Lahore Stories: The story of a village
By Ayesha Javed Akram
Near the outskirts of Yuhanabad, a little boy shyly raised his eyes in wonder. Barefoot and bareheaded, he was used to only seeing other children like him. The sight of my car pulling up to his town had surprised him. To his right, a faded tent stretched out between two crooked poles, sagging with the heat, looking as dismal as the humble gathering of men gathered under it. It was a meagre group - about ten men decked in sweat-drenched kurtas, lips cracking because of dehydration, the beginnings of sun burn obvious on their foreheads. The group had waged a hunger strike, desperately hoping that this measure would force the local government to finally complete the construction of their main road. While the rest of Lahore ranted about the scorching weather, I was welcomed to Yuhanabad by a group of hungry men and a young child’s astonished eyes.
Located on Kasur Road, Yuhanabad is Lahore’s stepchild. Though official figures are hard to come by, Yuhanabad is believed to be home to about 70,000 voters, the majority of whom are Christians. An official from the Justice and Peace Commission of Pakistan said that the commonly accepted estimates put the percentage of Christians in Yuhanabad at 52 percent, and the percentage of Muslims at 48 percent.
But despite the sizeable population, this community remains shockingly underdeveloped. A middle-aged woman with bad teeth and thinning hair insisted I visit her home so she could show me the conditions they were living in. “We don’t even have a regular supply of water here,” she said, as I crossed the courtyard, a dried out tap standing guard in one corner. “Every morning I have to walk miles to fill buckets with water,” she said. “Sometimes I even have to buy water from my neighbours.” I asked her why she thought Yuhanbad still lacked basic amenities. “Because we are Christians and no one is interested in our demands,” she said, as her daughter-in-laws looked on and nodded morosely.
This seemed to be a sentiment shared by many in Yuhanabad. And as I heard story after story, I began to believe that there was at least a measure of truth in this. At a Catholic church, the first person I ran into was a tall, dark-skinned man, attired in his Sunday best of carefully ironed black trousers and a button-down sky-blue shirt. There was something in his smile that made me stop and talk to him – it was a hesitant smile, almost as if he was afraid to be too happy. Soon I learnt that he was a victim of the blasphemy law, and had spent three years in jail, before being found innocent. Though he had been acquitted by the court he was still afraid to go home, fearing that those who had accused him might kill him.
In Yuhanabad, stories of persecution met me at every step. My guide told me about his life-long dream to be a newscaster on Pakistan Television. “I submitted my application and was told that I was a very good candidate and my accent, delivery and tone was just what PTV was looking for,” he said. But during his interview, it became obvious that PTV was also looking for something else.
“The news director told me I would get the job if I managed to convince a federal minister to give me a letter, or if I converted to Islam,” he told me. Though it was obvious that the memory of that fateful interview still pinched him, he was glad he had made the decision he did. “I can’t leave Christianity,” he said, twisting his hands as he spoke.
Religious fervour is as common in Yuhanabad as a child without shoes. A Sri Lankan priest mentioned that what kept him in Pakistan was the devotion shown by the Christians here. “It is almost as if all they have is their faith,” he said.
At a Sunday morning service, men and women swept into the angular hall through different doors. Segregating as if by habit, they found a place for themselves on the floor, and sang the hymns as passionately as most of us sing songs at Mehndhis. Despite the fact that most men in Yuhanabad lack jobs and any form of social security, the basket that was passed around to collect donations for the church was returned filled to the brim. A sneak peek at it revealed that most of the money was made up of five rupee bills.
“We are poor because no one gives jobs to Christian boys,” said a social worker, motioning to the bottom drawer of her desk. “The instant employers see that the application belongs to a Christian male, they thrust it in the drawer they never open.”
While joblessness and lack of drinking water were openly discussed problems, much more disturbing were the whispers I heard, of Christian girls being kidnapped by Muslim men and then forced to convert to Islam. “Yes, these incidents are common but what can we do,” said a mother of four.
Crumbling buildings, open sewerage, insults painted on walls, and roads that not even tractors can move on, seems to be the price Christians are paying in Yuhanabad. Every time the residents of this colony look northward or westward, they see newer communities enjoying all the facilities they have never been able to obtain for themselves. No wonder then that their Sunday worships are so fervent.