Pakistani Christian Janitor Heroically Dies Saving Muslim Students
- Life is slowly getting back to normal at the women's campus of Islamabad's International Islamic University.
The young women who study here chatter on the school's well-manicured lawns, their brightly-colored scarves and Pakistani dresses blowing in the wind on a sunny autumn day.
Barely three weeks ago, this quiet place of learning was the scene of a nightmare. On October 20, two suicide bombers launched near simultaneous attacks on both the men's and women's side of the campus.
Afsheen Zafar, 20, is in mourning. Three of her classmates, girls she describes as "shining stars," were killed on that terrible day.
Still, she says the carnage could have been much worse if not for the actions of a lowly janitor, who was also killed.
"If he didn't stop the suicide attacker, there could have been great, great destruction," Zafar says.
"He's now a legend to us," says another 20-year-old student named Sumaya Ahsan. "Because he saved our lives, our friends' lives."
The janitor's name was Pervaiz Masih. According to eyewitness accounts, the attacker approached disguised in women's clothing. He shot the guard on duty, and then approached the cafeteria, which was packed with hundreds of female students.
Masih intercepted the bomber in the doorway, however, and the bomber self-detonated right outside the crowded hall, spraying many of his explosive vest's arsenal of ball bearings out into the parking lot instead of into the cafeteria.
"The sweeper who was cleaning up here saw someone outside and went towards him," said Nasreen Siddique, a cafeteria worker who was wounded in the head, leg and arm by the blast. "[Masih] told him that he could not come inside because there were girls inside. And then they started arguing. And then we heard a loud blast and all the glass broke."
"Between 300 to 400 girls were sitting in there," said Professor Fateh Muhammad Malik, the rector of the university. "[Pervez Masih] rose above the barriers of caste, creed and sectarian terrorism. Despite being a Christian, he sacrificed his life to save the Muslim girls."
Masih was a member of Pakistan's Christian minority, traditionally one of the poorest communities in the country.
When the attacker struck, Masih had been on the job for less than a week, earning barely $60 a month.
Masih lived with seven other family members, in a single room in a crowded apartment house in the city of Rawalpindi. Until the attack his mother, 70-year old Kurshaid Siddique, worked as a cleaning lady at a nearby house to help make ends meet. Now, she makes a daily pilgrimage to the cemetery where Masih is buried.
Siddique is inconsolable. Asked if she was proud that some people were calling her son a hero, Siddique waved a hand in the air dismissively, answering, "My hero is dead now."
She pulls out a framed photo of her son, pictured wearing a button down white shirt and a thick mustache. When Masih's three-year-old daughter Diya sees his photo, she reaches for it, saying, "Mama, I want that picture."
From time to time, Diya turns to her mother and repeats one word, "Papa."
The Islamic University offered to give Diya a free education and employ Masih's widow, Shaheen Pervaiz.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani government has promised to award Masih's family 1 million rupees (about $12,000) for his bravery.
"He is a national hero because he saved the life of many girls," said Shahbaz Bhatti, minister of minorities in the Pakistani government. "As a Christian, a person of minority, he stood in front of the Taliban to protect the university."
But the grave of this national hero is a sorry sight. It is located in the poorer, garbage-strewn Christian half of a neighborhood cemetery, less then three feet from a muddy road.
Masih's mother and widow visit every day. One of his sisters crosses herself, then stoops down to pick up an empty pack of cigarettes someone threw onto the little mound of earth.
The family had to borrow money to pay for Masih's funeral and they are now behind on paying the rent. If the government money comes through, Masih's mother would like to decorate her son's grave.
"I would like him to have his name in cement with a nice poetry verse," she says. "And there should be a fence surrounding his grave."
"Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."
--Hugh Latimer, October 16, 1555