Death is Not the Answer

by Anne-Isabelle Tollet

Sample translation by Brian Phalen
 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

            My dear friend, my beloved sister,

            I am going to die.

            I heard it this morning from Ashiq’s lips.

            When I saw him coming down the corridor that leads to my cell, he seemed so sad and downcast that I knew he would not be the bearer of good news.

            I had grown accustomed to no longer feeling fear, to no longer jumping at the slightest noise, but at that moment, fear was once again pounding the drum in my chest.

            Ashiq did not speak to me right away. He looked at me with the eyes of a beaten puppy, then a funny look came across his face as he told me the terrible news…

            My heart began thumping so hard that if I had been able to touch it, I would have probably hit it for the first time in my life. Ashiq spoke, but I could only hear my heart beating in my ears, that was all I could hear, you understand?

            It took me a long time to catch my breath, my mouth was dry as if the sun had been beating down on me my whole life. I wanted to call the guard so that he would execute me on the spot, begging God for mercy.

            Ashiq’s face was read, tears were rolling down his cheeks. I fought to come to my senses… I begged him to set me free, to let me leave this prison in order to return to our old life and, stupidly, I felt reassured when he told me that the children did not know about the sentence—as if that was going to change anything about my fate! I think that a part of me was calmed by imagining that they thought they would see their mom again soon.

            Then he explained that there was still a little hope. First of all, he found a new lawyer that is going to appeal to the Supreme Court. And then, there is you! Ashiq tells me that you talk about me everywhere you go and that you are asking your president to ask for my president’s forgiveness.

            But my friend, when this letter reaches you, I will probably already be dead.

            I am so tired of all of this. Tired of beating myself up for so long.

            I feel my heart crumbling. It is breaking apart in my chest and that is not doing me any good. Right now I want to put myself in the Lord’s hands. He alone will judge if I should be hanged from a rope.

            I want you to stop spending your time trying to save me.

            You should think of yourself now, you have a beautiful life to lead in your country, my own country is so complicated!

            I would have so liked to meet you, to kiss you, to look at you.

            You are part of my family, and when I am up there, you will always have a special place in my heart.

            Asia

Monday, November 10, 2014

            My dearest Asia,

            Please be brave, very brave. You have no right to give up now, not after withstanding these five years of imprisonment. You must know that the whole world is ready to welcome you, that you have a place among us and with your family who count on you.

            There is a lot of work being done outside in order to free you, and we can make it happen. But not without you.

            Look at yourself, you are still alive… Isn’t that extraordinary? Do you know how many people accused of blasphemy are stoned on the spot without any other form of trial? You have had two trials and now you are going to the Supreme Court. You have to take this chance, Asia.

            Hang in there, because whether you like it or not, I will keep trying.

            Sending my love,

            Anne-Isabelle

 

           Between 2008 and 2011, I lived three years where no one would think to live. It is one of the least safe places in the world, and yet Islamabad is a pleasant city. I chose to move to a country of which I do not speak the language, share neither the religion nor the culture, and hate the food, fashion, and bombs… If there are countries from which you never return, a part of me will always be there. A complex and elusive paradox, Pakistan unleashes an urge to exist that leaves nothing unscathed.

            In the “Land of the Pure,” there is always something happening somewhere. I often felt like I was an intruder in my own home, on the lookout for the slightest noise, the slightest change, but that is why I was there: journalist for a French international news station in charge of covering current events in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

            For security reasons, expat diplomats lived in the diplomatic enclave of sector G-5 on the outskirts of the city. The enclave housed ambassadors but also their staff. It was a sort of huge private residence with Pakistani soldiers at the entrance wearing black berets who examined every car that arrived. One of them ran a mirror attached to a stick under the car to make sure there was no bomb, while another opened the hood to check what was in the trunk. A ritual that is customary at every checkpoint dispersed throughout the city and that ended up irritating me, even when I was not in a hurry.

            I chose to live in the city center, an ordinary neighborhood in F7/4, in order to get the full Pakistani experience living among the locals. The house I rented was equipped with a big raised terrace, quite ideal for shooting live reports.

 

            I always began my day with a coffee and the English-language Pakistani press. On Monday, November 8, 2010, the news was focused on the consequences of the floods that had occurred two months earlier. They were the worst in generations for the Swat, Lower Dir, and Dargai districts in the West, but also further South, in the Karachi region. More than one and a half million people found themselves without a home, and many zones were isolated by the high waters. The international NGOs, like Doctors Without Borders, feared a cholera epidemic and launched a call for donations to help the 13 million disaster victims.

            I had just worked on this story from the painful angle of infanticide. For the Pakistanis, these floods added to the horrible economic crisis the country was going through. Life became more and more difficult. An extra mouth to feed was the last straw for some families, especially if the baby was a girl: an extra expense because of the dowry. Since the monsoon flood, organizations recorded a 20 percent rise in abandoned infants in public garbage dumps. In nine out of ten cases, the babies were found dead. For the sake of the story, I had accompanied an ambulance driver for two consecutive mornings as he made his rounds of the trash cans: three times we found newborns buried in the garbage. An awful sight, unforgettable.

            While folding up my copy of The News, I was intrigued by a brief article on the last page with this catchy headline: “A Pakistani Christian woman who was convicted of blasphemy by a Pakistani court, receives a sentence of death by hanging.” That woman’s name was Asia Bibi.

            I was reading her name for the first time.

            Since her religion was emphasized, I immediately thought that such a sentence was linked to her being Christian in a country that is 97 percent Muslim.

            With the newspaper in my hand, I watched from up on my terrace a few Christians with horsehair brooms sweeping the mud from one end of the sidewalk to the other. These Christians, who represent only 1.5 per cent of the population, were for the vast majority limited to cleaning the public highway. In Pakistan they were not seen as a threat so much as second-class citizens. Physical attacks against this minority occurred regularly. They could be very violent, but, according to the FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights) and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, they were rarer than against other minorities.

            Basically, the community suffered from total contempt, an attitude that has always been fixed in people’s minds: in fact, the Pakistani Christians are nicknamed choori, an extremely insulting term that means “he whose job it is to clean toilets.” Even those who manage to get a slightly more prestigious job are called that.

            The three million Christians are often cooped up in special neighborhoods. For example, in Islamabad, a peaceful green setting covered in spacious houses like an American suburb, there is a slum, the “French colony.”

 

            In May 2009, I was shocked by the building of a wall spiked with shards of glass bottles for isolating the Christians from the rest of the population. I had done a story in that ghetto, located at the heart of the capital, where 4,000 Christians lived without running water or electricity or trash collections. In the slum, dirty children, attacked by flies, had nothing else to do but chase after a few cows from the city or play cricket with spoiled fruit.

            While I was working on the story, some Christians explained that their victimization had increased since September 11, 2001: after the American’s response in Afghanistan, Christians’ lives got more difficult. They were seen as guilty in spite of themselves for having the same religion as the enemy. This was also the case in the Punjab province where radical religious parties were very influential: in fact, it was in that Pakistani province that Asia Bibi was sentenced to death for blasphemy.

*

            From a strictly religious perspective, Pakistan, for the most part Sunni, actually has two main rivals: Hindu India and Shiite Iran. Sunni Islam is the majority in Pakistan, making up 75 percent of the 180 million inhabitants. Twenty percent of Shiite Pakistanis are concentrated in the North-West of the country, near the Afghan border. Marriages between Shiites and Sunnis are looked down upon, and the Shiite community is often attacked by Sunni extremists. According to the Sunnis, Shiites are advocating for the foreign cause and in particular that of neighboring Iran. From their perspective, Shiites claim the right to practice their faith in their own way, wherever it be in the world, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, or in Iran. I remember one of them who told me, “It’s our faith that leads us, not the states.” Be that as it may, the outcome is severe for their community: in the last few years, between 4,000 and 6,000 Shiites have disappeared in targeted attacks.

            Two other minorities are the object of discrimination or the target of attacks: the Hindus and the Ahmadi Muslims.

            According to the Hindu Council of Pakistan, the country houses more than 7 million faithful who must face more and more violent persecutions: kidnappings, murders, and forced conversions have become par for the course, especially in the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan. According to the Pakistani human rights organizations, several hundred Hindu families have had to flee Pakistan to take refuge in India over the last few years. After suddenly splitting in two in 1947 and undergoing three wars, Pakistan is India’s primary enemy, and vice versa. More than rivals, they are feuding brothers always in conflict in Kashmir.

            In the sad hierarchy of minorities discriminated against in Pakistan, the Ahmadi Muslims have the least enviable fate. Considered a sect, Pakistani Muslims forbid them from claiming to be Muslims, and many complaints of blasphemy are filed against them.

*

            While watching a crow chirp a new tune on an overhanging branch, I was sipping my first coffee of the day when I received a call from my editor, who told me that the Pope had spoken up about Asia Bibi. I had completely forgotten about that short article I read a week earlier, since every new piece of information pushes another out, a fact that it is even truer in Pakistan.

            After the hearing on November 17, 2010, on St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI had asked for Asia Bibi’s release, saying:

These days, the international community is anxiously following the difficult situation for Christians in Pakistan, who are often victims of violence and discrimination. I am thinking of Asia Bibi and her family, and I ask that she be released as soon as possible.

             From then on, Asia Bibi’s name was known the world over, and, like all of my fellow correspondents based in Islamabad, I had to do a live broadcast for my television channel. Here is an excerpt:

Asia Bibi is the first woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. A farm worker, mother of a Christian family, she has received the maximum punishment even as she has maintained she did not insult the Prophet Muhammad… This dark story began in a crop field while she was trying to get a drink from the communal well for women, who are for the most part Muslim. This morning, Pope Benedict XVI, who worries about the fate of minority Christians, asks that she be released…

             This incredible story began to pique my curiosity. After shooting that live report up on the terrace, I saw a black sedan park in front of the gate of my house.

             The man was stout with a mustache; he was Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minorities, the only Christian minister in the government. We had met a year earlier, for my story on the Christian minorities in the Islamabad slum, and since then we had become friends. We had eaten lunch many times at the Hotel Serena where he had a table reserved out of sight. He often asked me for advice about communications and hoped for my point of view on such or such event. For my part, I tried to glean advance information on upcoming elections. I have a detailed recollection of our conversation over a cup of tea. A conversation that would stay with me for a long time:

            “Did you hear about the Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy?”

            “Yes, of course. I just shot a live report.”

            “Ever since the Pope took a stand, the case has taken a bad turn; the Muslims don’t like that the Christians are interfering in their business. The situation is already critical since, according to the radicals, the Catholic Church has infringed on Islam. They are going to use Asia to obtain compensation.”

            Shahbaz rubbed his chin anxiously.

            “I’d like you to come with me to the ministry, I have to introduce you to someone.”

            I took two minutes to go change. Like nearly every day, I switched my black jacket for a big local tunic, quite nice in this heat.

            While climbing in next to him in the backseat of his air-conditioned sedan, intrigued by all the mystery, I kept myself from asking questions; the minister clearly did not want to talk in front of his driver. I remember asking him why he was the only governmental minister not escorted in or provided with an armored car. He laughed and told me that he was not discriminated against and that he could obtain one if he wished, but that if he should be attacked or killed, it was meant to be…

            A few minutes later, we arrived at the Ministry for Minorities, and Shahbaz Bhatti asked me to wait for him outside for a few moments. I took the time to smoke a cigarette, then his private secretary lead me to his office. When the door opened, I saw him in a blue leather armchair, with a man and a young girl looking downcast, both sitting across from him on a couch.

            Shahbaz introduced me, “This is Anne-Isabelle, a French journalist. She works for an international TV channel. I’ve worked with her several times, and she’s the only journalist in Islamabad who I trust.”

            I was not expecting so many compliments, and I admit I was flattered.

            I gave the man and the young girl a welcoming smile, to which they responded timidly. On November 17, 2010, Shahbaz Bhatti had just officially introduced me to Ashiq and Sidra, Asia Bibi’s husband and one of her daughters, who was sixteen. The minister explained that ever since Asia Bibi had been thrown in prison a year prior, her whole family had received death threats, and that he was personally responsible for their protection.

            The minister let me know that, since the Pope’s intervention, the Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the country’s most influential religious parties, had called for a demonstration the next day in several big cities. I was struck by this sentence: “The faithful promise chaos throughout the country if Asia Bibi is not hanged.”

            I also learned that at any moment she risked being assassinated in prison and that a mullah had promised a reward of 5,000 euros to whoever killed her. A fortune, when you realize that the average salary is 80 euros a month!

 

            The minister hoped that I would pass this story through the international press to help her family. He had pointed out that, in his position, he could not do very much and that, even if his fellow ministers condemned the excesses of the blasphemy law, no one in the government would want to take a stand, fearing Islamist retaliation.

            I promised the minister I would try to convince my editor to do a story, with no guarantees, given that my bosses were keen on subjects on the Taliban, attacks, or American drone strikes in tribal zones.

            Feeling more at ease, Asia Bibi’s husband spoke to me in a very approximate English, saying that his wife had done nothing wrong, that she had never insulted the Holy Prophet, that she respected Islam and she was innocent.

            I immediately asked the minister if he could grant me access to the prison so that I could meet her. He told me he would do everything necessary but that it would not be easy since I was a foreigner. Ashiq had visited her in prison a few days earlier. He told me how worried he was: his wife’s health was getting worse since her incarceration in June 2009, the day their lives had changed.