Suicidal despair of Pakistani father

Raja Khan Raja Khan's life was a constant battle against the ravages of poverty. Pictures by Bhasker Solanki

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A young Pakistani man set himself on fire outside parliament in Islamabad in protest at his failure to find a job, and inability to feed his family. Human rights workers in Pakistan say suicides stemming from poverty are on the increase. But these deaths often pass unnoticed, as Orla Guerin reports.

What was going through his mind? Worries about his two young sons? About his pregnant wife? Was he reflecting on his own gnawing hunger? On years of fruitless struggle?

We will never know the final thoughts of Raja Khan - a poor unemployed labourer from Pakistan's Sindh Province, whose name meant King.

But the 23-year old spelled out his despair, with his own burning flesh, at about 2pm on 24 October when he doused himself in kerosene and set himself alight.

Police say he left a note saying he was exhausted by poverty, and that his soul would rest in peace if the government looked after his family - something the authorities did not do in his lifetime.

'Begged for help'

Raja's aged father, Roshan Khan Rindh, howled in pain as he waited outside the mortuary for the body of his eldest son.

"I begged God for this son. I was married for 10 years before my wife gave birth to him. He and I were very close. But now Allah has taken him back," he said, beating his brow with his own hands.

Roshan Khan Rindh waiting at the hospital for news of his son Raja Khan's father said his son had begged local politicians for help finding a job

Raja looked far and wide for a job, his father said, and was ready to do anything. He begged local politicians for help, and was answered with promises.

"They told him the government had a hiring ban, but they would get him a job when that was lifted."

He tried and failed to enlist in the army. Finally, he set out for the capital, carrying the flag of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which he supported.

"My son came to Islamabad with PPP flags, and with huge banners," Roshan told me.

"He said he was going to President Zardari, who would give him a job. I told him that wouldn't happen. He said 'Father, pray for me. I am going'. He asked for 1,000 rupees ($11.50; £7) for the fare," Roshan said.

The closest Raja got to the president was the exterior of the parliament building, where he sustained burns to 90% of his body.

When he was rushed to a nearby hospital, doctors found that only his feet were unaffected.

Dr Farooq Khan was among those who fought for five hours to save his life.

Despair

"He was very badly burned, but he was trying to speak," he said. "He told me his was not satisfied with his life. It was so depressing to see this young man like this."

The hospital where Mr Khan was treated When Mr Khan was rushed to a nearby hospital, doctors found that only his feet were unaffected

The dying man was comforted by a local woman, Farzana, who was visiting her son in the hospital's burns unit.

"He kept asking for water," Farzana said, "and I gave him some from a spoon. He told me he had not eaten for two days."

When asked if she was surprised by the gruesome manner of Raja's death, she quickly shook her head. "When people are desperate," she said, "what do you expect?"

Raja's despair was plain in his last phone call home.

He told his mother he planned to end his life because he could not get a job.

"She cried," said Roshan. "She said: 'Don't do this. Come back. You have little children.' But then the news reached our village and everyone started weeping."

The grief-stricken father wore the shabby clothing and weary expression that is the uniform of many of Pakistan's poor - a permanent underclass, stifled by inequality.

About a third of the population lives below the poverty line, on less than $2 a day. And human rights campaigners say suicides linked to poverty are on the rise.

'Trying to survive'

"The state has totally failed to provide any kind of safety net for the poor," said Zohra Yusuf, Chairman of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

"It's sheer helplessness that's driving people to commit suicide, or to kill their families."

Raja Khan's coffin being taken back to Sindh Raja's body was taken home for burial

A day before Raja's suicide, a young man in Punjab province shot dead his parents and six siblings. He told police that his father, a poor donkey-cart owner, could not afford to feed them.

Raja's desperate act echoed that of another young man - the Tunisian fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire outside a government building last December.

His death sparked protests that led to the Arab Spring.

But here the deaths of the poor do not spark uprisings, or unseat corrupt administrations. There is no whisper of revolution in the air in Islamabad.

"The poor are too busy just trying to survive," said one affluent Pakistani woman.

And there is another key factor. In Pakistan, there is freedom to protest, unlike in the pressure-cooker regimes that blighted the Arab world.

Pakistan's poor are free to demonstrate, to complain - and to end their own lives.

As Raja's coffin lid was nailed shut, his father cried out for the president.

"Oh Zardari, where are you?" he called out, his voice rising in a tormented song of loss.

"This wouldn't have happened if he had work. What a difference that would have made to my loving son."

Then the plain black coffin was loaded into an ambulance for Raja's last journey home to Sindh.

As he was buried local sources say his wife went into labour and gave birth to his third son.

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