For a man who makes his living recording people’s lives, going blind is worse than death.
“I can’t see the screen of my cell phone. I can’t read, write or take out my bike. That’s how blind I am,” says Mubarak Almas, a crime reporter who lost his eyesight after he drank what turned out to be toxic liquor. He was not the only victim.
The chief reporter for the Associated Press of Pakistan, Rafi Nasir, and daily Awam’s reporter Rahim Rahat didn’t live to tell their story. And Javed Iqbal, who worked at the marketing department of the Express group, died at the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation after suffering a brain haemorrhage on December 4.
Almas and photographer Naeemul Haq, whose optic nerves were damaged, are the only two who are able to speak of what happened. All of them bought liquor from one source who is known to have been a long-time supplier for people in the media. Almas said that he and Rahim bought dry gin but it seems that someone siphoned off part of the bottle and topped it up by injecting moonshine through the cap.
Almas fell unconscious after drinking it on November 30. “There was something fishy about the liquor, the taste was weird,” he told The Express Tribune. “But I thought who would dare sell toxic stuff to journalists.” Medical reports verified from different labs all indicate that his blood had high levels of “desi sharaab.”
When the tragedy struck, these men assumed that their fraternity would have been supportive.
Rahim Rahat’s friends said police stopped the family from going ahead with the burial suspecting that he had been murdered. “But some senior journalists stepped in and did not let the police do a postmortem,” said a Karachi Press Club member, who did not want to be named.
Almas has also been told to bury the matter. “I am being told to keep my mouth shut,” he says. “But this is my life and I will seek justice.”
Those who are trying to brush the entire episode under the rug argue that the moonshine was not to blame as the men did not immediately die. Thus there has been an attempt to sow confusion over the cause of death, evident in one victim’s words: “I am not really sure if I lost my eyesight because of the liquor as my health deteriorated two days after I had couple of glasses,” said photographer Naeemul Haq, who cannot see anything beyond one foot. When The Express Tribune went to his small apartment in Saddar for his version of events, he bumped into the door as he struggled to make it into the drawing room. He is not sure if he’ll ever be able to take pictures again.
The time-delay theory doesn’t hold water, however, according to Police Surgeon Dr Hamid Ali, who says that effects of drinking adulterated liquor can surface for up to five days. Indeed, three days after Almas had the drink his blood tests showed that his SGPT (serum glutamic pyruvic transaminase) level was 54 units per litre. “That is a dangerous level,” said Dr Ali. “It means the liver has been damaged.” SGPT is an enzyme that is released into blood when the liver or heart is damaged.
“Homemade whisky or beer is made with the branches of the babul, rotten fruit and acids. The mixture of these things is left to decay and methyl spirit is separated, which becomes the ‘sharab’,” he explained. “There is no fixing the damage they do.”
Officials at government hospitals say it is hard to monitor the number of people falling prey to the moonshine as families try to avoid police investigation.
On Wednesday, at least three people are said to have died and ten more fell sick in Gadap Town after buying bootlegged liquor from New Karachi.
The demand for the hooch is based on pure economics. The moonshine is dirt cheap, about Rs250 a bottle, but imported alcohol sells for Rs3,000. The head of Jinnah hospital’s toxic control centre, Dr Jamal Ara, explained that the number of casualties goes up whenever there is a shortage of quality beer in the market. “These incidents happen after gaps of a few days. All of a sudden there is spike and we see victims flowing in.”
Loss of eyesight is the most common symptom. “The saddest part is that these people can never see again. The damage to the nerve of the eye is permanent.”
The bootleg brew business does well whenever there is a shortage of the genuine stuff. Murree Brewery is the most sought-after brand in Karachi when it comes to alcoholic drinks but its supply of whisky to the city has been cut for the last four months, the CEO of the company said.
“The Punjab government was not letting our consignment reach Sindh, saying that we were not paying the tax,” said CEO Isphanyar Bhandara. “We have finally shown them the proof and Murree products will start selling soon.”
But this gap means that counterfeit Murree brands are freely available in the market and bootleggers are tempted to dilute the genuine liquor to make supplies stretch. “The authorities know very well how much our brand is misused,” he Bhandara. “I really can’t say why they always fail to take action.”
This was corroborated by a dealer who said that a Karachi-based company has flooded the market with its products during the shortage of Murree products. “We have been getting a lot of complaints about brands like Whisky No. 1, Highlander and Peach Vodka,” he said. But because of the taboo associated with drinking, it seems that few victims are likely to get justice if something goes wrong as it did in the case of these three journalists.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 25th, 2011.