By Zubeida Mustafa
ON Thursday, March 13, it will be exactly a year to the day when a brutal killer snatched away from us a gentle, soft-spoken soul whose love for humanity was almost legendary.
Perween Rehman has been described as a caring, versatile development worker, a brilliant teacher, an architect who used her professional skills for the poor, an irreplaceable friend and an amazing woman who broke barriers from below. Above all, she was a woman of courage who defied her detractors.
It was after she was no more and the outpouring of grief wouldn’t cease that the world realised what it had lost and how many lives she had touched in the three decades of her professional association with the Orangi Pilot Project. She is still grievously missed. And there has been no closure for us — her family, friends and colleagues.
As it is, closure does not come easily when a life is snapped suddenly. One moment she was alive — going home in her car after a full day’s work. The next moment she was gone with four little bullets piercing her throat.
Why, why, why, you ask. What hurts most is the overpowering sense of mystery and collective guilt that weighs down on you. Who killed her and why? Was he a lone killer or was he hired? One can go on and on because the unanswered questions are unending. Above all, you feel an intense sense of injustice when you get no answers to your questions.
You celebrate Perween’s life and achievements. Now it is no longer the fashion to condole people’s death. One looks at the positive side of the life of a person whose death is a tragedy for so many people — many of whom had never even met her.
There are lectures and talks to commemorate her work. Poets assemble in a mushaira to recite poems to revive her memory which had not died anyway. In fact, the whole of Karachi is mourning her loss, for here was one who did so much for the poor — gave them dignity and strength as she showed them how to hold up their head as they looked for solutions to their problems. She documented all her research and this must have made her enemies feel unsafe. It amounted to making records of their criminal activities.
The police said the killer had been shot dead in an encounter the next day. Given the poor credibility of the police, this didn’t answer our questions.
Now the judges are being more helpful. The chief justice of the Supreme Court has asked a sessions judge in Karachi to investigate and prepare a report. So something is happening.
Yet there’s no closure for family and friends. Will there ever be closure? It seems unlikely until the case is solved and mechanisms are erected to protect permanently the causes she worked for. Only then we would be able to console ourselves that she did not die in vain.
A year on, the memories remain fresh and the wound is still raw. Her sister Aquila feels Perween’s presence every nanosecond of the day. She says, “Whenever my mind flashes the picture of her lying in that shroud I am overwhelmed with a searing physical pain.”
There is more to mourn. Perween is not the only one to have died in this manner.
The image of a lush green well-kept graveyard flashes before your eyes. The Wadi-i-Husain’s serenity is deceptive. It conceals in its soil the turmoil of 280 families who have lost their near and dear ones to senseless acts of violence that is part of Karachi’s madness.
One cannot even explain why the Abbas Town bomber would have wanted to cut short the lives of Hur Haider (4), Ali Ahmad (4), Baqar Husain (12) and Zain Ali (13) who were too young to hurt anyone. They lie buried there with the rest while we continue to ask why.
According to statistics collected by Naeem Sadiq, a member of the Citizens’ Trust against Crime, Karachi has half a million licensed and three million unlicensed arms floating around, providing a perverted mind easy access to a tool to pull the trigger. Press reports say over 3,000 people fell victim to terrorist violence in 2013, the highest death toll in the city for a year.We need to understand the dynamics of violence in Karachi. But the Citizens’ Trust’s demands make sense: deweaponisation to eliminate all types of weapons from all parts of Pakistan; depoliticisation of the police by stopping all political interventions; disbanding all private militias.
Were these to be met the healing process for bereaved families and friends of Karachi’s dead would at least begin.