As the victims of the Gojra riots watched in horror, those accused of causing the mayhem were garlanded and feted in the city’s main market in May as they returned to the town after their acquittal. “We are obviously upset,” said Parveen Manzoor, a homemaker. “It hurts to see them celebrating over the bodies of our near and dear ones.”
The acquittals were the result of a compromise to ‘maintain law and order’ in the area and to ‘move on from the 2009 riots’, according to locals, church officials and peace committee members. It was brokered by community elders and came amid a realisation that the witnesses to the riots were also under threat.
“The witnesses were pressurised, threatened and paid off by an influential politician belonging to the PML-N,” victims and residents allege. As a result, they withdrew their names, changed their stance or simply refused to testify. Peace committee member Adeel told The Express Tribune that police officers forcibly took witnesses to court hearings and made them change their statements. “They would tell them that if you don’t testify a certain way you’ll have to face the consequences.” Other witnesses, peace committee members said, were paid as little as Rs2,000 to keep quiet or change their statements.
“My brother did not testify even though he was a key witness,” said Nauman. “Our elders told us to compromise. Our faith says that we must forgive.”
The acquitted suspects are back home, and residents say it is a matter of time before there is a repeat of the Gojra killings. The town had a close call a few weeks ago after a fight between two school-going boys – a Christian and a Muslim – turned ugly. According to Manzoor, “The Muslim family came to Christian Colony and announced ‘We won’t spare you this time’.”
“The men pass by our house every day,” said Shahida, whose residence was burned down in the riot. “They live around the corner.” Gojra’s last hope for justice died with the assassination of federal minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who has become a symbol for Gojra’s Christian community of the futility of their struggle for justice. The outcome of the trial has only cemented the anger. “This is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” says Manzoor’s son Shahid. “There is no place for us here.”
Bitterness and regret
“There is not a single day where we are not reminded of what happened,” says Pastor William.
For others, the scars are deeper. Nauman and his older brother were picked up by the police after the riots. While he says his older brother fired at the attackers and killed one of them, Nauman was in Sahiwal during the rioting.
The brothers were transferred to the custody of intelligence agencies in Lahore, who tortured Nauman for 14 days and asked him to admit that he had fired at the attackers and caused the inadvertent death of a Christian.
“I wish I had died in God’s way instead. They would hang me upside down, thrash me… I wasn’t given food for days. I met the Muslim attackers there as well, who were not mistreated at all. I knew them – we grew up in the same area. They proudly declared that they had done this for jihad.”
If there is pride amongst the Christians, it is because many managed to rescue some of the families. Now they say they have learnt their lessons. “We barely had any arms then, otherwise we would have defended ourselves. Now, you may not find food in a house but you will find a weapon.”
They question the state’s involvement and complicity in the riots. Shahid pointed out a lane where police officers were reportedly enjoying soft drinks while houses burned, and wondered why Christians from nearby villages were not allowed to enter Gojra, yet masked men from Jhang entered the city and helped attack Christian Colony.
According to the Catholic Church’s Father Yaqoob, cooperation with the police has improved. After the riots, several police officers were transferred and the new deputy superintendent has reportedly warned Muslims against venturing near the Christian colony.
Pastor William has faith in God. His residence and the church above it were burned down and a cross was desecrated. “We were only left with a glass that my daughter was drinking from when she escaped,” he said. “They give us no security even though we have daily sermons. God’s angels protect us every day.”
Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2011.