Guest Post From: Dawn Blog with thanks

The intensity of communal clashes in Gojra left a reporter fearing for his life.

‘I’ve never seen such mindboggling violence in my life,’ says Tariq Saeed, Dawn’s reporter from Toba Tek Singh. He was referring to the incident in Gojra, where several people were killed and scores were injured over the alleged desecration of the Quran earlier this month.

There has been considerable debate in the media about whether to describe the incident as a ‘riot’ between the Muslim majority and Christian minority communities. But Saeed clearly saw large groups of people out on the streets, thirsty for revenge and retribution.

‘When I reached Gojra on the night the incident took place, I found smoke billowing from several houses of the Christian community, though the fire had been put out in most places by then. There weren’t any Christian families in any of the houses as almost all of them had run away to nearby towns to stay with their friends and relatives,’ Saeed remembers.

‘But I did come across a large group of Muslim men, around 500 in number, who insisted, angrily I may add, that the desecration [of the holy Quran] did take place and that they had not made up the incident. They alleged that some members of the Christian community had torn pages and thrown them on the ground during a mehndi ceremony. They even showed copies of such pages to me which were indeed covered in mud. But when I suggested that these pages could also have been planted by a third person to stoke tension between the two communities, they reacted as if I had offended them and rudely asked me what kind of questions I was asking. In fact, at one point, their sentiments were so volatile that I felt threatened and feared that they might physically harm me if I continued with my probing questions.’

This was all very surprising to Saeed since he had been to Gojra several times before and had never felt unsafe there. In fact, it was also strange to him that there was strife between the two communities, when in the past they had lived peacefully side by side. ‘I’ve been to Gojra several times before this incident took place and never did I see such hostility between the Muslims and Christians living there.’ What was even more alarming to him was that the group of men he came across were not typical ‘mullah types,’ which one might expect given their extreme views. They were mostly clean-shaven young men between the ages of 15 and 35.

Despite the longstanding communal harmony in Gojra, Saeed acknowledges that the violent flare-up there was not entirely unexpected. Gojra has some of the most beautiful and historic churches in Pakistan with around 10,000 to 20,000 Christian inhabitants in the area. The importance of the town for the Christian community can be gauged from the fact that a bishop is also in residence. But, Saeed points out, Gojra has also always had a strong presence of the banned militant group, the Sipah-i-Sahaba, in the area. Indeed, one of the group’s leaders, Maulana Ahmed Ludhwani, hails from Toba Tek Singh.

The SS is suspected of being involved in the attack and is accused of instigating the local people against the Christian population. ‘Police sources say that members of the group had thrown chemicals on houses to spread the fire,’ says Saeed, adding that one of the local leaders, Qari Abdul Khaliq, has been held by authorities and reportedly tortured.

Saeed adds that the situation in Gojra is returning to normalcy, with both communities looking towards reconciliation. But for a reporter who has spent much time in this historic time, something has changed forever in the wake of violence. ‘The situation could deteriorate any time if the authorities don’t take appropriate steps to prevent such an occurrence in the future,’ he says.

Footnotes offers a weekly, behind-the-scenes look at the Dawn Media Group’s reporters on the job.

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