After daily wage labourer Siddique Masih completed construction of his 75-square-metre house last year, his family began to consider painting their new home.
Little did they know that within 12 months, a mob would torch the house during last week’s unrest in the Pakistani city of Jaranwala, during which several churches and dozens of homes were burned down over allegations of blasphemy.
Speaking to The National, Mr Masih, 45, said that he earns 1,500 rupees (about $5) daily, which is barely enough to make ends meet.
“On August 16, we learned about the mobs attacking Christians, prompting us to leave our home and shift to our relatives’ house. In the evening, when I decided to return, I was informed that our home had been torched. That’s why we stayed back until late at night,” said Mr Masih, a resident of Chako Morh in Jaranwala.
And when we arrived at home later, it had been torched, and our Christian and Muslim community living on the street were trying to douse the flames."
He said he had lost valuables worth 700,000 rupees in the arson attack, and that his new home was also destroyed as it had developed cracks.
“In my limited resources, I believe only God can help me reconstruct my home now,” he said.
Shazia Amjad, a widow and schoolteacher, said she and her children were at their home in the Eisa Nagri neighbourhood when they learnt about the attacks on the Christian Colony, which is about 10 minutes' walk from their home.
“We first moved to a house of relatives, which is a few minutes' walk from our home. However, we learned that the mob was coming there too. Hence, we then moved to fields and spent a day and night there," she said.
Azeem Amjad Masih, a member of the same family, said: "When we learned that mobs are attacking Christians, we were confused about what to do.
"We couldn't even ask people why we were being attacked because we were afraid of being killed or harmed in case we asked about the reasons. So we left the house, unaware of the reasons behind the attacks."
He said he knew of three households, including women and children, who were forced to flee in a hurry.
“One pregnant woman among us had difficulty walking, and when she ran, she suffered health complications. Later, we had to drive her to hospital."
He said they spent the day of August 16 and the following night in the fields, around 20-minute’s walk from their home. The next morning, they returned to see the home charred and vandalised.
“I got married a few months ago, and my jewellery and other valuables in the home were also missing when we returned,” he said.
Sajid Masih, a pastor at the Salvation Army Church in Jaranwala, told The National that the mob had brought a crane to the church and a bulldozer to tear down the boundary wall.
“When the mob arrived, I was inside the church. My house is attached to the church. We left the home, and the mob first razed the boundary wall and then torched the church and the house,” he said.
He said his family also took to the fields in the open soon after leaving their homes.
“This is one of the biggest tragedies suffered by our community as churches and homes were destroyed. It not only caused sentimental harm but also resulted in financial losses,” he added.
Government tries to ease tensions
Meanwhile, the community held prayers in surviving churches in Jaranwala on Sunday, while Senator Kamran Michael, Chief Minister of Punjab Mohsin Raza Naqvi, Inspector General of Police Usman Anwar and other senior officials visited the area.
Kamran Michael said that the affected families were being registered before any compensation process could be initiated.
The violence started when residents discovered pages from the Quran and blasphemous letters strewn in the streets of Jaranwala, triggering attacks on the Christian community.
The blasphemous letters contained the names and contact numbers of two Christians from the area. Later, the police arrested the two men and another 150 people who had stormed churches and homes afterwards.
Local residents also suspect that the incident might be a conspiracy aimed at punishing the two Christians arrested in the case.
“We have learned that the two Christians accused of blasphemy had paid money to visa consultants to move abroad. When the consultants failed to arrange visas, the two Christians demanded a refund, but it was refused. Hence, those people who denied the refund may have conspired to falsely accuse the two Christians of blasphemy,” said Azeem Masih, a resident of Eisa Nagri.
A local police officer, Sub-Inspector Naveed Ahmed, said investigations were continuing, and they could not confirm whether or not the issue was the result of a conspiracy.
They would provide details of the investigation when it is completed, he said.