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Distressing Details Out Of Pakistan About Child Sex Abuse, Murder


The discovery of a murder startled and enraged people in Pakistan. And it turns out that that discovery was only the beginning. We have a follow-up story now on a crime that triggered riots. This story has details that could disturb some listeners, and the story lasts about five minutes. It takes place in a Pakistani town called Kasur. There, a girl was raped, killed and dumped on a trash heap. Here's the new information - the girl was one of more than a dozen victims of similar murders in her town over a period of two years. NPR's Diaa Hadid visited that town.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Amin Ansari and Nusrat were on pilgrimage to Islam's holiest sites in Saudi Arabia when a relative called. Their daughter, Zainab, was missing. She hadn't turned up to her evening Quran class. This is Nusrat, Zainab's mother, and this was her prayer.

NUSRAT: (Through interpreter) God, please keep my Zainab safe and protected. God, I've come to your door like a beggar. God, please don't send me away empty handed.

HADID: Zainab's image of a little green-eyed girl in a pink jacket went viral. Unlike the dozen other children who disappeared in Kasur, Zainab's case case gripped Pakistan. Amber Shamsi's a journalist who presents a local news magazine show.

AMBER SHAMSI: People saw that sweet little child's face. You could relate to her in some way.

HADID: Then Zainab's parents got another call. A search party found Zainab's body on a trash heap a few yards away from her home. Residents violently protested. Two demonstrators were killed. Religious leaders critical of the government joined the fray. The media rushed in. Zainab's murder became a political crisis. The government sent in more police. Civil servants fanned out to swab DNA from hundreds of men. Two weeks later, police arrested a suspect. They say he confessed to raping eight children and killing six of them.


HADID: Kasur is a provincial cotton mill town. Pedestrians, tuk-tuks and bicycles jostle for space in the bazaar, but they avoid this street - because this is where the suspect lived. It's just around the corner from Zainab's house.


HADID: The suspect's neighbor is a woman called Shafia. Like many rural Pakistanis, she only has one name. She hasn't let her four daughters play outside for months, not since she saw the suspect standing outside their flat. She says he was trying to talk to the girls who walk down this alley to their pink painted elementary school. And then a schoolteacher told her that he used to stand on the roof of their building to stare at the schoolgirls.

SHAFIA: (Through interpreter) A teacher asked me not to let him stand there. I told his mother.

HADID: Residents say police only caught the suspect after the community protested. Kasur's top police officer, Zahid Nawas, says they'll do better in the future. And Zainab's death may have had another impact, however modest. In Pakistan, it was seen as shameful to talk about sex abuse. Now some prominent Pakistani women are publicly sharing what they endured as children. A few dozen families across Pakistan have also spoken out about how their children were abused, as well. The journalist Amber Shamsi again.

SHAMSI: I think stories like this do have an impact. You have very influential current affairs programs where they're actually discussing how to change the system or educate parents and children.

HADID: But parents in Kasur still want to know who raped and killed the other children since the suspect has only confessed to about half the murders. And there's mistrust of police claims, and it's hard to know who's telling the truth. When I went to the field of trash where Zainab's body was dumped, I met a man who lives with his family there in a tattered tent. He says his 12-year-old son was tortured, electrocuted, hung upside down until he confessed to a crime. Police say his crime was the rape and murder of an 8-year-old boy.

And so fear and distrust still grip this city. Parents won't let their children out alone, even if their escorts are just other children. Like wispy Zohra. She's 11. She carries her 2-year-old sister on her hip. She clutches the hand of her other sister, who's 5.

ZOHRA: (Speaking Urdu).

HADID: They're going to the shops to buy sweets. She says in the past girls have been abducted and her sisters are scared, but she will protect them.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Kasur. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.