The end of Afghan Basti: It was all they had

Last week, Islamabad High Court judge, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui ordered the removal of illegal settlements in I-11 area of Islamabad. The judgment summarised that the Capital Development Authority (CDA) had allotted plots in the I-11 Sector, and therefore the settlements established there were violating the rights of the land owners and resultantly had to be removed.

Strangely enough, however, the voters list of 1985 had the names of the inhabitants of the Afghan Basti (settlement) as eligible voters while the plots were allotted a year later in 1986. How could Afghans be registered voters?

Well, it seems that the name is a misnomer because the population in the basti is mainly Pakhtun which had settled there from parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkwa (K-P), FATA and FANA. The people in the basti have valid Nadra issued Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs), many have spent their entire lives in the basti, working as labourers in the nearby Sabzi Mandi (fruit and vegetable wholesale market).

The CDA started to mobilise and coordinate with other departments including the police, Rangers and the fire department so that a successful operation could be launched and the area be cleared. The usual rhetoric was used to justify the operation by claiming that the basti was the hub of illegal activities such as drug trafficking and smuggling, as well as being a hideout for criminals and terrorists. However, no evidence was presented to prove any of this, but then again, who needs proof when fear mongering will do the trick to sway the public opinion.

A large contingent of the police force in riot gear along with CDA staff shadowed by excavators and bulldozers gathered opposite the basti in the driving ground next to Metro Super Market on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The locals, along with workers of the Awami Workers Party (AWP) had a standoff with the administration on all of these three days.

Finally, on late Wednesday, the media started to report that a major operation would be launched on Thursday and the administration started to close the roads leading to the settlement. The CDA staff, numbering in hundreds, was backed by a heavy contingent of Islamabad Police, Anti-Riot Units as well as Rangers.

A couple of influential locals, Sartor Khan and Mufti Abdullah, after apparent negotiations with the CDA decided to voluntarily take down their own houses after which the CDA would leave the area. After the negotiations, Khan left the scene. Interestingly enough, no representative from the AWP was invited to these negotiations, even though the party has a significant support base in the basti. The demand of the locals was simply alternative housing and resettlement, yet the CDA did not entertain nor offer any such settlement.

As the operation began, two houses were demolished; the police started to order the people who had gathered there to disperse simultaneously issuing warnings of arrest. The giant bulldozers started to move forward and several more houses were demolished, while the locals helplessly witnessed the devastation of their shelters right in front of their eyes.

However, a few resisted with the only thing they had, rubble and stones. Soon, clashes erupted and the police responded with sheer brute force. It was a barbaric sight: Women and children were dragged out on to the street, while their homes were being demolished, tear gas was being excessively used, and homes were directly shelled. The cries of hapless women and children choking from the tear gas echoed through the entire basti.

 After a few hours of clashes, the locals all but retreated, and by sunset, the CDA had demolished more than a hundred homes, leaving people scrambling for their belongings amidst the rubble. Many could no longer locate where their homes once stood. The tears and the sheer hopelessness on their faces was a reflection of the state’s failures to care for its people and the collective disregard for humanity that plagues this country.

The basti was a shelter of the most basic kind; the houses were made of mud, straw, wood and left-over materials that the locals had been able to procure. The homes were constructed by the residents themselves. There was no running water, natural gas, hardly any electricity, no health care facility and a sheer absence of any real education infrastructure. Open sewers and open defecation along with unclean water meant that it was a hotbed of disease and illness.

It could hardly be deemed liveable but it was all that they had – it was their shelter. It was the only protection the impoverished had, the protection they had built with their bare hands, when the state had abandoned them.

Will the administrators and the elites think about these homeless souls when they are comfortable and secure with their own children in luxury gated communities?

I think not.

Why should they since we can simply categorise them as illegal occupants, land mafia and terrorists and this does justify the rulers sleeping comfortably with the air conditioners at 16 degrees.

from The Express Tribune Blog http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/28848/the-end-of-afghan-basti-it-was-all-that-they-had/

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