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FEATURE / Sexual assault

Hussain Khanwala: Village scarred by child abuse scandal

Victims of paedophile and pornography ring in Punjab's Kasur wait for justice years after being sexually assaulted.

by Alia Chughtai

Hussain Khanwala, Punjab - The brick lanes of Hussain Khanwala are narrow and dark.

Three years ago, the largest child abuse scandal in Pakistan's history shattered this rural Punjabi village, home to a poor farming community.

It is fewer than 20km from where seven-year-old Zainab Ansari was raped and murdered in January.

Little more than a month after the child's lifeless body was found in a rubbish tip, Mohammad Imran Ali - the main suspect also accused of several other sexual assault cases and killings - was sentenced to death.

Ansari's rape and murder was the 12th such case in Kasur district in the last year, according to reports, and ignited widespread, violent protests as Pakistanis blamed the authorities for failing to protect children.

For the people of neighbouring Hussain Khanwala, Ansari's story has brought back painful memories.

In 2015, the Nation newspaper reported that a gang running a paedophile and pornography ring assaulted more than 280 children, extorting significant sums from family members by threatening to "dishonourthem through releasing videos of their young relatives being assaulted and forced to perform sex acts.

About 400 videos were discovered, which the Nation said were sold for around 50 Pakistani rupees ($0.45) each.

Several victims fled the village. Many had been manipulated into feeling ashamed. Others were frustrated by an apparent lack of justice, which some still wait for.

The victims said the atrocities were carried out between 2006 and 2014.

"One of the victims said he was injected in the spine with a drug before he was assaulted," said the Nation's report.

However, Malik Abu Bakar Khuda Bakhsh, an inspector who led police investigations at the time, denies that 280 children were assaulted, 400 videos were found and 35 young victims fled.

He says the number of children assaulted is closer to 20.

"There was a lack of evidence, and we can't go on hearsay,he told Al Jazeera.

Medical evidence, he said, such as the DNA evidence found in Ansari's case, was needed to make arrests.

Police reports claim that, to date, three men have been sentenced to life. More than a dozen people were held for questioning, and 12 were recently acquitted.

Residents were less willing to talk to Al Jazeera about the female victims of the ring.

Local council chairman Mobeen Ghaznavi said when the story broke, families of the village were blacklisted by people in surrounding areas, in terms of being approached for marriage proposals.

"We've got nothing [from the authorities] in the last two years. We can't even go to the police any more, because the police treat us like the criminals themselves,he told Al Jazeera.

Those who do not understand the intricacies of the legal system are deliberately pressured in court, he said.

"The kind of vulgar questions that are asked, and asked with such force in the hope of intimidation, end up succeeding in confusing the witnesses, victims and petition filers."

Feisal Naqvi, a Lahore-based lawyer who continues to work on the Hussain Khanwala cases, told Al Jazeera the judicial system was "overwhelmed".

At the same time, he said, "because the system is so open to abuse and so choked with frivolous allegations, the police often deal with complaints informally, sometimes for the better but also quite often in a corrupt manner".

Over two days in late January, Al Jazeera travelled to the village and spoke to some victims and their relatives.

Many of them alleged that the perpetrators continue to live in Hussain Khanwala and intimidate them as cases are ongoing.

Below are their accounts in their own words.

Asterisks indicate false names used to protect the victims' identity

Mohamed*, whose son ran away

I found out my son was sexually abused when the media came to town and the videos were being circulated. Until then, I had no idea.

He used to steal small things from home - money, his mother's jewellery, for a year or so. He was a good student, top of his class.

When the abuse started, he stopped going to school.

I would drop him off at school, and he would bunk classes and run away. Later, I found out these men would pick him up from school and take him to go and film whatever they did to him.

 

I would drop him off at school, and he would bunk classes and run away. Later, I found out these men would pick him up from school and take him to go and film whatever they did to him.

Eventually, I said: 'Just come work at the shop.' I'm an electrician so I took him as an apprentice.

Once, when I came back from the city after 10 days, my entire shop was empty. I asked him: 'Where is everything?'

He told me he sold it all and gave the money to his mother. I asked my wife for the money but it was no more than change.

My son gave his abusers over $6,000 worth of inventory.

I didn't know at this time he was being abused.

That day, he had left halfway through lunch. I looked for him all night and couldn't find him.

Even the money in my safe, another $2,500, was gone.

My son kept running away and different relatives and friends would bring him back.

Each time he came back, I would lose more money, so much so that I did not have food to eat.

Four months after investigators left our village, I found him in Lahore working at a roadside cart selling roasted corn.

I brought him back and then he finally admitted he had been giving the abusers everything.

But he just couldn't live here.

He was distressed seeing them walk around the village; they still taunted and threatened him.

He stayed a few weeks, gave his testimony and left quietly. I have no idea where he is.

He calls his mother once in a while.

After court hearings and testimony recordings, the accused come to my shop and home and threaten to kill me.

I've been threatened that they will pick up my other children, too.

We want justice.

Who is listening to us? My son lost his entire childhood to this evil.

Qamar*, whose grandson was abused

I filed a case for my grandson.

He was not even four years old at the time when he was raped by a boy from the same family that is involved in the 2015 cases.

I lost more than half an acre of land fighting that case.

Those people are used to courts and lawyers.

We are not, and, eventually, in order to move on with our lives, we had to withdraw our case because we had no more money.

They have made us so helpless, and we know there is no justice in this world for us.

They countered with false cases and fake witnesses. The police helps them, not us.

My grandson was raped and I ended up with a fake case against me. What chance is there for justice?

 

My grandson was raped and I ended up with a fake case against me. What chance is there for justice?

We eventually signed a compromise paper to be able to move on with our lives.

Qasim* and Shuja*, 18 and 17-year-old victims.

Qasim and Shuja have run away from the village. Both had quit school to work as apprentices. Neither knew of each other's repeated rapes and extortion until the videos were leaked.

Shuja*

I was 10 years old when it started. Two boys picked me up and took me to a large house in the village.

They told me I would have to go every time they called.

They called me every two days.

Initially, I did not know what was being done to me. I knew it hurt. I was raped from the age of 10 to 15.

They would inject me, sometimes in the arm.

I felt entirely numb and was unable to speak.

I couldn't feel anything until it wore off and the pain started. I was neither dead nor alive for a few hours.

I went into the courtroom a few days ago and gave my testimony against them.

I was scared. They screamed and shouted at me afterwards. I will keep speaking against them and demand my truth to be heard.

They still bother me now, they come and harass me where I work and try and get me to say that I won't say any more. I can't do that.

I want justice, I want someone to listen to me.

My case is still going on, it's been going on since 2015, I have no lawyer.

Qasim*

My father hit both of us because we did not tell him we were being exploited and raped.

I would rather set myself on fire than go back to school. Teachers, students, everyone talks and makes fun of us. They point us out to people and say we are the pornography case victims.

 

I would rather set myself on fire than go back to school.

Teachers, students, everyone talks and makes fun of us.

They point us out to people and say we are the pornography case victims. I only recently came back because my father begged me to.

When the investigators were here, the rape and extortion stopped

Even now, with the Zainab case, things stopped. But it will start again.

No one stops these people, the police are with them.

Aqil* and Shamim*, the grandfather and mother of a runaway victim

Shamim: I do not know what they did to him, but they changed him. He left me.

He does not even call any more.

The last time he came, they threatened him and told him they would kill him, so he left.

They told me they will chop off my legs at my knees and leave me to die."

Aqil: We have other kids too, and if we cannot protect them, what's the point?

The judge dismissed my case despite all the evidence in the videos. We will die for this justice and demand it.

They said they would cut my arms and legs off and hang me there. If I am to die at their hands, I would rather die protesting.

They extorted $15,000 from us by raping my grandson over and over again for years. It's come to the point where I wear used clothes from the flea market. I don't even have four walls any more, just what's left of my cattle.

 

They extorted $15,000 from us by raping my grandson over and over again for years.

It has come to the point where I wear used clothes from the flea market.

I do not even have four walls any more, just what is left of my cattle.

My son's rapists were set free. What kind of message is this? We have no lawyers, no justice.

My grandson still takes medicine for the injuries he sustained during the attacks.

I need peace, my boy needs peace. We need to hear he was wronged and know there is justice in the world.

Amin*, a victim

I was in fifth grade (10 years old) when the forced picking up and sexual acts began.

It went on until I was in eighth grade. That is when I ran away to Lahore to live with my cousin.

I always thought it was just me; it was not until years later that I realised it was many more children.

So many classmates of mine were picked up, injected, and raped.

No one could do anything about it until one day, when a boy in school got a memory card with about 25 videos on it, in which you could recognise children.

My older brother saw the video.

Everyone in the village was against pursuing the case, but [local council chairman] Mobeen wanted to, and we knew he was connected with political circles.

I was never asked to identify anyone.

There was no testimony - whatever names were added to the police reports, I was never asked who my abusers were. Then [the investigation team] was formed, cases went into court. 

I completed school.

The very people helping us actually went against us.

Everyone in my case was set free due to lack of evidence.

Of course there was lack of evidence; it wasn't dealt with correctly. 

I have left college and [the perpetrators] still threaten my family. I can't go back to Hussain Khanwala. I have no job.

People come and make documentaries, and everyone uses us to tell the stories and make their names – no one really actually cares about us. Our lives are lost. What will we do - no future, no education, what is the point of living?

 


People come and make documentaries, and everyone uses us to tell the stories and make their names. No one really actually cares about us.

Our lives are lost. What will we do? [We have] no future, no education. What is the point of living?

The interviews have been edited for clarity and length


ABOUT THE AUTHOR


SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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