Do not buy these carpets!


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For Iqbal his stay in Sweden was a new stage in his militant’s life. After speaking about child slaves’ sufferings publicly, in front of Magnus’ camera in Lahore, Iqbal took a decisive step in the struggle of the Liberation Front by calling for a boycott of Pakistani carpets.

iqbal alfombrasA call made from a symbolic place: the carpet section of a big store in Stockholm. It was a dangerous call because it was recorded and rebroadcast by the national television without taking the necessary precautions to conceal the interviewee’s identity. It appeared on 31 May, 1995, in France 3 programme “The March of the Century” and showed Iqbal accompanied by Ehsan and two European ladies entering a store, where there were piles of tags of carpets imported from Pakistan, India, China and some other countries. The camera recorded the child dressed in western clothes, sitting on some carpets and touching them. Then, he declared: “I would like to spread this message: do not buy carpets. They are made by children!”

The images selected by the producers of “The March of the Century” did not include the ironic remark made by one of the main importers of Pakistani carpets in Sweden, but which was later broadcast by the Swedish television. This man, who was grinning while being interviewed by Scandinavian reporters, had not only evaded the questions about children’s forced work in sweatshops but he had also sent carpet makers of Lahore a video showing the intolerable declaration of commercial war made from Stockholm by an unknown ‘chura’ (Muslim pejorative word meaning “despicable Christian”) called Iqbal Masih.ChinaRopa copia

IN REEBOK’S COUNTRY

It was a month of madness. A month dreamt by Iqbal and Ehsan. A month in memory of millions of Pakistani slave children throughout the country. A month marked by the “difference”, which Reebok used as a gimmick some years later. A month of exciting meetings, actions, requests, and solemn declarations. A month to disclose this horror, which one of the vice-presidents of the multinational of Stoughton, Sharon Cohen, did not hesitate to compare with the worst crimes in history.

After his arrival in Boston, Iqbal had become one of those heroes that the American mass media and the public opinion loved. Douglas Cahn and Jennifer Margulis had taken the right actions. Three hundred twenty-five pupils of the Broad Meadows Primary School of Quincy, a neighbourhood in the south of Boston, sent nearly six hundred photocopied letters with more than three hundred signatures each one. Four hundred were sent to the Prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto; one hundred fifty to two democratic senators of the State, John Kerrey and Edward Kennedy; more than sixty to the managers of the local shops of carpets. In every letter there were several questions and a request: do something to stop children’s forced labour in Pakistan!

Just like Ehsan expected, nothing seemed to stop what was already up and running in America. Some dozens of school, taking encouragement from Broad Meadows School’s example and eager to make their pupils’ sensitive to the defence of freedom, were willing to welcome Iqbal. This was an invaluable cultural exchange and a humanitarian lesson for these teenagers from the East coast who, like most western children, enjoyed love, comfort and entertainment.

THE CONSECRATION

The president of the BLLF expected to take advantage of his stay in America to recover the contacts made with American central unions and different political figures years before. Ehsan wanted to meet his friends from AFL-CIO, the main federal union, and that of the democratic senator of Iowa, Tom Harkin.

In 1993, Harkin had got the U.S. Senate to approve a bill banning imports of products made by children under fifteen, Harkin had caused the Pakistani Minister of Labour and the confederation of Lahore carpet dealers to panic. Panic enhanced by the research conducted by the Ministry of Labour, and according to which, 50% of children employed to make goods destined for the United States were in South Asia. The president of BLLF made every possible effort to intensify international pressure on Pakistan’s ruling classes, accomplices to perpetuate the culture of slavery inherited from the feudal Pakistani system.

On the night of 7 December, 1994, three years and some months after the famous demonstration where Iqbal met Ehsan, he was living a kind of consecration. The large auditorium of Northeastern Boston University symbolised the effectiveness of his strategy; Iqbal was being strongly applauded by an assembly of American personalities, and this was being broadcast live by television cameras.

Iqbal received this consecration too. The Haddoquey child was the star of the seventh edition of Reebok human rights award. And what a star! Well groomed, with a determined air, smartly dressed in a black silk vest, he succeeded in conveying his message during the four-hour ceremony. At the end of his speech, he said in a voice trembling with emotion: “I ask you to forbid the use of children as slave working force.” Then, when the number two of Reebok, Paul Fireman, presented his prize, raising his fist as in the assemblies of the Front, he concluded: “Today, you are free and me too.”

THE BLOOD OF A CHILD

Sitting in one of the best seats, Jehuda Reinharz was listening intently to Iqbal. He was surprised by his short height, but even more by his ability to express himself. It was easy to conclude that he was an exceptional boy, but it was real and objective that BLLF militants had made their best efforts and devoted years of suffering and training to the education and promotion of a few groups of kids. There were demonstrations, international relations … but the objective of their struggle was clear: to train militants to create international public opinion.

The president of Brandeis University thought of granting Iqbal a scholarship for his higher education when he grew up so that he could make one of his dreams true, or rather a necessity for Iqbal as a militant: becoming a lawyer to practise in the then distant Punjab.

THIRST FOR JUSTICE

Iqbal had begun to think about becoming a lawyer in 1993. When leaving the house in Fane Street, where he was staying in Lahore, he felt attracted by the determination and zeal of a group of young lawyers who were talking. That day, April 17, 1993, politicians, judges and journalists were overwhelmed with a vague emotion. The Supreme Court of Pakistan had established the government of the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, removed by the Head of State Ghulam Ishaq Khan. The right had just defeated him. Iqbal was standing outside the entrance of the Supreme Court to witness the victory. Was he there by chance?

Then, the boy, on his own, entered the Gothic-Mongolian legal fortress of the Supreme Court of Lahore. He went upstairs to the first floor and remained in front of the rooms named under different judges. From there, he could see the Fane Street building, and even make out the roof, partly hidden by trees.

The word lawyer, seemed to Iqbal a synonym for freedom, fight for freedom. He uttered it in Ourdou and in English. He very much liked learning about this profession, which fascinated him. He used to rummage through old papers belonging to Bhati Faiz Muhammad, one of the lawyers of the Front, whose office adjoined the house in Fane Street. Iqbal had got into the habit of spending many evenings there, in silent, to see the clients.

He was not there by chance, neither was his visit to the Supreme Court a coincidence. It was part of his militant training, his integral and comprehensive promotion.

SCHOOL AND POSTERS

From his travel, the apprentice did not return empty handed. He brought a video console, which he used to give a presentation to his classmates, as well as drawings, magazines, photos and cards. However, Iqbal did not become a school idol; he continued studying hard, which was reflected in his school marks.logo_iqbal2

Now he was again at school, where years earlier he had put an old poster, made by Shahid, a graphic artist of BLLF. This poster confirmed the return to internationalism, as well as radicalism. Four words were written as a warning: “Don’t buy children’s blood!” The aim was to raise Pakistani and international opinion by showing the picture of a girl weaving a carpet, with drops of blood painted on his fingers.

Meanwhile, in the old Europe thousands of children had begun to put posters and discover the enthusiasm of militant life, in the old Europe things were changing. Moreover, the same associations that said to be defenders of children’s rights had stopped putting posters themselves; multinational companies, banks and advertising companies were paid to do it. These organisations had money but lacked militants. Their main asset had been killed.

A BRAVE WORD

Iqbal was not unknown in Lahore. On his return from the United States, several Pakistani newspapers had published a photo of his in the rostrum of Boston University. In the Ajkal, one of the most important weekly papers in ‘Ourdou’, Iqbal’s photo had appeared in its Society section next to the photos of eminent Pakistanis and foreigners of high society.

The paper reported the main facts: a young Christian boy called Iqbal Masih had just been awarded a prize in Boston for daring to challenge the people who exploited poor children in Pakistan, children sold in bonded labour by parents forced by their need.

Local federations of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front invited him to their demonstrations in the provinces. During these trips he was welcomed in the house of any militant, such as Anwar Bhati, secretary-general of the movement in the Faisalabad district. He used to retell his travels to Europe and the United States, explaining that beyond their little world there were people who were accomplices to child slavery, but that there were also people willing to work together with the impoverished. He spoke of becoming a lawyer to defend the cases of oppressed workers and said that then never again would he be silenced by bosses.

Iqbal’s fame fanned resentment even in his own family, especially on his father’s side, Saif Masih was considered an unworthy father, who had abandoned his wife and had permitted the sale of his youngest child.

IN “THE NATION” NEWSPAPER

In the avenue Fatimah Jinnah, close to the Parliament of Punjab, the building of “The Nation” newspaper did not seem to have been remodelled for some lustrums: the walls, the furniture and even the dirt contrasted with the social presence of this first newspaper of Punjab and the second of Pakistan, “The Dawn”, founded by the father of the nation Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Two months after his return from the United States, old lawyer Faiz Muhammad Bhati asked Iqbal to go to the newspaper editorial office. At the end of January of 1995 the Front had received an invitation to participate in a debate between two BLLF members in charge and two businessmen of the carpet industry. Ehsan, the president of the BLLF, knew that numerous journalists and Pakistani activists were against giving priority to international immediate action rather than to local initiatives.

Iqbal and Bhati left the building at Fane Street. Bhati knew those premises very well. What lawyer could ignore “the Nation” and the reporters who usually attended the Palace of justice every day?

WEAVERS AGAINST BLLF REPRESENTATIVES

In February, 1995, the debate began in the main meeting room. Wearing similar suits and white shirts and almost identical neckties, Mian Javid Ur-Rehman and Shahid Hassan Shaikh looked like twin brothers. The former was one of the most eminent members of the Punjab Commerce and Management Association of Exporters and Manufacturers, known as PCMAE. The latter had his own company in Lahore, Carpet Manufacturing Co, and was also the vice-president of the Chamber of Local Commerce and Industry. There was a third man sitting at the back who was the PCMAE administrator.

The carpet exporter had had enough time to know the demands of the organisation and was worried about some of them. However, magazines advertising his carpets and sold in international hotels of the city were very popular. In this mood, filled with power and influence, both retailers of carpets invited by “The Nation” editorial office attended the debate with BLLF representatives in the premises of the newspaper. The dialogue would be part of a dossier that the newspaper would release in one of its special editions of its Friday Review supplement, published every Friday, weekly day-off in Pakistan.

FIRST THREATS?

Published on 10 February 1995, the article suggested that the weavers and the BLLF militants would politely stand their ground; but what really happened during the two-hour debate was much less polite than what appeared in the newspaper. The conversation became a confrontation when both carpet retailers forced Iqbal to give numerous details of the story of his life during the years he had worked in the factory of Arshad. They reproached him for having failed to contact them before and making bad publicity for their country; and claimed that children’s work was their families’ responsibility… and that no child had been forced to work. They perfectly well knew the hypocritical speech of the free market economy.

Iqbal dared to say that children had to be able to run by the streets, and did not have to work in weaving factories. One of the representatives questioned Iqbal’s age. They believed that BLLF’s demands were exaggerated and their lack of realism regrettable. They accused them of being “utopian”. At a tense moment, Shahid Hassan Skaikh posed a threat: “The world will not stop spinning if something happens to you…!

Shahid Hassan, the infuriated businessman, had good reasons not to get on with Iqbal. For many years, this bearded trader had been working with an intermediary called Rafik, who was a proprietor of looms in the city of Haddoquey. One of Rafik’s partners was Arshad, a man for whom Iqbal had worked.

Different media spread the news that Iqbal’s death had been accidental. However, no matter how fortuitous the circumstance may seem, it is undeniable that many inhabitants of those places knew that they would have good friends if something happened to Iqbal “accidentally.”

EASTER AT HOME

Every year at Easter time, Ramat Masih and his wife used to clean their house. From the distance, the Masih’s house seemed to be a simple earth bucket. When approaching, the visitor could see a construction that allowed this Catholic family of farmers to live with a certain degree of autarky. The main room, which also served as an entrance, ended at an inner yard surrounded by four separated rooms, each one closed by a wooden door with a padlock. There, Ramat’s son, son-in-law, brother and father lived with their wives and children, sharing an outer kitchen and a kind of outdoor toilet.

While men went to work in the field, women stayed at home all day. They were in charge of taking care of four cows, two bulls and two calves that belonged to the family, and which were in a barnyard next to the rooms. The ground, cracked by the heat of the dry season, had tractor tracks left by the last monsoon; a barren earth where trees were scarce.

PRAISING THE LORD

That Easter Sunday, 16 April of 1995, celebrated by Christians all over the world, was also celebrated by Ramat MASIH, Iqbal’s maternal uncle.

Every Easter Sunday, the whole family used to take out their best glasses, cups, plates and trays, kept away on wall shelves during the rest of the year. Iqbal’s uncle, who was about forty years old, was doing what his father and grandfather had taught him. Every year, generation after generation cleaned and polished steel plates and porcelain plates and cups with ash; even the big metallic trunks, where each family kept their clothes and personal objects. The house had to be pretty to adore the Lord. They were proud of being Catholic.

For poor farmers, often isolated in towns of Muslim majority, the Easter ritual was not only a question of faith; it was a celebration, the same as Christmas. Frequently condemned to live far from the main streets of the cities, these Christians were glad to be able meet each other without having to confront Islamic chiefs’ wrath. After 1991, the distance between non-Muslim and Muslims was getting bigger and bigger. Incapable of confronting intolerance in the political arena, and without representatives in Parliament or vote at local level, Christian farmers were resigned to yielding and falling back on their communities.

 

A RESISTANCE ACT

The fervour with which Ramat and his kin prepared the celebration of Jesus Christ’s Resurrection was a response to the mockery Pakistani Christians were subject to. In addition, the amendment of law passed in 1988 which instituted capital punishment for those who failed to show respect for Mahoma posed a threat on them. From 1988, celebrating Easter had become an act of active non-violence for Catholic people. Meeting in front of a church and organising small processions gave life to their communities.

Women were the most participative in these celebrations. Like their husbands and children, they had the chance to share and talk about what they could not trust to others. For them, in fact, the legal regulations in favour of the islamisation of the country were harder and crueller. A rape committed in a town might not be taken into consideration if the victim only presented Christian witnesses for her defence. Some Christian married women were kidnapped and married to another man, annulling their first Christian marriage by doing so.

THE REUNION

For the Masih family, the meeting place on Easter day was always the same: the porch of the small church of Haddoquey, a town located on the other side of the highway and where Inayat Bibi lived. Ramat and his kin had arranged to meet there as soon as they had finished cleaning the house at the end of the morning. At his home on Fane Street in Lahore, Iqbal was getting ready to go there too.

The child did not take long to reach his mother’s town, just about an hour on a Toyota or Ford minibus. As usual, Iqbal requested the driver to stop at the entrance of Muridke in order to catch another collective taxi or cart to get to Haddoquey.

The child, who had left the same place for Lahore three years before, was barely recognisable. He was still the same and his daily life continued being exhausting but he had travelled, had known another different life, which is a real combat but which gives full meaning to suffering. His small jacket with a wide shirt of western-style underneath distinguished him from the rest of the children of his age. Iqbal seemed a model student, an adult more than a child. He was well-groomed and his appearance made him look more serious. Iqbal wanted to honour his mother in the church. Mass was short and in the meantime children were playing soccer in the street. Then, he met his friends again, as well as Faryad, his seventeen-year-old cousin who had married some weeks before, and Lyakat, another cousin who was ten. Both cousins together with Iqbal used to form a joyful trio and fly the kites made by themselves.

IN FARYAD’S FOOTSTEPS

At the end of the afternoon, Iqbal wondered if he should return to the capital of Punjab as he had promised Ehsan. An hour later, the child said goodbye to his mother and to his younger sister Sobya, rejecting the invitation to spend the night in Haddoquey. He had forgotten to take his medical treatment, a small blister and a needle with which he could get a dose of hormones, with the hope of getting cured from his physical malformation. His mother knew it and hurried him to go back to Lahore. Did she know about the easily manipulated people of the town at the service of those ones who wanted Iqbal’s death?

He walked away accompanied by his cousins and relatives; and shortly afterwards, he reached the national highway where there were bus-stops. Everybody got on the same bus. The rest of the  Ramat Masih family would get off near the city of Rakhbauli while Iqbal would stay on the bus and continue his journey to Lahore.

However, at the end of that afternoon, when Iqbal left his mother after promising her to go back to Lahore, he seemed to have changed his mind. If we believe Faryad and Lyakat’s testimonies, which are quite contradictory, it was after their invitation that Iqbal decided to get off the bus together with them to spend the evening in their company. It is not known whether he acted on impulse or if he walked into an ambush laid for him with the complicity of some members of his own family. The reasons Iqbal had to follow his cousins in the afternoon of 16th April 1995 are unclear.

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