A Sanctuary Under Siege: The Lahore Attacks – 11 Years On

Ayesha Mahmood Malik – UKAHMADIYYAT • LAW AND HUMAN RIGHTS

28th May 2021

©Shutterstock

Ayesha Mahmood Malik, UK
Editor – Law & Human Rights Section

It was a sweltering summer Friday in Lahore, with the May sun glazing the city’s matrix of historic quarters and contemporary neighbourhoods. The arid heat set the pretext for what unfolded that day in two mosques belonging to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which has suffered a long history of persecution in Pakistan. Mosques that have been places of spiritual and personal sanctuary, came under a brazen attack killing more than 90 people. On its eleventh anniversary, I look back on that fateful day through the eyes of three personal accounts: a survivor who found himself inside one of the mosques, a mother whose son survived, and a daughter who lost her father. Stories painful and profound, which much like the suffering of the Ahmadi people over the years, have been soliloquies lost to the landscape that surrounds them. This article is a journey down memory lane for a difficult re-visitation of the events of that day and an attempt to retrace those open wounds that set sail to the wind, but remain raw and excruciating even today.

Mirza Rizwan Ahmad – ‘A strange sense of peace and calm’

On the afternoon of 28th May 2010, my cousin Mirza Rizwan Ahmad made the journey to his parental home by car, which is located close to the Baitul Noor Mosque (the Mosque) in Lahore and walked over to the mosque for Friday prayers with his eight-year old son Ibrahim. The proceedings began like any other Friday with the Imam initiating the Friday sermon with the prescribed recitations, when a loud bang was heard. At first, Rizwan Ahmad thought that an electric transformer had exploded, which is not uncommon in the summer months in the city. However, the explosion was followed by the sound of gunfire leading quickly to the realisation that something was dreadfully wrong.

Rizwan Ahmad was sitting in the basement of the Mosque along with his son, Ibrahim. The Mosque is spread over three floors, with the basement overlooking the ground floor, accessed via a short staircase. The sound of gunfire Rizwan Ahmad tells me was distant at first, but as the realisation that the mosque was under attack began to take hold, the voice of the Imam sounded through the speakers, urging worshippers to remain seated and calm and recite the Kalima (the fundamental proclamation of the Islamic creed: ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad (sa) is His Messenger’). Within moments, the worshippers had broken out in a unanimous hushed murmur of the Kalima, as the sound of gunfire became louder, closer and more rampant. The sole armed guard at the mosque returned the attackers’ fire, but was drowned in the indiscriminate firing of AK-47s and hand grenades. As gunfire and explosives sounded everywhere, the voice of the Imam imploring calm suddenly stopped… it would later transpire that he was one of the first to be shot and martyred.

It was unclear at this point how many attackers had entered the mosque compound but the firing had now become increasingly rampant, with hand grenades going off simultaneously. Rizwan Ahmad had been seated in the front of the basement, where he now stood with his son Ibrahim. The scene around him should have been one of utter chaos but instead he speaks of a strange sense of peace and calm being demonstrated by the people. There was no pushing or shoving, no desperate attempts to scramble to safety. A few cries of children and the silent utterings of the Kalima interspersed the room. Some found pillars to stand behind and others huddled together towards the back but nobody ran. Nobody tried to leave. Nobody pushed anyone aside so that they could find safety. Worshippers had gathered there to pray and they stood together praying under carnage.

As the siege continued, Rizwan Ahmad saw bodies of people drop in front of him. All along, he shielded his eight-year old’s eyes with his hand, who displayed a remarkable calm during that time – not flinching, crying or even seeking reassurance from his father. While this could not lift the burden of the sound of bullets that penetrated his young ears, it provided some cover from the gruesome scenes unfolding around him. Thirty minutes into the ordeal, Rizwan Ahmad first laid eyes on one of the attackers. He could see him in front of him now on the ground floor, as he fired at worshippers who had all laid down on the ground. His firing was more spaced – Rizwan Ahmad could see him shooting one worshipper at a time to ensure no signs of life remained. It was just a matter of time before the attacker made his way to the basement.

Rizwan Ahmad had lost sight of the attacker and his anxious thoughts were caught by the frenzy of a few worshippers scurrying to and fro, some saying, ‘Grab him, grab him.’ As fate would have it, the attacker who was to make his way to the basement to continue his bloodbath, had been made to trip and fall and was restrained by worshippers who managed to overcome him and tie his hands to prevent him from detonating his suicide vest. This ended the siege on the ground floor. Worshippers on the first floor had restrained the second attacker, a man in his teens, when his automatic weapon failed to go off. Rizwan Ahmad says the basement doors were then opened and the worshippers were evacuated to safety.

Nabeela Ahmad – ‘He doubted there were any survivors’

Meanwhile, Nabeela Ahmad, also my cousin and Mirza Rizwan Ahmad’s sister-in-law was in the offices of her firm specialising in environmental law when her phone rang. It was her mother-in-law who told her that the Baitul Noor Mosque was under attack and that she could hear the sound of gunshots inside her home. Nabeela knew her 15-year old son Zain had gone to the mosque to offer Friday prayers, along with other family members. While the mosque had been under siege for a while, her mother-in-law was worried that no police intervention had arrived and asked Nabeela to pursue the matter with her own and her husband’s (who is also a lawyer and who was in Indonesia for work at the time) legal contacts to see if police reinforcements could be sent to the scene.

Nabeela describes how a numbing sensation descended over her as she processed the gravity of the news. Her co-partner at the firm drove her to her mother-in-law’s home, minutes away from where the bloody attacks were unfolding. She made several attempts to call family trapped inside but nobody could be reached. Her teenage son of course did not have a phone for her to reach him on. During this time, she managed to reach a relative who took her call and told her how he had arrived late for Friday prayers and that he was currently outside the mosque. The words he uttered thereafter spelled an icy sense of doom as he told her that gauging from the sounds coming from inside the mosque, he doubted there were any survivors.

Nabeela recalls feeling numb and dull as the car journey to Model Town from her office at The Mall seem to stretch on endlessly. She had yet to make contact with her son. While she was en-route, the siege had ended and her brother-in-law Rizwan Ahmad had just been ushered to safety. When she finally reached him over the phone, he confirmed her worst fears that her son Zain was still missing and that he was going back to the mosque to search for him. Nabeela describes how she stayed on the line with Rizwan Ahmad in hopes of hearing Zain’s voice confirming he was safe. Rizwan Ahmad returned to the mosque calling out Zain’s name. She waited each time she heard her brother-in-law say ‘Zain’ hoping to hear the sound of a voice she desperately needed to hear. There was silence. Floor after floor, Rizwan Ahmad proceeded in this manner while Nabeela held on to her phone but Zain was nowhere to be found.  

As she pulled up in her mother-in-law’s driveway, Nabeela still waited for news on her son. As she scrambled on the phone she saw in the distance a face that seemed to be that of Zain. As it came closer, Nabeela describes her disbelief that it was in fact her son who had been evacuated from the first floor before her brother-in-law. Her sense of relief was profound, as she had inevitably prepared herself for the worst.

The incident Nabeela says has left a lasting impact on Zain. Eleven years on, he still isn’t able to put into words his feelings and his fears. Having witnessed the enduring effects of the tragedy on her son, she feels that it is vital to have proper mechanisms in place whereby the experiences of survivors of terrorist incidents can be addressed.

Saiha Maaz – ‘God took me there to meet Abba for the last time’

Saiha Maaz was living in Lahore with her husband and three children – Muneeb ur Rehman Maaz aged 10, Wajeeh ur Rehman Maaz aged 8 and Amna Maaz aged 2 – the day two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore became the targets of a terrorist siege. On the morning of 28th May 2010, she went to her parental home because there was no electricity at hers due to a power outage (a common occurrence particularly during the summer months in Pakistan). She describes how she is convinced God took her there to meet Abba (her father) for the last time. Her late father, Munir Ahmed Sheikh was serving as the President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Lahore at the time. She recalls sitting in her parents’ room, as her father got ready for Friday prayers, simultaneously playing ‘peekaboo’ with her daughter Amna.

Under normal circumstances, Saiha along with other female members of her family would all be present at the mosques for Friday prayers. However, growing safety concerns and the failure of law enforcement to provide adequate security had compelled a temporary suspension of congregational prayers for women. In hindsight, this was to prove a wise strategy. As the news of the attacks was transmitted on local media, their phones at home began to ring. They were asked to turn on the television by one relative who told them the Lahore mosques were under attack. She describes how an icy chill and a deep sense of dread descended over her. Saiha’s father, her two brothers, and her two sons were all in attendance for Friday prayers that day. She relates how the disbelief and helplessness of those hours is hard to capture in words. Yet there is one memory that stands out for Saiha and which is best described in her own words:

‘Amongst all the painful memories of that fateful day, one memory that stands out is that of the most dignified presence – my mother. I vividly remember watching the dreadful news unfolding right in front of our eyes on live television. Gunmen armed with AK-47s, shotguns, hand grenades and suicide vests held three generations of her family hostage. Yet there she was, calmly telling me and my sister-in-law to brace ourselves for the worst. To show forbearance for whatever was to come and to be at peace with the will of God. Later, when the dreadful news of my father’s death was confirmed, my mother gathered all her children and asked us – no, commanded us, to be dignified and resolute in our faith. Acceptance of God’s will, she said, can only be called acceptance when demonstrated before one is forced into it.

Saiha’s two brothers and her two sons survived the massacres of that dreadful day. Her young sons returned with their uncles, their feet soaked in the blood of the martyred. Their statements were telling of their innocent minds as they struggled to come to terms with what they had just witnessed and endured at such a tender age; the younger one saying, ‘I am sorry I couldn’t find my shoes.’, the other, ‘I tried my best not to step in the blood but it was just everywhere.’ Saiha’s family joined countless other families in Lahore who became victims of the terrorist siege. Saiha painfully recalls friends who lost two sons that day, a mother who lost a son soon after being on the phone with him, and a wife who lost her husband while cradling his six month old baby.

The Plight of Ahmadis Rages On

These stories are just a glimpse of the fate suffered by scores of Ahmadi families on a day that changed the landscape of the community in Pakistan. Many families were forced to leave everything behind in their homeland and seek refuge abroad. Many survivors of the attacks had long been targets of death threats and now these threats felt palpable and real. They were being followed on school runs, warning notes were being left at their homes – they felt exposed, vulnerable, and without protection from the law enforcement agencies. Perhaps most telling of the reality of the plight of Ahmadis in Pakistan was how the local police forces and communities responded to the attacks. The former was inadequate and failed to arrive at the scene to apprehend the shooters. Most painfully though, as Ahmadi families combed local hospitals to identify the deceased and arrange for coffins, there were celebrations in local communities, with mithai (a traditional form of Pakistani sweets) being distributed in the streets.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the UK published a report in September last year that details the history of persecution faced by the community in Pakistan. The report outlines organisations such as the Khatme Nabuwwat as being at the forefront of inciting hatred and violence against the community by calling for them to be eradicated from Pakistan. It declares that Ahmadis are Wajib-ul-Qatl (liable to be killed) and routinely calls for them to be killed with relative impunity. A culture of vigilantism notably amid the religious right in the country has meant that target killings and other grave injustices have persisted against the Ahmadis.

Among other members of my immediate family who still reside in Lahore are my cousins Mirza Rizwan Ahmad and Nabeela Ahmad and for whom the findings of the APPG report speak to their lived reality everyday. What seems unnatural and absurd to visitors from abroad defines the contours of their daily existence. ‘We fear for our safety and feel vulnerable,’ Rizwan Ahmad says, ‘but life must go on.’ Nabeela also feels her life in Pakistan is ‘not natural’ with constant feelings of discomfort and uneasiness when she is in public spaces such as markets and parks. She makes sure she speaks in hushed tones if speaking specifically of anything related to the community, as enmity can be encountered from the most unexpected of places. Faith-related conversations are particularly uncomfortable and these cannot be had with a ‘free mind.’

Against all this, Rizwan Ahmad remains hopeful, ‘The tide will turn one day, God willing,’ he says. Indeed it is hope that drives the silent resilience of Ahmadis in Pakistan everyday. As the 13th century mystical poet Rumi once said, ‘Where there is ruin there is hope for a treasure.’ As their mosques lay in ruins, worshippers in Lahore still returned the Friday following the deadly attacks, to show their silent but resolute resilience, in search of the treasure of prayers. Journalists who gathered on the day questioned how the worshippers could be so stoic just a week on from the tragedy – they found their answer when they witnessed them in prostration during Friday prayers, breaking into incessant sobbing.

About the Author: Ayesha Mahmood Malik is the Editor of the Law and Human Rights Section of the Review of Religions magazine. She is interested in Law and Religion, in particular Islam and Human Rights, the role of media in crisis reporting, International Human Rights and the import of religion on radicalisation. She has spoken frequently on these issues in the national media and various universities in the UK, including the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

Related Posts:

  1. Does Islam Belong Here?
  2. Turning the Tables – How Mullah-ism is Destroying Pakistan

source THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS

A Sanctuary Under Siege: The Lahore Attacks – 11 Years On | The Review of Religions

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