Eighteen-year-old Kanwal had returned from the hospital with her newborn baby, Samuel when a vigilante mob violently attacked their home in a Christian neighbourhood of Jaranwala, Punjab.
Terrified, she clutched the baby and fled barefoot with her family, narrowly escaping the mob that set fire to their house the previous week, resulting in the loss of their pet birds and belongings.
“We lived in constant fear of our neighbours, we couldn’t bear to see them destroy what little we had left,” Kanwal expressed as she cradled Samuel. They resided in a makeshift dormitory within a school classroom in the bustling market town of Jaranwala. “We needed to be relocated,” she added. Her 11-year-old brother and her seven and 11-year-old sisters were too frightened to return to school, where they were among the few Christian students.
That day marked the beginning of the school year after the summer break, but their mother, Kiran, refrained from sending her children due to fear. She told them, “You can pursue education when your safety is assured.”
Around 160 individuals were apprehended in connection with the violent mob rampage that occurred the previous week. Residents reported that the mob members were armed with iron rods, knives, and sticks, and they set fire to churches and numerous homes.
The incident began when someone allegedly presented desecrated pages from the Holy Quran to a mosque prayer leader, followed by calls for retribution through announcements. Two Christian men were arrested on charges of blasphemy, and the police initiated an investigation.
In Pakistan, blasphemy was punishable by death, although no executions were carried out for this offence. However, there had been instances of enraged mobs lynching individuals accused of blasphemy in the past.
In 2011, former Punjab governor Salman Taseer and federal minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated while advocating for reforms to the blasphemy law.
An extensive deployment of armed paramilitary troopers was dispatched to Jaranwala to restore calm. The provincial and federal authorities extended financial assistance to the Christian minority community, which comprised less than 2% of the 241 million population and often lived in poverty. This aid was meant to help them rebuild their lives following the recent upheaval.
Caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar visited the area on Monday, announcing relief for affected families. He labelled the attack as an atrocity and assured minority religious communities of government protection. Despite these efforts, the community members and advocates expressed doubt about healing the trauma and fear, as their safety remained uncertain.
Many were apprehensive about returning home and were unsure of where to rebuild their lives. Naseem Anthony from the rights group Awam emphasized the importance of addressing the psychological damage suffered by the community. The makeshift shelter, housing about 240 people, including Kanwal’s family, was established nearby.
Within the shelter, simple cots were set up among classroom walls adorned with educational charts. The initial days after the attack were spent outdoors in sweltering conditions, leading to feelings of depression, anxiety, and trouble sleeping among the affected residents.
Community leader Akmal Bhatti pointed out the pervasive sense of fear and psychological issues, especially among children. Government officials assured the displaced individuals that the shelter was available as long as needed and was staffed with medical professionals for support.
Non-government organizations estimated that hundreds were physically displaced, with thousands of Christians affected by the violence. Some found refuge in makeshift shelters or with relatives. Kiran, along with her daughter Kanwal, expressed their desire for security and a safe haven, hoping to alleviate the fear deeply ingrained in their hearts and minds.