Every night, Atif prayed that he would be wrong, that tomorrow would not be what he expected it to be. But, time and again, his prayers proved futile. The first time he saw it happen, he was startled, fearful, angered beyond words. However on that fateful summer evening, as he peered from behind the windows of his living room, all he felt was the sinking sensation of yet another tragedy was about to happen.
First, the fire danced mirthlessly at the base of the house, only leaving imprints of dark char on the brown wooden exterior. It seemed to mock the house and its inhabitants as it moved, taking its time to melt the ornaments that guarded the entrance, reminding the world that nothing was above the power of nature. Outside the house stood three men, the culprits. They seemed to bask in the sinister glow of the burning house, torches and protective gear in one hand and glimmering ornaments on the other.
Occasionally, they would glance around, checking to see if the streets were still devoid of people. It wasn’t that they thought their violence would go unnoticed, but more to seek validation of their power. They sought the glory of being feared, of holding the breath of the neighborhood, of tightening the barbed wire of torment around people’s hearts. If the community, like Atif, so much as raised a finger in protest, their homes would be torched too. Indeed, the house soon succumbed to the siege of fire. The roof cracked and crumbled, spilling onto the very things it was designed to protect with a blazing crash.
With no way out, within the depths of that inferno lay the remains of Atif’s neighbours. Yet Atif could not bring himself to stop watching. In the place of the familiar brown house that stood beside his home for years now stood the smoldering skeleton of a dwelling. The thought of the senseless deaths of his neighbours sent a chill down his spine. The realization grew in him: Today it was them, tomorrow it could be his family. It was only a matter of time, as Atif had committed the same apparently fatal act as his neighbour.
A few days prior, the two men had been summoned to court. The judge called to examine proof of ownership to their homes. The area had belonged to the two families for many generations, not through weighty title deeds, but through the sweat and toil of ancestors settling down on unclaimed land. That is how traditional societies function, through custom and tradition. If someone sold fruits at a street corner for years, that corner was theirs; if someone taught the children of the neighborhood, they were considered the teacher; the same occurred with houses. However, the political landscape had changed and governments took interest in communities previously left alone. Things began to change. The demand to prove land ownership was an example of that.
When Atif and his neighbour shook their heads anxiously before the judge, failing to produce documentation, they were unsure of what would happen. The judge had only nodded. With an air of authority he warned the men that the land they resided on belonged to the government. The judge sat up straight, alas meeting the eyes of the two men with his own narrowed ones; the soldiers at the back tensed, hands tightening on their rifles. The two men, looking at one another, had no choice but to accept the verdict and bring the devastating news home.
As summer faded into autumn, Atif’s cousin was also summoned to court, but unlike Atif, he approached the courthouse with a briefcase brimming with confidence. In the briefcase lay stacks of documents: land leases, water bills, telephone receipts spanning years. Atif’s cousin was in no doubt he would leave the courtroom victorious, having proven the legality of his ownership. But the judge was unimpressed and at first questioned the claim, “Your papers are insufficient.” Atif’s cousin stammered, “But … I can return home to retrieve more if your Honor permits.”
The magistrate seemed lost in thought. Atif’s cousin continued, “I have documents sent to my home from …” The judge raised his stamp and jabbed it inattentively at the papers before him. “That will not be necessary. The house is yours.” The sudden change of mind surprised Atif who realized that he had enough proof to win on appeal had the judge dismissed his ownership. Surprised by this reversal of fortune, Atif couldn’t wait to leave the courthouse before the judge changed his mind. He swung open the main gate, lifted a jubilant foot over the doorstep, and was ready to rush home with the good news.
A few hours later, Atif received news of his cousin’s death. He had been shot nine times at the gate of the courthouse. Documentation or not, the battle for land ownership could not be won. In fact, Atif’s family paid the ultimate price for opposing the powerful people who grabbed their land. Eventually Atif sought asylum in Hong Kong, leaving in Pakistan his parents, uncles and cousins who were all murdered to eliminate their claim to their ancestral land. Today Atif actively supports the Refugee Union and is grateful for the protection his families receives in Hong Kong.
Submitted by Vania Chow