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Footprints: Fires of hatred

Rescue workers sift through the smouldering remains of the Pakistan Chipboard Factory in Jhelum. It was set ablaze by a mob on Nov 20 over blasphemy allegations.—Photo by writer

JHELUM: Sunday mornings in Jhelum are usually slow, but today an uneasy quiet pervades. For the Pakistan Chipboard Factory, located by the Grand Trunk (GT) Road, doomsday already occurred on Friday (Nov 20).

The decades-old facility has been turned into a vast heap of ashes and charred structures by an arson attack launched by a crazed mob. The crowd gathered in the wake of announcements made from mosques’ loudspeakers, calling on people to burn the facility down after one of its employees was arrested over allegations of blasphemy. What they didn’t burn down, they looted.

The main gate has been pulled down and the guard-post is burnt. The path leading into the premises is partially blocked by the melted and overturned hulks of two cars. At the reception, the computer monitors have been hacked into pieces, fragments of them strewn all over the floor.

Chipboard sheets manufactured just before the attack have been reduced to a smouldering mound in the main production area, still emitting smoke, which rescue staff are trying to douse with sprays of water. In the main factory building, too, machines are broken and half burnt.

The compound also contained the residences of the factory owner, senior staff and servants’ quarters. These have all been ransacked and destroyed, their walls broken down, the cars parked in the porches now ash.

In a veranda, flower pots are shattered and shards of glass cover every surface. A sofa-swing is still hanging, badly blackened. In the drawing rooms, carpets and furniture have been destroyed and in kitchens, meals — half-cooked and half-eaten — are laid out. Fine china crockery sets have been smashed to pieces and the refrigerators are burnt-out wrecks. Floors, walls and ceilings — all are damaged and the pungent smell of incinerated materials hangs over everything.

The boiler, which used to keep the factory running through burning material such as scrap and old books, has itself been burnt. The material being used as fuel at the time of the attack is still there: paper, newspapers, magazines, books in Arabic, which rescue workers are collecting.

Some yards away, in front of the factory’s hall, a building had been furnished with soft carpets to serve as a place of worship for the Ahmadi owners and the factory employees. The windows of this building have been broken also, and the carpets are now covered with glass shards. Three books are still lying on a reading table, though, and a bookshelf still hangs on the wall.

As the rescue workers go about their work to quell the embers, a convoy of police vehicles arrives. From a glittering black car disembarks the Rawalpindi Regional Police Officer (RPO), Muhammad Wisal Fakhar Sultan Raja — clearly upset and even frightened. Moments later, Inspector General of the Police, Punjab, Mushtaq Sukhera, arrives in another convoy. The RPO and rescue officials give him a tour of the factory premises and the damaged houses.

As he leaves, a patrol contingent of the army takes over at the main gate. There, a few men and women are huddled in the corner, confused and worried, the women with tears in their eyes.

“We work and live here in this factory,” says Muhammad Kaswar, adding that his wife worked in the house of the factory owner. “We have come here to take our belongings; we left everything and ran for our lives when the attack took place. We were trapped inside the factory when the mob gathered and were rescued by the police.” Shamun Masih and his wife Samina Shamun, who also worked in the owner’s house, nod in agreement.

A few kilometres east of the torched factory, in the congested Kala Gujran area of Jhelum city, dozens of armed soldiers and policemen stand guard in front of an Ahmadi place of worship. But the place has now been inscribed with the title of ‘Masjid Allah Wali’ and displays the slogan ‘Khatm-e-Nabuwat Zindabad’.

“These were written by the protesters who briefly took over this place yesterday and offered their prayers here,” says Malik Basharat Jameel, a native of the area. “They took three motorcycles, two generators, some furniture and files out from this building and set it all on fire.”

The authorities promise to act against the culprits.

“Those responsible for this arson will face the music,” says Zulfiqar Ahmad Ghumman, the Jhelum District Coordination Officer.

But Nasir Butt, a local journalist, believes the police were responsible for the chaos.

“The police failed to apply a strategy to counter religious unrest,” he says. “Surprisingly, the second attack occurred after the RPO himself had arrived here to control the situation. The police simply vanished when the crowd arrived.”

Sami Zuberi, a senior journalist in Islamabad, believes that the government machinery has been proved incapable of being able to handle such sensitive issues.

“We have been facing blasphemy cases and retaliatory protests and ransacking for decades now, but the authorities have been unable to tackle them. They need to be sensitised about it,” he says.

Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2015