Last week police in Karachi raided a madrassah on the city’s northern outskirts. The local police commander was at dinner but received a phone call from his boss that a TV station was running reports of boys in chains. When his men arrived they could hear screams coming from beneath an open-air meeting room.
On Friday I visited the madrassah to find out what really happened. And, as always in Pakistan, the story was not quite how it first appeared.
The madrassah is right at the northern edge of Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial capital. May of the city’s services don’t reach Sohrab Goth, a desperately poor area of dirt roads and half-finished houses, home to day labourers originally from Afghanistan and the south-western province of Balochistan.
Seven-year-old Wali Mohammed, the boy in the picture, was there with his father and dozens of the other madrassah pupils. He hadn’t been chained. Most of the boys were enrolled there to pick up a rudimentary – and free – education. Although the madrassah was closed and its head was on the run, they still gathered there every day waiting for classes to resume.
They were the lucky ones.
Some were at the madrassah because they were troublemakers. Two brothers, 10 and 13, were chained to each other after being brought there by their father for running away and stealing a wheelbarrow from a neighbour. They described being beaten and locked in at night. Then there were the drug addicts, chained in an underground warren rooms.
The most horrifying thing was that rather than being shocked by conditions there, the parents all knew what was going on.
Nor have the revelations shocked people with experience of Pakistan’s patchy drug programmes or mental health facilities. They described wards in hospitals where patients are chained to beds or even given heroin
“The problem is that what facilities exist are very expensive,” said a mother whose son received treatment at a private clinic for drug addiction.
“There is nothing for poor people so I’m not surprised that they have been persuaded to send their children to a place where they were chained or beaten to give up drugs.”
Even the police, who themselves know how to wield a stick, were stunned by the welts and bruising they found on some of the boys.
“The police also use these methods but we have to face the courts and the media. These guys showed no mercy,” said one officer.
So the real horror is not what went on at one madrassah. It is that, in a country where public services are desperately underfunded, this is undoubtedly not the only place where children are sent on such brutal “cures” by parents trying to do their best for them.