In the early hours of the morning of 9th September 1998 the bright moon cast a silver sheen over the village and camp of Mariamabad (Matli, Sindh). Several hundred souls slept on the ground or on simple cots in the open or under makeshift shelters of sticks and straw. Most of these people were freed Haris.(bonded labourers/serfs).
1995 saw the official abolition of Bonded Labour by the Pakistani government. Which was the result of about 10 years of campaigning by the Catholic Church and the Human rights organization in Pakistan. It had been thought an impossible dream, and had met with sometimes hostile and even violent apposition, but persistence prevailed.
In June 1995, the first batch 65 men, women and children had been given refuge in Mariamabad camp. They had been freed by a troop of Police in a raid on a very powerful landlord’s private jail. There had been an exchange of gun fire between the police and the landlord’s private army, who eventually fled the scene. The Haris were taken into protective custody and put into the Central Jail of Hyderabad.
The then President of the Human Rights Committee of Pakistan (HRCP) was outraged at the treatment of these poor people and complained to the Chief of Police in Hyderabad. They eventually went to meet the Catholic Bishop, Joseph Coutts, to ask for help in looking after these refugees. The Bishop consulted the Parish Priest of Matli, who in turn consulted the residents of the village of Mariamabad and all agreed to take care of them fully aware of the risks involved.
In the following months and years, many hundreds of people gained their freedom and came to the Mariamabad camp for safety, to find medical help, rehabilitation and new paid work.
There had been sporadic attempts by landlords to abduct some individuals when seen alone on the streets of the town.
Frs. Tomas King, Dave Kenneally, Denis Carter and Master Lalji (the local Catechist) had always been on the alert and had even foiled some of these attempts.
There was a constant fear that one day the landlords would strike back in force. A Week earlier about 80 freed Haris had been abducted from Jhuddo another camp in a small town in Sindh. There was only a mild reaction from the authorities. This had encouraged some Landlords to band together to make a concerted strike at the larger camp in Mariamabad.
The roar and headlights of over a dozen trucks, pick-ups and other vehicles shattered the peace and the soft moonlight of the night. An army of more than a hundred armed men invaded the camp and the village of Mariamabad. Shots were fired from automatic weapons and rifles.
These thugs began mercilessly beating the sleeping men, women and children with heavy sticks, axes and rifle buts and dragged them to the waiting trucks to be taken away like cattle. The same treatment fell to the residents of the village; they broke down doors and looted everything they could lay hands on, including the ripping off of ear and nose rings from the women and girls.
A couple of young men swam the canal and ran to inform Fr. Denis Carter at the parish house about a kilometre away, gathering other young men on the way. Fr. Paul McMahon also happened to be in Matli that night. Taking the Parish Jeep and the young men. They rushed to alert the police in the town.
Matli Police barracks appeared to house only three or four men that night, but with little delay the Station House Officer, an elderly head constable armed with a Kalashnikov and a driver led the way to the village. A little before 4 A.M. the police mobile turned onto the canal road and after about 200metres stopped a truck coming the other way. Denis driving the Jeep stopped some distance away blocking the road. Moments later Paul and Denis were ordering dozens of people, mostly women and children, off the truck, they were all from the Village, many cut and bleeding, others in a state of shock and terror. Paul learned that others were being held at the petrol station on the main road where the landlords were conducting operations. Paul boldly went there to try and reason with them to release the others they held.
In the glare of headlights and hand held lanterns the canal road was a chaos of noise and people. More empty trucks appeared from the direction of the main road. Suddenly the Police mobile dashed away with all lights flashing, leaving Denis alone. From the direction of the village several more pick-ups loaded with people roared up the embankment. Denis stopped these also and started to get the people down and told them to run into the bush or to the church.
For a while things seemed to go well and the thugs were unsure of what was happening and standing around with their weapons held loosely, but one started to beat an old man with a club. Denis stepped in between and shouted at the thug to stop and demanded to know who he was and what did he think he was doing.
Something heavy hit Denis across the back of his neck. For a second he did not react but stepped back and tried to turn and shine the lantern in his hand to see who or what had hit him. He shouted for them to stop saying that the police would be back in a moment and that they should all forget about trying to get away as he had the keys to some of the trucks that blocked the road. At that hands grasped at Denis’ arms and the beating began. They hit him repeatedly on the head, chest, back and shoulders with sticks, axes (thankfully turned) and rifle butts. Amid all the shouting and beating hands tore away Denis’ watch, his belt bag and keys and shirt. They smashed the lantern he was carrying and used his own walking stick against him.
Trying to fight back was useless and potentially more dangerous, so with a great cry he curled into a ball and tried to cover his head from more blows then lay still, not breathing. Someone said enough, he is finished.
Then there was silence. The thugs had gone. Denis lay on his side dazed and panting for breath. The landscape was again all stillness and a strange red glowing moonlight. His eyes were partially blinded with blood pouring from deep wounds in his head. Deciding to try and get help from the village, which was only 200 metres away, He staggered, crawled through the mud to find an old man who helped him get into the village, lay him down and washed the blood from his head and face.
Shortly, people started to return to the village crying and in shock. The police mobile reappeared with the driver and a few of the young men. They had come to recover what the body, believing Fr. Denis had been killed. Denis was carried to the vehicle and to his surprise was driven to the petrol station to meet the landlord and the police station officer. There still bleeding heavily he was asked to make a settlement as Fr. Paul had managed to get many of the people free. But the landlord, Mureed Khan Marri, appeared to be very much in charge of the situation and denied that he or his men had done anything that was not within his rights. The police officer eventually agreed to take Denis back to the church and asked to have a meeting with all the concerned parties later in the day, but he was unwilling to make any official report.
At daylight a head count was taken and it was discovered that 107 people, men women and children were missing. If not for the timely intervention of Frs. Paul and Denis, the figure would have been more than three times higher. A few people turned up later in the day, they had hidden in the fields during the attack. One young pregnant woman had died, There were more than two dozen wounded, some seriously and in need of emergency treatment, not least Fr. Denis, who was eventually taken to the civil hospital in Hyderabad some 60kms away. After some hours of xrays and stitching of wounds, Fr. Denis was later allowed to be transferred to St. Elizabeth Catholic Hospital. Over the next 10 days or so, he underwent surgery and treatment before being able to return to Matli.
Before Denis was taken to hospital he asked Fr. Paul to get Denis’ new laptop and access the email account and send messages to all of the Columbans around the world who were on his mail list and to write an account of what had happened and to contact all the Justice and Peace groups to start some action and response to the attack. This was done with remarkable speed and effect and National News media in USA, Britain, Australia and many other countries reported the story and so brought pressure to bear on the Pakistan Government to act.
The news of the brutal attack spread quickly. The HRCP, the Citizens Committee of Matli, the Hindu MPA and other political leaders reacted with anger. High police and civil authorities were goaded into action. The press played a positive role by highlighting the brutality as well as the illegality of the Landlords’ actions.
A Judicial inquiry was initiated and efforts were made to find out exactly how many were still missing as at that time there was no accurate record of how many Haris were taking refuge in Mariamabad Camp. The estimate was that about 90 people had been abducted including 2 of the Catechists.
On 13th September 85 Haris and the 2 catechists were recovered and returned to the church compound in Matli by the police.
What caused the most hurt and shock was that the above events were becoming more regular. It was evident that everything was done in connivance with some of the police and that the landlords who were closely linked with people in power. This was not the work of just a few individuals but a whole system that was established and well run to keep some in power.
Fr. Paul McMahon SSC & Fr. Denis Alan Vincent Carter SSC
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church Matli, Sindh,
Sunday, 20 September 1998
Fr. Denis recovered well and the broken bones, scars, stitches and bruising healed. He returned to work in the Parish of Matli for four more years before being reassigned to work in the Columban Region of Britain.