Kasur, Pakistan – Nine-year-old Faizan Muhammad stepped out of the mosque where his family lives in the small central Pakistani town of Chunian on a warm September evening.
Hours later, he had still not returned home, and his family began to fear the worst.
The next morning, a local driver found his body in a barren field a few kilometres away, the fourth victim of a series of child kidnappings and murders in the area located in northern Punjab state.
Muhammad’s body was not alone, however. Alongside him, police found human remains and skeletons, later identified to belong to the three other boys who were kidnapped, raped and murdered between June and September this year.
After a two-week hunt, during which police took DNA samples from more than 1,700 people in the area, they narrowed down their search to just one suspect: Sohail Shahzad, a local rickshaw driver.
Shahzad confessed to the murders, saying he would take his rickshaw around town in the evening, just as the summer’s scorching temperatures began to drop and children came out of their homes to play.
He would offer the boys 100 rupees (roughly $0.60) and a rickshaw ride. Once they hopped on, he would rape and strangle them to death, his confessional statement to police says.
Cases of missing children are not new in Kasur district, where Chunian is located. There has been a spate of recent child kidnappings, rapes and assaults reported in recent years.
Kasur – under the microscope after a child pornography ring was broken up here in 2015 – illustrates how Pakistan’s newly strengthened child protection laws and authorities have failed to stop such crimes.
Last year alone, over 3,800 cases of child sexual abuse were reported across Pakistan, a country of 207 million people, according to child rights organisation, Sahil.
The most vulnerable groups were identified as boys between the ages of six and 15 years old, and girls who are either infants or between 16 and 18 years old.
The numbers are not atypical for the region. In India‘s capital New Delhi alone, over 2,000 rape cases were reported in 2018, while in Bangladesh, a survey conducted last year said 87 percent of children had experienced sexual abuse.
India introduced the death penalty for child rapists last year to try to control the rising number of cases.
In 2017, Pakistan’s penal code was amended to address the endemic problem of child abuse. Laws were tightened concerning child pornography, exposure of a child to seduction and child sexual abuse. Rights organisations, however, say not enough is being done.
“Our laws are certainly strong enough for convictions in child abuse cases,” says Manizeh Bano, Sahil’s executive director. “The problem remains with implementation.”
More recently, child-friendly courts have also been set up in parts of the country, where there are particular hours for children so they do not interact with adult criminals or suspects.
There are still, however, no counsellors to take care of a child’s psychological needs, or staff trained to speak with victims of trauma, says Bano.
“When children come to court they should have a screen in front of them so they can testify without having to face their accuser,” says Bano, adding that children should also be allowed to give their account on video if the laws are to be implemented in spirit.
At present, police in Punjab province, where Kasur is located, are working on some of these changes to make the investigation process easier on children, including visiting children at home rather than forcing them to come to police stations to record their statements.
In a country where there is often little trust in the justice system, there is still anger among the victims’ families.
Muhammad’s father, a quiet man, speaks loudly only when he is asked what justice means to him.
“When the police have arrested him, then what are they doing? He needs to be hanged publicly, so people remember this can also be done to them,” he says.
Rights groups have said capital punishment does not deter crime – particularly crimes involving sexual assault – but for the victims’ families in Kasur, it seems there is no other acceptable outcome.
Last year, six-year-old Zainab Ansari’s body was found in a trash dump in Kasur’s main town. Police said she was raped before she was killed. Imran Ali, a local man, was arrested and convicted for her murder in a high-profile trial following countrywide protests against the crime.
Residents said they believe that it was only because Ali was not publicly executed that cases of child rape continue to occur in their district.
Police, however, cautioned that in order to ensure children’s safety, authorities and parents need to take preventive measures, not reactive ones.
“We have a mob mentality, which is not going to make our society any safer for children. What we need to do, is increase awareness around sexual violence,” said Sohail Tajik, a senior police official and investigator in the Chunian case.
Some of the plans authorities are discussing include using Friday prayer sermons at mosques to educate people regarding sexual abuse, a subject around which discussion remains taboo in South Asian societies.
Events are also being planned to educate parents and increase awareness about ways to keep children safer. Since Ansari’s disappearance and murder, a number of such programmes have been held in schools across Kasur district.
While much has happened following Ansari’s murder, however, her family says even Ali’s execution last year failed to bring them closure.
“I can’t bear seeing any news about child rape in Kasur. Every time such an incident happens, I feel like I’m hearing about Zainab for the first time,” said Nusrat Amin, Ansari’s mother.
For the victims of the latest child rapes and murders, too, their ordeal is far from over.
“I need my child’s body back. I need to bury him … I just need to bury him,” said Farzana Hasnain, the mother of Ali Hasnain, a 10-year-old who went missing on August 17 and whose body was found alongside Muhammad’s.
As police continued their investigations, the bodies of three of the four victims had yet to be handed back to their families.
The impact of the loss in Chunian is intensified by the poverty of these families. Many said they have barely earned any income in recent months, as they left their homes in search of their children. Today, they are still paying back loans taken to print out posters asking for information on their missing children.
Even in a country where sexual abuse is widespread, the violence and scale of recent incidents in Kasur have shocked people in this Muslim-majority South Asian nation.
In 2015, journalists and police uncovered a massive child pornography ring in the town, which had made more than 400 videos of young boys engaging in sexual acts, and then blackmailed their families. Ansari was murdered last year, and the man convicted for her murder and rape also accused of raping at least eight other children.
At first glance, Kasur does not appear to be particularly more conservative than other parts of the country.
Women walk through its bazaars at night, and can be seen sitting at restaurants by themselves, which is not usually a common sight in other parts of the country.
“What differentiates Kasur from other parts of the country is the nature of brutality,” said Tajik, the senior police official. “We have had serial rapists who have strangled their victims and dumped the bodies.”
Men here said that sexual abuse and assault in Kasur is common, almost a rite of passage when growing up here.
Playing cricket on the street or stepping out to the playground meant being abused by older boys, said Waqas Khan, who runs several schools around Kasur. He said it was seen as a sign of masculinity for an older boy to have a child with him to perform sexual acts with.
Residents said societal reactions often vary when it comes to the gender of the child being abused. When a girl child is abused it is treated as a crime, but for the boys, it is seen in good humour, said community members.
In fact, Shahzad, the man linked to the rape and murder of the four boys in Chunian, spoke out following his arrest about his own history of suffering sexual abuse. He was abused for 12 years at the shop where he worked, he told police, who later arrested his former employer.
But for the families of the victims, who remain missing, closure is hard to come by.
“I won’t even be able to see his face one last time,” said Farzana Hasnain, mother of the 10-year-old who went missing in August. “There’s nothing left, all that I’ll see are his bones.”