- A child, that too a poor child with no second name, dying because of violence, should not, and must not, and cannot be forgotten in a few days.
- It pains me like not much else does: a child’s death forgotten as if she or he never existed.
Her date of birth is unknown.
As she lay unconscious, connected to a ventilator in ICU, her body had multiple signs of violence.
On her right cheek was a bruise, bluish.
On the left side of her stomach, under the ribs, were bruises, bluish, and some that suggested she had been dragged across the floor.
Her left wrist was bruised.
On both her legs, on the inside of her thighs, were bruises.
Her left ankle was swollen and bruised.
There was vaginal bleeding. On her vagina, there were signs of violence.
She had been brought to the ICU of Bahria Hospital, Phase 8, Rawalpindi, at 18:30 on May 31, 2020.
She did not regain consciousness.
She died at 2:30am.
It was June 1, 2020.
She was eight years old.
Her name was Zahra.
She did not have a second name.
No photograph of Zahra before May 31, 2020 exists.
What's in a name?
Media – electronic, social, print – called her “Zohra Shah.” Amidst the noise about the enormity of the tragedy of her death, verification of her real name became inconsequential. Posthumously, she is “Zahra Bibi.” As with many children from underprivileged backgrounds who exist without a second or a family name, the word “bibi” (respected woman”) is suffixed to her name.
Pakistan, on hearing the news of the death of another little girl, was shocked and grieved. It was the biggest news of the day. For a few hours. A couple of days. Social media erupted in grief and outrage. “Justice for Zohra Shah,” hashtagged and viralled, dominated the timelines of the famous and the ordinary on Twitter. The photograph of a Baloch child was shared, mistaking her for “Zohra Shah.” The fake photo with the fake name.
That also ended soon. Pakistan’s electronic and social media are too busy with the political warfare of the government and the opposition, and the devastation of coronavirus to devote a great deal of time and attention to dead children. Especially if the dead children do not have a real name. Or a face.
She did have a face. I saw two photos. In the first photo I saw of Zahra, her eyes were covered with two pieces of taped gauze, the tube in her mouth held tight with thin strips of gauze. Zahra looked like a little boy with her closely cropped hair. According to the people she worked for, the perpetrator and the accomplice, his wife, her head was shaved because she had lice. Instead of using lice removal lotion or shampoo, they shaved her head.
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In the second photo, her unusually long, thick eyelashes curl as if to protect her eyes. As if to provide shade to the deep bruise on her left cheek. Her thin face is pale. Deathly. Her mouth has a cut. She is dead.
Daughter of the conductor of a public minibus, Zahra was from a village in Muzaffargarh. She had four brothers and two sisters. About four-five months ago – from the time of her death – she started working for Hassan Siddique, and his wife, Umme Kalsoom, in their house in Bahria Town, Phase 8, Rawalpindi. That job was to be the last one of her very short life. What she did before that job remains unclear. Her family did not visit her once. Hassan is a property dealer and a seller of exotic birds. They have a five-month-old boy. After the arrest of his parents, he lives with his paternal grandmother. His life has changed even before he can speak or walk.
Hassan, when he brought Zahra from her home, told her parents that she would play with their son, and he and his wife would take care of her every need, including clothing and education. Like millions of poor families who have many children and little or no money, and who unable to educate their children are forced to let them become daily-wage earners or domestic help, Zahra’s parents trusted a complete stranger to provide a good life to their child. In the few months that she was with the Siddique family, Zahra was mistreated, punished, and beaten, her head was shaved, and she remained in dirty clothes.
The couple who promised to give her a good life never treated Zahra with kindness. They did not have any other domestic help. The wife did the cleaning, cooking and other chores. In the words of Hassan and his wife, Zahra was “dirty”. That, in simpler words, means she didn’t shower or change her clothes often. They complained that she was of no use to them. That she was a liability. They didn’t give her a fixed salary. They did not buy her anything. She slept on a mattress in the living room of their five-marla house. They shaved her head when she had lice. They beat her very frequently. The perpetrators told the investigating officer that they wanted to send Zahra back to her village but could not do so because of the transportation lockdown due to coronavirus.
Zahra did return to her village in the time of coronavirus. In a coffin.
The tell-tale signs
After her death it was discovered that Zahra had scars on her legs, arms, all over her body. Scars that revealed the hard beatings the little child received on a regular basis. Light slaps, light beatings do not leave marks.
One day, Zahra was cleaning a cage that had two precious parrots. During the cleaning, the birds flew away. Hassan’s wife called him to inform him that Zahra had freed the birds. He came home, and he beat her. Zahra lost consciousness. Hassan brought her to the Bahria Hospital, Phase 8, left her there, and fled.
On May 31, 2020, Hassan beat Zahra. The 35-year-old, 5’8, man unleashed hell on the tiny, thin eight-year-old Zahra. Worse than how grown men beat men their size and age in movies, in real life violent scenarios. He hit her with a stick. He kicked her. He kicked her all over her body. In her ribs, in her stomach, on her pubic area, on her legs, on her calves. The wife watched. No one heard Zahra’s screams. No one helped Zahra.
After his arrest, a video was found in Hassan’s phone. In that video, Zahra was in a cage. That was one of her punishments. One time? Repeated? There is just one video. It was a medium size cage generally used for keeping roosters.
When asked if the couple after their arrest expressed any remorse, any shame, one high-level police officer said: “Verrrrry little.” A junior officer said: “To an extent.” A child was dead. The perpetrators reacted. Zahra was a “dirty child”. Zahra was “shararti”.
A police officer said, “Both of them had tortured her on multiple occasions.” Hassan said to the police, “Kabhi kabhi marta tha jab shararat karti thi.”
The police found a “little steel rod” from the site of violence. It remains to be verified if it has been used for beating Zahra.
The most-repeated word by all the investigating officers for Hassan’s violence on the eight-year-old Zahra is “torture.”
On being informed, Zahra’s mother and paternal grandfather arrived. Lamenting the death of their child, they demanded justice. The police, after the post-mortem, handed over the body to the grief-stricken family. They are in touch with them to give them regular updates on the investigation. The post-mortem report is confidential until the report of the DNA sample of the culprit sent to the Punjab Forensic Science Agency, Lahore, is available.
Crimes against children
Countless children in Pakistan work as domestic help. In a developing country where twenty-five percent of the population still survives under the official poverty line, child labour, despite being illegal, is the norm. A very unfortunate one. Children are easy to mould, exploited, and are paid pittance. Many of them are treated with cruelty. Many of them receive regular beatings. Many of them are seriously injured. A few of them, or many of them–no one really knows–die. Most of these cases are not reported. Some parents are silenced through fear. Some parents accept monetary compensation.
For heinous crimes of cruelty on children, and in the cases of manslaughter or first-degree murders of children, the state must become the party, the complainant. Once the system of out-of-court settlements and familial forgiveness for various factors is abolished, cruelty on children, ceasing to be the norm, will became an exception.
The police in Zahra’s case have shown an extraordinary sense of responsibility. They filed a case without any complaint from anyone.
SP Saddar Zia-ud-Din Ahmad told me, “There were many signs of violence on Zahra’s body. Some old scars were also found. There was swelling of the abdominals and swelling and bleeding of the vaginal area. Section 376 will be added if rape is proven through a DNA examination. Samples have been sent to the lab to verify if a sexual assault occurred. The other torture is confirmed. We will also add the PPC section of child labour. Further interrogation is going on. The important thing in this case is that the state and the police is the complainant.”
According to Sub-Inspector Sajjad-ul-Hassan, Public Relations Officer and spokesperson of the Rawalpindi police, “On receiving information regarding the incident, the Rawalpindi Police promptly reached the hospital. Without waiting for the medical report, the police, on the directions of CPO Rawalpindi Muhammad Ahsan Younas, registered a case against Hassan Siddique and his wife under sections 324/376/34 PPC. The police became the complainant as waiting for Zahra’s parents living in Muzaffargarh might have delayed the legal process.
“When the little girl Zahra passed away in the hospital, the police immediately added section 302 PPC in the FIR. The perpetrators, the husband and wife, were arrested.
“The police have conducted the DNA test of Hassan Siddique, polygraph tests of the couple, forensic analyses of the couple’s cell phones, and voice-matching test of Hassan for verification of the authenticity of the video found in his cell phone. All steps are taken to ensure that every bit of evidence is collected against the perpetrators of this brutal act.
CPO Younas has personally reassured the family of the deceased child that the investigation of the case will be done purely on merit, and the perpetrators will be challaned to court with solid evidence to get them convicted. CPO Younas has also directed the concerned investigating officer to ensure that all possible measures are taken to collect the evidence that could be useful to ensure justice for Zohra.”
In Zahra Bibi’s case, the Station Head Officer is the complainant on behalf of the state.
With the expectation that all police officials, throughout Pakistan, do their job with sincerity and dedication, without being asked or forced through media pressure, I wish to laud Sub-Inspector Mukhtar Hussain, SP Saddar Zia-ud-Din Ahmad, SSP Investigations Muhammad Faisal, and CPO DIG Muhammad Ahsan Younas for all their work for Zahra’s case.
I could not have written today if it weren’t for SP Saddar Zia-ud-Din Ahmad, and Sub-Inspector Sajjad-ul-Hassan, PRO, and spokesperson of the Rawalpindi police. I thank SSP Zia for his help with my questions immediately after Zahra’s murder. I thank SI Sajjad, for responding, very patiently, to dozens of my questions over a few days. My huge gratitude to both of them.
When I read about Zahra’s death, her murder, on June 1, I was deeply saddened like any normal human being. Days later, it kept stabbing my sensibilities, my humanity, my motherhood. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Dead children do that to me. They haunt my days, they don’t let me sleep. When I read about children who I know will be forgotten soon I write about them. To keep them alive somewhere. My words will never be enough to chronicle the unimaginable hugeness of the death of a child–the biggest tragedy of humanity–but I can’t not write. Someone has to.
A child, that too a poor child with no second name, dying because of violence, should not, and must not, and cannot be forgotten in a few days. It pains me like not much else does: a child’s death forgotten as if she or he never existed.
Dead children are mentioned in discussions about violence against children, the unfairness of child labour, the insufficiency of child labour laws, the societal apathy to child labour. Their tragedies become synonymous with the evil perpetrated against children. The crimes against them even act as a motivation to make the laws stricter, and punishments swifter. What is lost in the noise and the outrage and the demand for justice and punishment is the identity of the child, the story of the dead child.
Today, I got tested for COVID-19 the third time. Today, I also gathered my nerves to write about little Zahra. I tried.
I don’t have the story of Zahra’s life. She did not live long enough to have a story. What I could do was make an effort to find out everything about her death. From June 4 to June 29, I contacted different police officers, and I tried to ask as many questions as possible. June has been my COVID-19 isolation month. June has also been my mind constantly drifting to the little girl who was killed for freeing two birds. I thought I would write once the post-mortem report was made public; I have waited for weeks but the report is not complete as the DNA testing takes a long time, in some cases. I started to write a few times, but it was so traumatic I stopped after a few sentences.
I cry each time I think about the little girl who was killed for freeing–accidently, on purpose, I’ll never know – two parrots.
May you live in love and light and laughter and happiness, little Zahra.
May in death you find the childhood you never had, little Zahra.