Islamabad: As the sun began to set on Jan 4, six-year-old Zainab Amin performed her wuzu before setting out to her maternal aunt’s place for Quran lessons.
“Zainab and her cousin, Osman, used to go to their khala’s house — which is a five-minute walk — every day around 6.30pm for around half an hour. Just like any other day, I gave the children milk and they headed off for their lessons.”
“This was part of her daily routine,” her paternal aunt, Anis Fatima, tells me at their family home, located in a narrow street off Haji Ali Road in Kasur.
The house is a simple two-storey structure opposite the local mosque, with three bedrooms and a living room on the ground floor. Zainab’s father, Muhammad Amin, a shopkeeper by profession, lives here with two younger brothers, their wives and children.
On that fateful January day, however, Amin and his wife Nusrat had been on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
Osman, a shy seven-year-old, says Zainab ran ahead of him. When he finally walked into the Quran lesson, she was not there.
“She ran ahead of me very fast.” Did she say something to you? Did you see where she was headed? I ask.
He shakes his head ‘no’.
Rukhsana, the aunt who mentored the children, says Zainab never showed up.
“When her family called me 40 minutes later to ask where she was, I assumed she had gone to one of our relatives’ homes in the neighbourhood,” she says.
Back at Zainab’s house, the family realised she was missing when they gathered for dinner.
“We left our food and started looking for her,” another aunt, Abida Shaheen, recalls.
“We assumed she may have gone to her phuppo’s house next door. She had been staying there a lot since her parents left for umrah.”
But Zainab was nowhere to be found. At 9.30pm, her youngest paternal uncle, Mohammad Adnan, finally rang up the police to file a missing person report.
Soon, there were policemen combing the neighbourhood for any sign of the little girl. The family even made an announcement through the mosque’s loudspeaker to ask the area’s residents for information.
At 4am, they informed Zainab’s parents in Makkah.
“There had been a similar incident a few days ago … [involving the] abduction and murder of a young girl on Perowala Road,” says Adnan.
The father of that child is a worker at a local bakery.
When he heard that Zainab was missing, he went over the CCTV footage from a camera installed outside his bakery. He found something of interest.
“He asked us if it was Zainab. The footage is black and white, but you could tell by the way she was walking it was her,” recalls Adnan.
She had been wearing leggings and an orange jersey over a black and white shirt. On Jan 9, five days after she had disappeared, labourers found her body, in the same clothes, from a trash pile.
Her relatives are still in shock.
Each family member says they never thought she could disappear from outside their house: that they know everyone in the neighbourhood, which is always full of people; that even if you come by at 2am, you will find people standing around and a shop or two open.
They cannot comprehend how Zainab could have gone missing from a bustling neighbourhood where their own children play.
As I sit with Zainab’s family the morning after they laid her to rest, her sister, Laiba, 16, shares her anguish.
“I am not crying because she is dead. My heart breaks to think that she was hurt. I cannot bear it,” she says.
We are in a room crowded by women from the neighbourhood. On one sofa in the centre, Zainab’s mother wails and calls out for her murdered child.
“When my mother was pregnant with Zainab, she had a very complicated delivery,” Laiba confides. “She underwent two operations, was on the ventilator, and was given 19 bags of blood. She was hospitalised for 16 days and didn’t see Zainab till she came home.”
The women in the room file in and out, stroking Nusrat’s shoulder and whispering prayers and words of comfort.
Laiba holds up a photograph of Zainab — the one that sparked a social media campaign for justice and widespread rioting in Kasur.
“I took the photograph last Sunday. She went missing on Thursday. People started asking for a photo when we were looking for her, so we had this developed on Friday.”
“It’s the only photograph I have of her,” Laiba says, her striking green eyes looking so much like Zainab’s in the photo.
Laiba turns to ask me: “How long will it take before you all forget about my sister?”
A woman tells the family not to grieve, that their daughter is shaheed; that Zainab’s death after so many similar cases will finally jolt the dormant state into action. But for her mother and sisters, it is too little too late.