The Razed our Homes | VOICES

Dec 2015

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ISS 10 | TURI | FARID

Photo credit: Sara Farid

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At the end of July this year, 3000 homes were razed to the ground, and 20,000 people were displaced in a harrowing eviction operation carried out against Islamabad’s largest katchi abadi or informal settlement. Over three days, its residents were pulled out of their homes on the orders of the Capital Development Authority (CDA), Islamabad’s municipal administration, with the support of the federal government, and with the help of the capital police and the paramilitary Pakistan Rangers.

In this essay, a member of the All Pakistan Alliance for Katchi Abadis (APAKA) and the Awami Workers Party (AWP)–two political organizations consisting of I-11 residents and Left-wing political workers who resisted the eviction alongside them–recounts his experience. Arrested under the Anti-Terrorism Act for attempting to record the atrocities of the state during the eviction, and having been witness to similar acts of violence in his home village in FATA’s Kurram Agency, he reflects on the consistent brutality of the state around the country against its poorest and most marginalized peoples.

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After getting released from jail, I went straight into Sabzi Mandi thana to get my phone and CNIC card back. Sabzi Mandi thana is just across road to the I-11 katchi abadi. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

The whole katchi abadi was converted into a heap of debris.

I began looking for the places where we used to sit with the katchi abadi residents, the party offices we had opened, and the narrow streets we once travelled on during our door to door campaigns.

It was all gone.

Ruins of I-11 katchi abadi reminded me of my village in Kurram, an agency in FATA. When the Taliban torched our villages a few years ago, they forcibly evicted people from their villages, killing women and children. And last summer, the army forced millions to flee North Waziristan. The Capital Development Authority (CDA) did to the katchi abadi what the Taliban and the army did to the people of FATA. A version of the Taliban, the same establishment policy and state machinery that devastated a whole region and forced millions of people – primarily Pashtuns – to flee their homes in the name of war, arrived at the I-11 katchi abadi to evict its primarily Pashtun residents.

The people of FATA were made homeless because of the wars sponsored by our state. To flee the devastation in the wake of army operations and Taliban attacks, most of them turned towards Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar, and Lahore – major cities around the country – only to find out that they were not welcome. They were barred from entering Sindh. And, in Punjab they had daily confrontations with police harassment because of the address on their CNIC. Faced with no alternative housing, they built their homes in katchi abadis. Yet, even here they were not welcome. Their homes were ruthlessly demolished, women were dragged across muddy ground by a brutal police force pulling their hair, and they were charged under the Anti-Terrorist Act (ATA.)

The authorities did not need a new argument: The Pashtun is terrorist wherever he lives, whether it is in FATA, Afghanistan or a katchi abadi on the edges of Islamabad. Once they are designated as threatening, they fall under the scores of laws and courts in Pakistan that deal with ‘terrorists.’ These are the structures that justify why all Pashtuns – from a stone-throwing kid in a katchi abadi to a family killed during a military operation in FATA – are subject to an undifferentiated policy of suspicion.

ISS 10 | TURI | FARID

Photo credit: Sara Farid

Though I regularly used to visit the I-11 abadi, my visits went from occasional to daily after the announcement of local body elections. The AWP wanted to live up to its word – a working class party represented by working class people – so our members within the abadi were planning to run, and we were organizing to help them do so. Together, we wanted to represent ourselves.

I would visit the abadi with comrades, co-organizing party events and activities like corner meetings, or taking pictures of candidates and their supporters for banners and posters. During the election campaign, many new and young boys joined AWP. We would regularly arrange meetings with them in the abadi and would canvass them in door-to-door campaigns. During ramadhan, we would organize iftar parties at our party offices in the abadi. And outside of moments like those, we would cover the abadi with red flags. Children on the street would chant AWP slogans while they were playing, and they started singing jago jago and The Internationale. It was an electrifying time, and a moment that we, in the AWP, had been working towards for a very long time.

But then, the operation happened.

When I heard about the operation, I was in my village in Kurram. I had returned home because the authorities had postponed the local elections yet again, and I was waiting for a new election date. After getting news about a fresh operation threat, scheduled for 27 July, I returned to Islamabad on 26 July. I came directly from Pirwadhai, which leads into Islamabad, to the I-11 katchi abadi. Our party immediately made teams to mobilize people for the operation.

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The residents of the abadi were hopeful. One of them, a man by the name of Alamgir, told me that it was the “first time that no one has left the abadi and no one has packed anything. People are united in this. The CDA cannot do anything to our homes.”

We went to the abadi on the morning of July 27. People of the abadi were already mobilized, out on the streets, and had not left for work. So, when the CDA crew arrived, we made announcements from the masjids. Hundreds of people approached the targeted abadi. Kids sat on rooftops, and men and women made lines in front of the abadi. People of the abadi were very happy and became increasingly confident that the CDA could not demolish their homes. For a moment, it even looked like the bulldozers and police officers pulled back.

Two days later, on July 29, the CDA crew came back to the abadi. They did not look like they were seriously going to evict the abadi – their numbers were far too paltry – yet people gathered in huge numbers and protested against the eviction, forcing the CDA to leave by noon.

By evening, however, news channels began announcing a huge operation the next day, on July 30.

We went to the abadi early in the morning, had breakfast at the party office, and then proceeded into the targeted abadi. I started taking pictures and making videos, but there was no sign of the CDA. They started arriving, with the police and paramilitary rangers, at 10 AM.

The CDA invited to residents of the abadi, Mufti and an elder called Sartor, for talks. They refused to include the AWP in the negotiations. Instead, Mufti and Sartor agreed that the people of the abadi would demolish their homes themselves, and asked the crowd to disperse.

The crowd dispersed but re-assembled in a nearby ground, as CDA officials began to oversee the demolishment. The officials felt that the process was too slow and a bulldozer was called over to speed up the process. That was when it began: The large metallic giant arrived to demolish more houses, and the people of the abadi started resisting by sitting on their roofs. That was when they began to shouting and throwing stones at the police, the rangers and the CDA.

It was a harrowing moment. I was making videos and taking pictures of a boy who got injured. His mother carried him outside, and started crying and shouting for help. I poured water over his head to clear the blood.

Then I started making videos of a woman on the roof holding the Qur’an and her little child in her hand. Another elder woman was also holding the Qur’an, asking for mercy, and policemen started exchanging harsh words with her.

This was when a police officer shouted to his colleague, and asked him to search me. “Check this guy’s media card,” he said. “He seems to be from abadi.” I did not have a media card, and told them that I was a freelance journalist. They did not believe me, and arrested me on the spot.

ISS 10 | TURI | FARID

Photo credit: Sara Farid

I was one among almost 70 people arrested from the abadi that day. We were taken to a nearby thana. That is when I discovered that many of those arrested were neither from the abadi nor Pashtun. And, that is when I came face to face with what I knew all along: The structural racism embedded in the institutions of the state and its security forces.

Sattar pashtunona ka dimagh mil kar aik Punjabi ka dimagh banta hai.

“Seventy Pashtun brains combined make one Punjabi brain.”

Nine of us were put in a small barrack where we could hardly breathe or stretch our legs. This tiny barrack had a toilet encircled just barely encircled by a two feet wall. Water was only available from the toilet faucet, and would run out after an hour of constant use. We were a team of crammed, thirty prisoners shouting to our prison guards for water.

The next day, we were taken to Anti-Terrorism Court. They send us on a four day remand, before shifting us to a secretariat thana. The jail was in relatively good condition, compared to where I had been before, and most of my cellmates were from the mandi outside of I-11.

All of them were non-Pashtuns, except Habib-ur-Rehman who was a Pashtun sand and crush supplier. On the third day, the police interrogated me, and it was then that I decided to question them back.

I debated with the investigation officer, questioning his argument that the abadi residents had occupied other people’s land, which had already been allotted to them by CDA. I told him that the CDA allotted the land in 1992, and that the people of the abadi had been living there since 1985–we had the electoral rolls from the 1985 election.

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The police officer shot back, saying that the abadi had already been demolished once, in 2005, and that those who had been evicted just came back. I answered that people will continue to build katchi abadis as long as the state state fails to devise a policy to provide legal housing to people.

I went on to ask him why they only demolish katchi abadis, and leave land occupied by the elite untouched. He replied that they had carried out an operation in Bani Gala. When I pointed out that some of his policemen had been killed in that operation – a sign that the elite was not a class to be protected – he stopped talking.

I told him that most of the people living in the abadis were from the Tribal Areas, where their houses had been destroyed by ongoing military operations. “Now, you’ve destroyed their homes in Islamabad, too,” I said.

He had nothing to say to that, and instead asked me why people from FATA “did not pay their tax.” When I pointed out the continued legal marginalization of FATA through the Frontier Crimes Regulation, a colonial-era law that the Pakistani state continues to apply, he dismissed by criticism by referring to the Pakistan Penal Code which continues to govern the rest of the country. “Also, a colonial era law,” he said. “No difference, why are the Pashtuns so special?”

That was when the conversation ended, and they put me back in the thana.

Photo credit: Sara Farid

It was clear during my time in jail that the policemen and non-Pashtun prisoners who shared my cell were happy that the I-11 katchi abadi had finally been demolished. Most of them were Punjabi, and they were frustrated with the downward pressure that migrations of Pashtuns put on working class wages. Arshad, a laborer from Khanewal, said: “We work for Rs. 500 a day, and  these Pashtuns are willing to work for less than half that price – at Rs. 200 per day. They always fight with others in the mandi. Even other Pashtuns, like the Habib ur Rehman, the sand and crush supplier, is happy that the abadi is gone. That means his business will grow.”

The arguments used by the Punjabi working class against other members of the working class –the Pashtun residents of I-11 – were disturbingly similar to those against all of them by Islamabad’s anti-poor elite.

Political work is about pointing out the larger structures that pits poor against poor for the benefit of the rich. It is about pointing out how the same state that fails to provide them housing, schools, hospitals and decent infrastructure launches operations that forces mass migrations of other poor to the city that they work in. Law and rights only seem to be invoked when there is talk of the elite and their concerns for security–not when there is talk of the poor and their demand for housing or the right to a life without bombs dropping over their heads.

Today, there is another eviction threat hanging over the heads of katchi abadis in Islamabad–this time it is against abadis that are Christian. The CDA says they want to protect “the beauty of Islam” yet it is becoming increasingly clear that they only want to protect the sanctity of their pocket. We do not know if we can hold off this eviction – we were certainly unable to stop the last one – but I do know that there is hope even in the midst of political failure. After the eviction, the local council elections were re-scheduled, and at the beginning of December two residents from the abadi that was razed to the ground were elected as local councillors. In the time ahead, our collective job as members of the AWP and APAKA and others on the Left will be to build solidarities–between Christians and Pashtuns; between those of FATA and the poor of Islamabad; between the Haris of Sindh and the peasants of Punjab. It is through this political work that we can hope to create a new kind of politics.

In the wake of the eviction, the AWP, the APAKA, and the I-11 residents initiated a Supreme Court case, and I-11 residents ran on AWP tickets in the local elections winning two seats. The case is ongoing, and I-11 residents remain scattered across the city.

Hassan Turi is a member of the Awami Workers Party in Islamabad and the All Pakistan Alliance for Katchi Abadis. He was born and raised in Kurram Agency, FATA.

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