, a fragrance. She is remarkable in her poise, her eloquence, her ability to endure the scrutiny of strangers who come and go through the door like seasonal birds. There is no need for her to allow the invasion of her privacy at a time of such searing pain but she does not flinch at the constant invasion, the limp, sometimes hurried expression of sympathy, the often hollow words that are offered by persons such as myself, unable to hold her gaze for long, ashamed of my own impotence.

It is a small room, just large enough to fit a double bed, a table, a fridge and a sofa, a narrow, rectangular patch left bare. A young woman sits on the bed with Nusrat Bibi; a tiny, fragile girl stands beside the fridge, her head veiled. Both have grey eyes, fringed by dark lashes, chiselled features shaping the lovely contours of their faces. One is Zainab’s aunt, the other her cousin, a few years older than the girl who has brought us all to this house in Road Kot, near Kashmir Chowk, Kasur.

Zainab’s mother, Nusrat Bibi, looks through her daughter’s books in their home | Tariq Mahmood, White Star
Zainab’s mother, Nusrat Bibi, looks through her daughter’s books in their home | Tariq Mahmood, White Star

In the corner of the room stands a clothing rack. Among the half-dozen items of clothing hanging off it, a pink jacket catches my eye. It is the same jacket that Zainab wore the day her last photograph was taken. The jacket seems familiar, like something that belongs to all of us, like something that was taken away from all of us.

Across the rack, sitting in another corner, is a pink backpack embellished with images of Barbie dolls. This is also Zainab’s, and inside it are her books, lined with meticulous writing, telling the story of this little girl as if it was just another life, an ordinary girl who would grow up and live just like other young girls in this country, dreaming of good things, aspiring to do good things, given the chance to do so.

Zainab did not have that opportunity. She did not live long enough. She was brutalised and murdered before completing her seventh year of life. She was abducted, assaulted, strangled and disposed of in a garbage dump, like yesterday’s refuse. Her body was coming out of rigor mortis when found, the face blue, tongue injured, caught between clenched teeth. There were bits of garbage clinging to her hair, weighing down her eyes. A streak of blood ran from her nose across her lips that were injured too. Zainab’s last moments must have been so agonising that she had bitten down on her own tongue, cutting it as she crushed it between her teeth. It was as if the person who brutalised this little girl wanted to make sure that she would never speak of the unspeakable things done to her.

When Dr Qurratul Ain Atiq speaks about Zainab’s body she does not meet my eyes. She looks away, almost as if the words are an unbearable burden. Qurratul Ain is a young medical officer at the District Headquarters Hospital in Kasur. In two years, she has performed three autopsies, all of them girls between the ages of five and seven. All of them raped and strangled to death. A fourth girl survived a similar ordeal; she fights for her life at the Children’s Hospital in Lahore. Qurratul Ain says she has no words with which to describe Zainab’s defiled body.

A street in Road Kot bazaar, decorated with bunting and tinsel to mark the twelfth of Rabiul Awal | Feryal Ali Gauhar
A street in Road Kot bazaar, decorated with bunting and tinsel to mark the twelfth of Rabiul Awal | Feryal Ali Gauhar

A police officer enters her office and hands her a file from the Punjab Forensic Science Agency located in Lahore. It contains the autopsy report and will be delivered to the joint investigation team constituted by the Punjab government. I see the words describing Zainab’s clothing: pant, trouser, upper, vest, socks 1, socks 2, and I think of the neat, penciled words in her notebook, the last assignment Zainab did on January 3, 2018, the day before her disappearance: Head, eye, shoulder, mouth …

He would push the girl’s head down and place his hand on her mouth while assaulting her, ensuring that she would not scream in agony and cry out in protest. In his violent frenzy, he would suffocate the girl, choking her to death with the force of an unbridled psychosis. He said that he did not intend to kill the girls; that he was sorry about their deaths; that he would atone by helping other girls with dowries and expenses for their weddings. He begged for mercy and asked for a job that would enable him to fulfil his promise to assist with the marriages of other girls. He was terrified and could barely speak, unable to look at Zahid Nawaz Marwat, the district police officer (DPO) who had ordered the arrest of Imran Ali from his house just less than a hundred meters away from Zainab’s home. He was a frequent visitor to Ansari’s home, and even joined the sympathisers as they reached out to condole with the grieving family once Zainab’s body had been discovered.

I look up from the patch of sunlight casting patterns on the cold cement floor and ask Nusrat Bibi if Zainab had a favourite toy, a game she liked to play. “Zainab studied hard and prayed regularly, often chiding me if I neglected to wake her up for Fajr [prayer]. When she was done with her schoolwork, she would learn the Quran. She didn’t need toys, she was very religious, like the rest of our family. She had memorised many duas and would recite them frequently. She knew which dua to recite when leaving home and the dua recited when one returns …” I look away, wanting to become part of the shadows in the corners of this room, sucking in my breath at the mention of these prayers, these rituals we practice to ensure that all remains well, that we remain safe, that we return to our homes unharmed.

Under-construction houses in Kasur | Feryal Ali Gauhar
Under-construction houses in Kasur | Feryal Ali Gauhar

I don’t know if Nusrat Bibi notices the fact that I do not face her, unable to ask the questions that present themselves like uninvited guests on a winter’s cold night. I turn to the young girl leaning against the fridge and ask her if she remembers the prayer for a safe return. The girl recites the prayer in Arabic, looking at me with her stunning grey eyes. I ask her if she knows what the words mean. She shakes her head from side to side, smiling shyly, as if this was a question that was unfair, snuck into the conversation, unexpected and unnecessary. I ask Nusrat Bibi if she knows the meaning of the Arabic words, not expecting an answer, for it is, indeed, a question that is not asked, nor answered, not welcome in a society where asking questions more often than not leads to opprobrium.

But there are many questions that need to be asked, many to do with the sheer survival of the state as a responsible entity and that of a society teetering on the edge of self-annihilation. Where would I start? To whom would the grieving parents of countless abused girls and boys turn? Who would answer the obvious question regarding responsibility towards the safety of citizens? Where does one go to seek justice? Who would ensure that perpetrators are found, arrested, prosecuted and punished?

A dog rummages through rubbish in the garbage dump in which Zainab’s body was found | Feryal Ali Gauhar
A dog rummages through rubbish in the garbage dump in which Zainab’s body was found | Feryal Ali Gauhar

When Marwat was transferred to Kasur, he took over an explosive situation. Zainab had disappeared and the fury at the perceived inaction of state institutions was directed at state installations. Enraged mobs attacked the district courts, the deputy commissioner’s office, the office of the DPO and the District Headquarters Hospital. In the ensuing mayhem, two protestors were killed by police fire. The DPO officiating at the time was made an Officer on Special Duty, a euphemism for relieving him of his usual assignments, and replaced by Marwat who immediately launched a search operation, sending teams on a house-to-house search within a two-and-a-half kilometre radius.

A constable had earlier found Zainab’s body and samples for DNA testing were collected and immediately sent to the forensic lab for analysis. The crime scenes for the 12 minor girls who had been abducted and assaulted between 2015 and 2018 were visited and a hypothesis was developed about the nature, pattern and modus operandi of the crime. Geofencing captured the nature and number of phone calls made within the area of interest.

Footage from Close Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras located along the route that the suspect might have taken was studied in the information technology centre at the office of the DPO. Sketches were generated of the suspect, based on two eyewitnesses. One of them had scuffled with the suspect in 2015, accosting him in a house that was under construction, as he was just about to assault a minor girl. Like the suspect, this witness is also a mason and came forward when the police made an appeal for eyewitnesses to provide information. Not many others stepped up to offer clues; no one seemed to know the suspect; no one recalled seeing him take Zainab away that evening.

Silence was the preferred option taken by most, including the arrested suspect’s mother and grandmother who admitted that he was “different” from the others in their extended family; that he also disappeared after Zainab’s disappearance, returning only after pressure from the police was exerted on the family to produce him. Otherwise no one identified Imran Ali as the perpetrator; no one talked about the fact that predators sometimes lurk within the supposed safety of homes. I ask Ansari if he suspects anyone within his extended family, or within the neighbourhood, given that his daughter seemed to be familiar with her abductor, that she appeared to trust him enough to walk off into the narrow lanes with him.

In response, I am told that the accused had the ability to hypnotise his victims, that in some cases he used black magic to lure his victims into his evil scheme, that he intoxicated them with some substance that blinded the children’s judgment. No one talks about the fact that children are left to wander on streets on their own, that in a neighbourhood where many other girls have gone missing, found dead or nearly dead after being raped and sodomised, it is criminal negligence on the part of the family to allow their young children out of their homes, especially after dark.

The place where Zainab left her neighbourhood | Feryal Ali Gauhar
The place where Zainab left her neighbourhood | Feryal Ali Gauhar

Who will have the courage to talk about the fact that the abuse and exploitation of children goes unnoticed, rarely condemned, because we live in a society predicated on a dynamic of dominance and submission? Who will go the length and say that we are responsible for the acceptance of values that are barbaric, that sexual abuse occurs within the sanctity of homes as well as in the dark, dank hideouts of criminals with warped minds? Who will quote figures on the abuse of minors in custody or the regular assault of young children by religious leaders? Who will dare to challenge the notion that the family itself is a safe place, safe from harm, where children are loved and nurtured and protected?

Some of these questions have been asked repeatedly by civil society organisations that have worked diligently to collect data on such crimes and to offer help, providing legal assistance and psychosocial counseling. In 2016, one such organisation, Sahil, recorded over 4,000 cases of child sexual abuse from across the country. A total of 6,759 abusers were involved in 2,810 of these cases. In the remaining cases, the abusers were not numbered. Most of the perpetrators in 2016 were identified as acquaintances.

In the same year, cases of children’s abduction showed an increase by almost a fifth (19 per cent) as compared to similar cases in 2015. From January 2013 to June 2017, over 16,000 cases were registered with Sahil. In almost half of these cases (43 per cent to be exact), the perpetrators were acquainted with the victims. From January 2017 to June of that year, 1,067 girls and 697 boys were sexually exploited. These are just the cases that are reported; many are not reported for fear or shame that sexual abuse of children brings to their families.

The bridge in Kasur where Zainab was last caught on CCTV footage, walking with her captor | Feryal Ali Gauhar
The bridge in Kasur where Zainab was last caught on CCTV footage, walking with her captor | Feryal Ali Gauhar

Young children are abducted and assaulted every day across the country, many of them murdered and found in drains, in fields, in abandoned properties, in under-construction buildings or even within the vicinity of their own homes. In similar crimes in Kasur, the abused girls lived within a two-and-a-half kilometre radius of each other. They were abducted from outside their homes, sexually assaulted, asphyxiated and left for dead. The method of disposal of their brutalised bodies has been similar; the accused left several of the corpses in garbage dumps and some at close quarters of the victim’s house. Zainab was found just 400 metres from her father’s house in Road Kot.

A wall runs along the edge of the dump where her body was found. To the other side of the wall stands a double-storied, under-construction bungalow. A dog rummages through the piles of garbage; blue plastic bags fly in the putrid air, skimming across the surface of dark, fetid mulch. In the distance, a bulldozer scrapes the earth and pushes tons of refuse into a heap, clearing the area in patches, finding other places to dump its putrescent burden. Could it have occurred to anyone that the accused actually lived just a stone’s throw from the dump, and less than a hundred metres from Zainab’s house? Could one imagine that the man who committed this terrible crime had befriended Zainab, that he had been a visitor to her father’s home?

A CCTV camera hangs in a street in Kasur | Feryal Ali Gauhar
A CCTV camera hangs in a street in Kasur | Feryal Ali Gauhar

I want to ask Nusrat Bibi these questions, I want to know why elders in a family allow their young children to leave their homes unsupervised. I do not have the courage to look into her eyes, for I have not suffered such a calamitous loss as she has and I could not be a judge of the circumstances in which Zainab left her home that fateful evening of January 4, 2018. It was an evening like any other, except for the fact that it was exceptionally cold and blustery, the dead of winter in Punjab.

Zainab wore two pairs of leggings to keep her warm, a green velour pullover, an orange knitted pinafore and a black and white striped hoodie on top. She took her young cousin, Usman, also six years old, along with her. They stepped out of their home, located in a side street that shoots off the main bazaar at Road Kot, and walked past a mosque where worshippers had already offered their evening prayers and gone home, leaving the door slightly ajar. Zainab and Usman turned left into the bazaar and as they neared her aunt’s house, just 50 metres from the corner, Zainab started running further into the bazaar, leaving Usman behind.

We can see Zainab as she runs into the bazaar, her silky hair bobbing up and down like sheaves of grain in a wheat field. At a certain point, not far from her aunt’s house, she stops. A man appears out of the darkness behind her. He may have called her name; Zainab turns towards him. He signals to her to follow him. Zainab turns. He disappears into an alley. Zainab steps after him, unaware of the fact that this is to be her last journey through the streets of her hometown Kasur, the birthplace of the melody queen Noor Jehan, the resting place of Baba Bulleh Shah.

Nobody could have known that this was the last time that little Zainab was to be seen in the bazaar where she must have often strolled, with her mother, her siblings, cousins, neighbours. This is the bazaar that houses multiple shops with attractions for children: sweet shops, mithai shops, gaming arcades, shops with nail polish and lipstick. As I walk past these tiny establishments, squeezed between a tandoor and a hairdresser’s salon, I try to imagine those last few seconds when Zainab stood, facing a camera that caught that chilling moment of decision. I stand at the very place Zainab must have stood and imagine a man calling out to me. We know now that he was not a stranger. Once she had turned that corner into the alley branching off from the bazaar, following that man, Zainab did not return.

The sun sets over a madrasa in Kasur | Feryal Ali Gauhar
The sun sets over a madrasa in Kasur | Feryal Ali Gauhar

He said he lured her into his trap by offering to take her to see her parents who had supposedly returned from umrah. She came willingly, excited, keen to see her mother and father who had been gone for several weeks. He took her far from familiar lanes and alleyways, far from her home and far from anyone who knew her. He took her on a journey with no return.

I walk the distance that Zainab and her captor covered between 7:08 pm and 8:45 pm that evening, a fateful journey captured on several CCTV cameras installed outside commercial establishments. They moved through a narrow alley, bordered on both sides by houses and an occasional yarn weaving loom, past a private school and then disappeared until they were captured again on a CCTV camera installed at a building materials store across Kasur’s main artery of Ferozepur Road. This road leads from Lahore and cuts Kasur down the middle. The distance between the school on one side of Ferozepur Road and the building material stores on the other is almost three-quarters of a kilometre. With every step she took, every tiny footstep, she was moving closer to the macabre doom that awaited her.

The path Zainab and her abductor seemed to have taken runs along a main road and is lit only in patches. The ground is uneven, dusty; desolation spreads itself out like a fraying veil. I try to imagine a little six-year-old girl traversing this rutted terrain in the dark of night. I cannot conceive of anyone her age travelling this distance without getting tired, without panicking. At every step of this journey, the many pitfalls of living in a poorly governed state threaten to swallow one. Zainab’s last journey took a route that was ill-lit. There was no path for pedestrians, heaps of garbage lay piled up at the edges of unregulated settlements, sewage flowed unchecked. In a country with hardly any space for people to walk safely, no waste management, no proper drainage, inadequate electrification, no regulation over growing cities, could one expect that there should be adequate protection for children?

This is the question that Karachi-based lawyer Zia Ahmed Awan asks in his petition to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, filed under article 184 (3) of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Concerned that in recent years incidents of violence against children have increased and that the agencies responsible for the protection of women and youngsters have failed, Awan asks the apex court to ensure that mechanisms are developed for the protection of children.

Pakistan is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by our government in 1990. Under the convention, the state is bound to take measures for the protection of children. The state is mandated to enact new laws and develop mechanisms to support and implement those laws. The respondents in Awan’s petition are jointly under legal obligation to take all measures to curb crimes against children.

The Ministry of Human Rights, for instance, has the mandate to report the status of children in Pakistan to the United Nations (UN) but there is no strategy or mechanism to coordinate and collect data from all provinces despite a five-year plan that was developed some time ago to do the same. Awan states that there is a lack of political will to focus on setting up specific, measurable, realistic and time-bound goals. He submits that the police are not trained to deal with cases of child abuse, that they are not aware of the special laws pertaining to women and children, that there is no reference material in police stations that can help policemen understand the nature of such crimes.

The state has failed to establish monitoring and response systems. The state has failed to collect and maintain composite data on missing and abused children — let alone have a mechanism to share this data with the civil society, and other organs of the state such as the judiciary and the UN. The police fail to register first information reports due to the lack of knowledge of relevant laws. Awan reminds the apex court that all provincial governments were to adopt a National Policy on Children after the 18th Constitutional Amendment. They have failed to do so.

A page from Zainab’s school notebook | Feryal Ali Gauhar
A page from Zainab’s school notebook | Feryal Ali Gauhar

Indeed there are many failures that mark the treacherous journey that Zainab took on January 4, 2018. At a certain point, before she and her abductor crossed Ferozepur Road to go to the other side of the town, one comes across a recreational park, protected with iron railings all around. Through the railings one can see swings and a merry-go-round provided for the children of Kasur. Displayed on the main gate of this large green area are posters announcing an urs, a milaad, and a Ya Rasool Allah Conference to be addressed by Hafiz Mufti Khadim Hussain Rizvi.

The city of Kasur is plastered with such posters for religious gatherings. The young man who accompanies me on my quest for answers speaks with great relish of the miracle that took place on January 4, 2011 exactly seven years before Zainab’s disappearance. He speaks about the religious obligation that was carried out by Mumtaz Qadri when he shot at and killed Punjab governor Salman Taseer in Islamabad for demanding a reform of the blasphemy laws. He speaks about the supposed 2.5 million men who attended Qadri’s chehlum at Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi. Cognisant of the fact that the venue has a capacity of perhaps less than a tenth that number, he rejoices in yet another “miracle”. This young man is Zainab’s cousin.

Like many young men across the country, Imran Ali believes that his salvation lies in wearing the garb of religiosity, in becoming part of the swelling ranks of religious groups and parties that command allegiance to literalist interpretations of Islam. Hours after he was arrested and interrogated, a video was circulated on social media. In this chilling clip, Imran Ali addresses an all-male audience of “believers”, raising religious slogans in a voice strained with fervour. He then makes a short speech, praising Bibi Fatima Zehra for enjoining “daughters” to veil themselves when they leave their homes, repeating the words over and over again. The men around him raise their hands in praise of the Prophet (may peace be upon him): “Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, Labaik”.

The lanes and alleys of Road Kot are strung with tinsel buntings and paper flags, remnants of the celebration of the twelfth of Rabiul Awal, the birth anniversary of the Prophet (may peace be upon him). Across the neighbourhood, on the other side of Ferozepur Road, lies a densely wooded area. I am told that is a secure area, a military installation in this border town, cordoned off and protected by barbed wire and high walls.

I look away, trying not to see in my mind’s eye images of children murdered in cold blood on a December morning in my father’s city of Peshawar. Children shot in the head and in the back, slumped on the floor of the auditorium of their school, located just minutes away from a military installation, also protected by high walls and barbed wire. Where are the walls to protect our children from predators of all kinds? Where is the vision to save our future generation from such agonising despair?

I continue the journey, crossing the road to what appears to be a poorer part of Kasur. A private school stands at the beginning of a desolate bazaar, empty except for a donkey cart carrying fodder and a broken wheelchair straddling an open drain. On the high walls of the school, colourful cartoon figures act out the games that children play. The boys in these images wear shorts, the girls wear head scarves. There are flowers and trees and lush green grass painted on the wall. When Zainab walked past this school, she might have seen the painted children waving to her, smiling at her, inviting her in to their school where children “Come to Read, Leave to Lead”.

Zainab’s father, Muhammad Amin Ansari | M Arif, White Star
Zainab’s father, Muhammad Amin Ansari | M Arif, White Star

I do not know if Zainab saw much that cold winter’s night. I do not know if she saw the young boys playing in the gaming arcades or the men sitting by the tea stall telling tales or the women hurrying home to their makeshift shelters in what appears to be a squatter settlement. There is a hammam and a hajaam (barber) here; freshly washed towels flutter on wires strung across the breadth of the lane.

At the corner of the lane, just before one leaves the bazaar and steps into an expanse of uneven terrain, is the nondescript office of Chairman Musalahati (reconciliation) Council who happens to be a former Naib Nazim and also a former vice president of Punjab’s ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PLMN), for Kasur city. It is here that we see the last images of Zainab being led by her captor towards the bridge beneath which flows effluence from two local neighbourhoods, Madina Colony and Ali Park. There is no knowing what was going on in the man’s mind or hers. The only thing one knows is that Zainab was never seen alive again.

He says that he was sexually abused as a child. That he found pleasure in his ability to have power over these young girls. That he went into a trance when he assaulted them, that he had no control over himself. He says that he is poor, that if he was given a job, he would work hard and reform himself. He says that the compulsion to do these terrible things came over him suddenly and he was helpless in the face of this force that possessed him.

I awake every morning with Zainab in my head, smiling her beatific smile, those grey eyes gentle and clear. I know that soon this memory of a little girl whose life was snuffed out brutally will eventually fade, that the significance of this crime will be overtaken by yet another one. I know that it will be a long time before the state and our society will be able to effectively address issues of the abuse of young children, women, the poor and the powerless. It will be perhaps even longer before we, as a nation, as the body politic itself, shall be able to cleanse ourselves of the many illnesses which plague us, of the hypocrisy that cripples us, preventing us from taking a collective journey in search of the truth.

A few days later when I return to Kasur, fog softens the harsh outlines of buildings looming over Ferozepur Road. By the afternoon, winter’s chill diminishes and the sun rises into clear skies, casting its brilliance all around us. A gentle warmth caresses the wings of birds as they sing their odes to life and the living. A haze hovers over mustard fields sandwiched between brick kilns and walls that appear to have emerged out of the belly of the earth, scarring the landscape with their hard edges.

It is Thursday; I have paid my respects at the mausoleum of Hazrat Baba Bulleh Shah, staying to listen to the qawwali as it spreads like a balm over lacerated flesh. I listen carefully, holding my breath so that I can hear Baba Bhulleh Shah reminding us that the truth can never be concealed, that all else is fleeting:

Kittey sacchi gal vi rukdi ae

Ik nuktey vich gal mukdi ae

(Nothing can stop the truth from revealing itself/the sole point that puts an end to all conversations.)

Additional reporting by Momina Manzoor Khan

This article was published in the Herald's February 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is an actor, film-maker and human rights activist.