Posted March 2, 2009
This afternoon I received a call from Zulfiqar Mehto, a close friend of mine who works for the Aaj television channel. He asked me to come to the Lahore Press Club immediately. I realized the urgency in his voice and left the informal chat I was having with Furrukh Suhail Goindi and Khalid Malik. I reached the press club within minutes.
When I arrived I saw several journalists and the police talking to a family. Zulfiqar Mehto briefed me: “This man tried to commit suicide by pouring petrol on himself. He was saved by some journalists and now the police want to arrest him for attempting to commit suicide. He is demanding that government build a home for him and his family.” My friend demanded that I do something to help. The journalists were sympathetic but didn’t know what to do.
I went over to the man, who was standing with wife, their two daughters (2) and (4) and his mother. I asked him to accompany me. I told him that I was from the Labour Party and there to help. The police officer must have recognized me because he did not say a single word or tried to arrest him.
I asked the family to come with me to the nearby Labour Education office, where we asked him to tell us his story. We had the family freshen up and then served some tea.
He told me “For the last four months we have been sleeping on the pavement. No one will help us. I have gone to the offices of Mian Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif, to the Baitumal office, and to the house of the chief minister. We cannot live like animals. I have been protesting for three days, but no journalist is willing to print my story. They tell me that the newspaper owners will not print such a non-story. Today I thought if I burned myself to death maybe it would help my family.
His name is Zulfiqar Bukhari, he is from a village near Multan. He’s a 29-year-old driver who has been out of a job for some months. “My father married another woman and left my mother alone with three children. She did domestic work for us. Now I cannot feed the family. We came to Lahore to search for a job and a house. I have letters of recommendation from many officials but papers cannot fill our stomaches. It is my right to have a home. I just want to work and a place to live. I am not a beggar.”
We listened to the story of his life and thought about how to persuade him not to burn himself.
After some time I asked him to stop and listen to us. “You would have been dead if journalists have not snatched the match box. What about your two beautiful little daughters, your young wife and elderly mother? It is your illusion that if you die some politician will help your family. We know from everyday experience, they talk good, but do nothing. You are a coward. By burning yourself to death you are saying that ‘I must leave my family to the mercy of others. I am dying, they may go to hell.’ But you are skilled worker, we can find you a job.
“If you stop this nonsense about killing yourself and get yourself a job, you can find a real love for your family. We cannot help you if you do not want to help yourself. We will fight with you and demand from the government that they give you a home. If you lead a working-class life, this will be a story for the press, from suicide to normality. Then I can help arrange such a press conference.”
His wife told us that he did not tell her about his plan to burn himself. He had asked the family if they wanted to drink water. “We were sitting in front of Lahore Press Club, thirsty and hungry, and he left. But he went to nearby patrol pump to buy some patrol. I do not know who gave him money.
“When he came back to us, he waited for some journalists to come by and then he poured the whole bottle of petrol on himself. I realized what he was about to do and made a noise. That is how he was saved,” she said.
Zulfiqar was ashamed and asked what we could do for him. I explained that we are not capitalists and can only help him find a job. He said “Even if I do find a job, I cannot live with my family in Lahore. It is too expensive. I cannot afford it.”
I asked if they had a place to live in his village. He said yes, so I suggested that he take his family there to live for the time being and come back to us. We will help him look for a job.
We offered him the fare to return to the village with his family. He said he would accept with one condition, that it was only a loan. That we agreed. I checked his papers and driving license. He had many letters of recommendation: from the DCO Multan, from a minister, three letters from the chief minister’s office and so on.
Zulfiqar told me that he will be back by Saturday.
The economic crisis has left many families without breadwinners and the government offers no plan to deal with this growing crisis. As a result, some breadwinners are committing suicide in the hope that a rich politician will take up the case and announce they will help the suicide’s family. People begin to believe that if there is news of a suicide, it will help the family. But for every one such incident that may be reported, many more die an anonymous death.
We must discourage such practices among working-class families and offer a way forward.