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‘Whenever we just think about the incident we are shocked and start trembling.’
Emmanuel* was one of many people spending Easter Sunday at the Gulshan-i-Iqbal park on 28 March 2016 when it was hit by a suicide blast, killing over 70 people and injuring more than 300. The park, located in south-western Lahore and one of the few public spaces in the area without an entry fee, was full of mostly working-class families when the attack took place. As the blast occurred adjacent to Gate 1, near the park’s playground, many of the casualties were women and children.
Although the majority of those killed were Muslims, a Taliban splinter group called Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it was specifically targeted at Pakistan’s Christian community, who were celebrating Easter in the park. This was not the first major attack suffered by the Christian population of Lahore in recent years. The attack took place shortly after the one-year anniversary of two church bombings in Youhanabad, an attack that highlighted the urgent need for greater protection of the Christian community from extremists.
In the wake of the attack on Gulshan-i-Iqbal park, operations across Pakistan led to the arrest of an estimated 5,000 suspected militants, although most were released soon after interrogation. Despite this initial response – which itself raised some concerns for its heavy-handedness – and its framing within the broader counter-terrorism efforts, which form part of the National Action Plan (NAP), recent reports have suggested that progress on the part of the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) of the Punjab Police has been slow. It was later reported that, several months on, the CTD had yet to arrest any of the key perpetrators, with the main planners having apparently fled to Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, four months after Gulshan-i-Iqbal park was attacked, those directly affected are struggling to deal with its physical, psychological and economic implications, while a more general sense of insecurity is felt by Pakistan’s Christian community in Lahore and beyond. Following previous attacks, including the church bombings in Youhanabad in March 2015, some measures were taken by the government to increase security for religious minorities. These included tightened security measures at churches – such as higher boundary walls, barbed wire and additional security staff – as well as the deployment of police during religious ceremonies. While such efforts are welcome, the sense of vulnerability felt by the Christians in the area and beyond has been exacerbated by lapses in protection by the state, as well as the everyday discrimination they face. Steps have been taken to support victims following the attack, including by community-based civil society groups who have provided relief and financial support.
The government has also provided support in the form of financial assistance, including compensation distributed to victims at the end of June 2016. However, the primary response has been counter-terrorist measures centred on raids and clampdowns by the police and military. What have not been adequately pursued, however, are the positive steps needed to promote the rights of minorities in Pakistan and address deep-seated discrimination by, for example, targeting hate speech and addressing curriculum reform – both also part of the 20-point NAP. As minority activists in Pakistan have long noted, security measures alone are not sufficient to address the discriminatory institutions and attitudes they confront.
The urgency of this is highlighted by the fact that, on the same day of the attack in Lahore, the Pakistani capital Islamabad saw thousands marching in support of the country’s blasphemy laws following the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the former bodyguard who killed Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer following his support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. The demonstrations only came to an end following government negotiations with protesters. While the authorities did not accept all their demands, which included the execution of Asia Bibi, reportedly they did involve certain assurances that the status quo would be maintained, for example in relation to blasphemy laws. Meanwhile, Pakistani Christians now feel increasingly insecure and face the threat of further attacks.
The interviews with victims of the blast, photographed below, were conducted approximately four months after the Easter attack, at the end of July 2016. Their reflections highlight how they are coping with the attack and the ongoing challenges they face.
‘The name of my son was Yaqub,* his age was 13 years. He was the student of class 7. He was a brilliant student. This is his last picture, which we took 15 minutes before the incident while he was playing.’
Audio recording of Anjum* and Parveen* speaking about their son (in Punjabi).
Anjum* and Parveen* (above) went to Gulshan-i-Iqbal park on 28 March with their three children, members of their extended family, as well as friends. Their elder son, Yaqub, who was 13 years old, was killed in the attack. Both Anjum and Parveen were injured, as were their two younger children. Also killed were Parveen’s nephew and Anjum’s cousin, whose younger sister was also seriously injured and lost sight in one of her eyes.
‘In Pakistan, [the] environment for Christians is not favourable. We are not welcomed by others … everyone is worried here, not only about their financial situation but every aspect of life.’
Samariya* and her husband Cecil,* (above) from Younhanabad in Lahore, went to Gulshan-i-Iqbal park with members of their family on the day of the attack. Both suffered injuries, along with other family members. While their visible injuries have now healed, they still experience considerable pain, which has restricted their mobility and left them psychologically traumatized.
‘We were there in Gulshan-e-Iqbal when this incident happened. I and my husband was seriously injured in the incident. Many other members of my family also injured. Financially we have suffered a lot because of this incident… Just like every other Pakistani who enjoys freedom, has all safety and privileges – we want the same facilities for Christians. Everything should be provided to Christians [including]… freedom of worship. They even don’t allow us to worship freely.’
Audio recordings of Samariya and Cecil speaking about their experience (in Urdu).
‘My arm was seriously injured. My legs were also got wounds and bruises. My daughter was [also] seriously injured.’
Samariya* is an 18-year-old student who was at Gulsahn-e-Iqbal park with her mother Asiya* (above) when the attack took place. She does not remember the blast, which caused her serious head injuries. Soon after the attack Samariya underwent surgery to address these injuries. She has recovered well and has been able to return to school.
* To ensure the security of rapporteurs and victims, all names which are not already published in media reports have been anonymized.