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What we talk about when we talk about May 28

SAMAA |
Posted: May 28, 2020 | Last Updated: 4 months ago

Art: Amna Iqbal

Nobody told Ahmed. He told himself: survival lies in silence.

He was only fifteen years old when he taught himself this lesson but it isn’t necessarily clear how quickly the realisation took to sink in. Perhaps it happened in a moment, or hours, or days after what happened. The exact timing doesn’t matter though—just that it dictated how he was going to live from thereon. 

We pick up the thread to break the silence because perhaps enough time has passed. It was ten years from today, on the twenty-eighth of May, that it happened. His father had picked up Ahmed and his twelve-year-old brother from school. They all hopped on to his father’s motorcycle, and as they always did on Fridays, headed for prayers to Model Town. 

The names of his father and brother are not mentioned here because they would be as irrelevant as the name Ahmed used in this story, because it is not his real name. This is the first promise one makes of silence when writing on Ahmadi lives in Pakistan. You will not say their names because you can give no markers of identity. 

“We were neither early nor too late for prayers that day,” Ahmed says over the phone. “The sermon had started and while we didn’t get space in the main hall, we found a spot in the one behind it.” He mentions the coincidence of timing for a reason. It meant that when the attack took place, the three of them were neither at the entrance nor in the main hall where most people were killed.

It was on this Friday afternoon that Ahmed really understood what it meant to be an Ahmadi in Pakistan. That day two attacks were planned to target the community in Lahore on May 28, 2010: one in Model Town and the other in Garhi Shahu. Guns, grenades and suicide bombs left at least 86 Ahmadis dead, according to statistics from the office in Rabwah. Some reports put the total number of dead at 104, with almost as many injured.

These attacks were claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan who, back then, would often be the first to make a phone call to newsrooms to “claim responsibility,” putting to rest any real expectations of investigations or subsequent justice. 

It was during the khutba that Ahmed first heard the crack of gunshots. “The mic was still on. We could hear the sound of gunfire and we could hear people dying, while the khateeb was reciting the kalma. He kept reciting the kalma again and again, before the khateeb’s voice on the microphone died too.”

Ahmed hid his brother in his arms, while others covered their children. After the firing and explosions stopped, the teenage boys of the jamaat’s unarmed security team guided them out when it was deemed safe enough. “I don’t remember everything too clearly any more,” says Ahmed, “but I remember thinking, how can we leave these people behind? We knew everyone there.” 

Like any other Ahmadi child growing up in Pakistan, Ahmed was fairly aware that he wasn’t liked for who he was—but he had never quite grasped the depths to which he was hated. “I had really close friends in school and all of that suddenly changed,” he says. “My friends would sometimes say things that were against Ahmadis and I would never say who we are, but when the attacks happened they did find out we were Ahmadi and that was the end of many friendships.”

Some children told him that they had deserved the attacks, one teacher frequently humiliated him. And so, as friendships dissipated so did the joy of playing cricket on the street. Now that everyone knew, they knew they didn’t want to play with a boy like him. 

When there is no room left for expression of fear, grief or anger, courage can sometimes find space. And so, the very next week after the devastation, this 15-year-old and his younger brother returned to the same place to pray. Another boy, a friend whose father was killed in front of his eyes, went with them. 

“I hope no one, absolutely no one, has to suffer this, especially when they are together in prayer,” says Ahmed, when he looks back. “Congregational prayers are a harmonious space.”

Since that incident, he has found greater refuge in faith. He became more deeply involved with the community, found comfort in religious teachings and with guidance from the jamaat, came upon newer meanings of sabr. “We can’t even talk about it when we are targeted,” Ahmed says. “If there is an attack on Christians or Shias or really anyone else, at least they can say something, at least they can say a word in protest.”

As a family they almost never talk about it. “We just wanted to forget about that day,” Ahmed says. But trauma had its way of showing up. In the immediate aftermath, his younger brother was too scared to go to sleep and so many nights were spent with the entire family staying awake until the child nodded off.

By now, at 25 years of age, Ahmed is a well-accomplished professional. He did well at university, but he made sure he stayed under the radar of other students. “I learnt to stop saying anything at all. Till today, I never have a conversation with anyone outside my family or community until it is absolutely necessary.”

Ahmed’s relationship with Pakistan is a complex one that requires holding space for multiple truths. While there is complete acknowledgment that the laws of the land and the people do not recognise him as their own, it is his home too.  

“I was born here, I live here, this is my country.”

His words are strikingly similar to those of anyone else I’ve ever met who has survived an attack on their religious group or sect. It feels like they are said almost as a reminder—in case everyone has forgotten.

Zehra Abid is a journalist based in Karachi. She tweets at @ZehraAbid_