The protesters had come prepared with salt and paint: salt to nullify the impact of teargas and spray paint to scribble religious graffiti. But when the rally started in Saddar, no one had thought the end would be disastrous.
The protest rally by the Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM) against a blasphemous video seemed like a usual demonstration aimed at the US. Women and children were among hundreds of participants who raised their fists on popular religious slogans. A few low-profile clerics led the protest but a large part of the crowd comprised teenagers. People had come from across the city to be part of the rally, but most of the boys belonged to the Imamia Students Organisation (ISO).
“We will sacrifice everything for Prophet Muhammad (PBUH),” the crowd roared as young men sprayed “Down with US” on the walls of buildings located along the Maulvi Tameezuddin Khan Road.
Apparently, the authorities had failed to ascertain the intensity of the demonstration, which came in the wake of violent demonstrations and attacks on US embassies in other Muslim countries.
Using loudspeakers affixed to a truck, leaders of MWM continuously asked people to remain peaceful. A human chain was formed in front of the rally to stop anyone from engaging the police stationed near the US Consulate.
Even though the leaders insisted that this was an issue that transcended sectarian differences, some men thought otherwise. Along with the graffiti against US and Israel, there were slogans against the Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) – a banned outfit frequently accused of anti-Shia activities.
Two dozen policemen were deployed to stop the rally before it turned onto Mai Kolachi Road, which was blocked with cargo containers. “Remember, we are here to register a peaceful protest,” someone shouted from the loudspeaker. But it was too late.
Finding their way blocked to the US consulate, young men tried to break the security cordon. The police fired shots in the air followed by teargas shells. That didn’t work but infuriated the protesters even more.
“You cowards,” shouted a man to the policemen, his face covered with a wet scarf to avoid the fumes. “We must get that flag,” he said pointing to a US flag visible from the road. The containers did not block the entire road – like the way access to Chief Minister and Governor Houses is blocked at such times. There was enough space to sneak through and hundreds of men did.
Sixteen-year-old Abbas spoke in an exaggerated manner, like most teenagers do, using gestures more than words to explain a point. “This is my first time [at a protest]… and of course I didn’t tell my parents.”
Minutes later, he was on the ground, coughing and overwhelmed with the effects of teargas.
A few metres away from the consulate building, police resorted to intense aerial firing. Protesters also fired shots in the air from handguns. “They are firing straight at us,” alleged a protester, as an injured man was carried to an ambulance. He was later identified as Ali Raza Taqvi, who was shot in the face. As ambulances rushed in and it became apparent that some of the participants were injured, the rally turned violent.
A traffic police post was set ablaze, media vans were damaged and road signs torn off. It took the police 45 minutes to control the situation.
But after the mob had dispersed and the teargas fumes no longer burnt the eye, one could see something unusual at the US Consulate’s gate – the yellow flag of ISO hoisted at the place where the young protester was shot.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 17th, 2012.