LAHORE, Pakistan – Over 800 poor Christians in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore have been forced to live on the roads with no immediate hope of having a shelter of their own after local authorities demolished their homes located in a slum early Saturday morning, with the Christians claiming that they were given just a day’s notice to vacate the land.
Residents of Gaju Matta slum in Ittehad Colony, located along the Rohi Nullah, said they had been living on the land since 1998, when they were forced out of their previous dwelling in the Sabzazar area to make way for a housing society.
The Kachhi Abadi (slums) regulations state that no slum can be demolished without providing alternate housing to the dwellers. Any settlement of over 40 houses built before 2006 qualifies as a Kachhi Abadi, and the Gaju Matta slum fulfilled that criterion with over 150 houses.
However, on Saturday the Nishtar Town municipal authorities reached the locality with bulldozers and started demolishing the homes of the poor Christians, claiming that they had orders to make way for an alternate road to the nearby fruit and vegetable market.
“We were in the process of dragging out our belongings when the bulldozers arrived…the authorities did not even give us time to pack our stuff properly and started demolishing our homes,” Pervaiz Masih, a resident, said.
However, army bunkers and a church located in the area were not demolished after the residents said they would not tolerate desecration of their church.
“We let them destroy our homes but they will have to demolish the church over our dead bodies,” Rani, a resident, said. “We built the church with our own hands over the last seven years,” she added.
As the bulldozers tore down houses and moved towards the church, some women gathered in front of the building while others took shelter inside, weeping and chanting slogans. Their protest forced the authorities to postpone the demolition of the church, at least for now.
Another resident, Naseer Masih, said, “The government should have stopped us from settling here in the first place or relocated us, but they did no such thing and we are being displaced again.”
After the operation, residents sat on their salvaged possessions with tears in their eyes.
Sitting on a small stool, a young girl, Fauzia, said, “We are Pakistani, and are loyal to it, but if they don’t want us here they should just throw us out of the country.”
Other residents also said that they were Pakistani and the government should provide them with basic housing. They expressed their helplessness as they expect to spend indefinite nights under the sky since most cannot afford rents. The poor Christians also expressed their concern for the safety of their belongings, saying the Punjab government would be held responsible if their possessions are ruined because of rain or they are robbed.
A visible perturbed Naseer said, “If we had been given a month or two’s notice and been allotted an alternate location, we would have been able to make alternative arrangements.”
Ittehad Colony President Salamat Pardesi said the residents had sought a meeting with the area’s top official, Model Town Assistant Commissioner Irfan Memon, and he had promised to meet them on Friday but then they were told that he had gone out of the city.
“We asked for some time to shift our belongings but an official came to the colony the same day and told us our houses would be destroyed at 8am on Saturday,” he said, adding, “We were just given a day’s notice…if there was a forewarning we would have asked for more time and an alternate location. We were already relocated from Sabzazar under similar pretexts.”
Police official Muhammad Saeed claimed that the residents had been warned to vacate the area a few weeks ago. Residents, however, deny that they had been issued any official notice other than the one-day warning.
“They are lying…if we had received the notice a week ago we would have surely made alternate arrangements,” Pardesi said.
Memon said the operation was conducted to clear the Rohi Nullah of illegal settlements to construct a road to aid traffic to a fruit and vegetable market located near the area. He said the residents had been informed at least three times last month to relocate but they had not heeded the warning, adding that the settlement had no legal status and was situated on irrigation land.
Memon said that there was no resettlement plan for the residents since it was an illegal settlement, however, he said residents had been asked to file an application for the consideration of the authorities’ concerned. The official did not say why the government had not made any plans to relocate the Christians before demolishing their homes even though the regulation clearly states that no slum can be demolished without providing alternate housing to the dwellers.
On Sunday, a large number of Christians gathered outside the residence of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif in Model Town and protested against the demolition of their houses. The protesting Christians demanded that the government relocate them to another area and ensure permanent housing for them. The government is yet to come up with a settlement plan for the poor Christians and until then they have to live on the roads.