Thirty-one-year-old single mother of Pakistani origin, Fakhra Younas speaks Italian like a native. She lives with her teenage son – a sprightly 15-year-old who attends a higher education public school and loves football – in an apartment supported by the City of Rome. Fakhra’s autobiography was published in 2005, in Italian, German and Spanish. That might have given her instant celebrity status, but this is far from the case. Outside of their little nuclear family, Fakhra and her son have few friends and fewer family associations. So, even though Fakhra holds a visa as a political refugee, it is not surprising that she yearns for the human contact Pakistan afforded her… even when it almost cost her her life.
“It was a Sunday afternoon (2:30pm, May 14, 2000) and I was asleep in my drawing room when I heard Bilal’s voice, ‘Fakhra … Fakhra wake up!’ I jerked as he held me by my hair and opened my mouth. Because I resisted he couldn’t get me to swallow. But then he threw something on me. At first I thought it was a joke. I did not understand what had happened to me. Then he left, so I ran after him. My house was on the second floor and by the time I got to the first floor, I realised I could not see,” recalls Fakhra Younas, the victim of an acid attack, allegedly perpetrated by her husband, an ex-MPA of the Punjab Assembly and son of former Punjab governor Malik Ghulam Mustafa Khar, the “Lion of Punjab.”
Fakhra at 18 was already the mother of three-year-old Nauman when she met Bilal Khar, in 1998. “He told me he was a customs official,” says Fakhra. After a six-month-long courtship, the couple married – the union being vehemently opposed by the feudal lord, Khar senior, but a dream come true for Fakhra, a resident of Karachi’s red-light area, the infamous Napier Road.
The newly betrothed couple subsequently moved to Lahore, where Bilal Khar’s mother, Fakhra says, revealed the harsh truth to his new bride – Bilal’s previous three marriages. The young woman was stunned and her world, she says, came crumbling down. But that was just the beginning. Fakhra remembers it all as if it were yesterday – the abuse at Bilal’s hands, the fights, and the apologies that would follow, with him coaxing her to stay. After a tumultuous three years, Fakhra finally gathered the courage to leave Bilal, this time for good, and returned to her mother’s house. Barely a week later, says Fakhra, Bilal Khar inflicted the worst conceivable punishment on her for having had the audacity to leave him. It changed her life forever.
Though she survived the attack, it inflicted ghastly wounds; virtually melting Fakhra’s face, blinding her in one eye, sealing her lips, shriveling the skin on her face and torso and burning her hair. In a coma for six long months, and then having come to, but in a pathetic suicidal state for another six – all the while at Karachi’s Civil Hospital, where she discovered she had been pregnant and miscarried – Fakhra somehow found the will to go on. Meanwhile, her sister’s mother-in-law, Shahida Malik, had already registered an FIR against Bilal but, maintains Fakhra, Bilal later confessed to her that he had friends at the police station. Hence, he was subsequently declared an “absconder,” because the police “could not find him.”
I had nothing left,” recalls Fakhra, explaining why she actually returned to her tormentor when he repeatedly begged her to forgive him and come home. But the homecoming was not to last. Fakhra recalls how Tehmina Durrani rescued her. Durrani, Bilal Khar’s former stepmother, author and activist, learnt about Fakhra’s plight, got her out of Bilal’s farmhouse, and kept her concealed at her house for eight months – risking her own and her children’s lives in the process. In the interim, Durrani networked with Sant’Anglica, an Italian cosmetic firm, and Smileagain, an Italian charity, and persuaded the latter to come to Pakistan and set up a chapter of their organisation with Depilex Salons, run by Massarat Misbah. Durrani then decided it was time to take Fakhra abroad for further treatment. “The Pakistani government would not give me a National ID card. They said, ‘Why are you making such a big fuss? Pakistan’s name will get tarnished if you go abroad,’” says Fakhra, recounting the time Durrani spent convincing the interior minister to let Fakhra leave for Italy for reconstructive surgeries.
Meanwhile, though Fakhra had left, the story broke in the press and media pressure mounted – mostly due to Durrani’s courage in speaking up against this heinous crime. Two years later, the accused was arrested in Muzaffargarh on October 31, 2002, and was charged with attempted murder under Sections 324, 326 and 34 of the Pakistan Penal Code.
The police had received information that Bilal Khar would be hunting near Ghazi Ghat and tracked him there. He was found, late at night, hiding in a truck and apprehended. Following this, Fakhra relates how her ex-father-in-law, Mustafa Khar called her, asking her to forgive his son. When she related her ordeal to him, he hung up. But her nightmare was far from over.
The three witnesses who had unanimously corroborated Fakhra’s statements to the investigating officer, sub-inspector Altaf Sial at the inception of her case, suddenly turned hostile. Irfan Malik, Fakhra’s brother-in-law who had also been injured in the attack, her sister Kiran and her sister’s mother-in-law now declared that Bilal Khar was not the attacker. “The attacker was short and had pox scars on his face,” they said. According to the district attorney, representing the prosecution, they all said they had not seen Fakhra’s husband before. This was patently untrue, since Bilal Khar had courted her in Karachi, often in their presence and their marriage took place there. Meanwhile, Shahadat Awan, Bilal Khar’s defence lawyer at the time said, the fact that the witnesses reneged on their testimony and the star witness, Fakhra, had left the country and could not serve as a primary witness, and because her deposition as verified by district attorney Abdur Rehman Baloch was yet to be recorded, made her case very weak. According to a Newsline article in 2004, his lawyer maintained, in Bilal Khar’s defence, “…it is a case of political victimisation, as the accused belonged to a political family opposed to the government, therefore, he has been falsely roped into this case…”
On December 16, 2003, the District and Sessions Court South presided over by Judge Bi Yamin acquitted Bilal Khar.
When I first dialled Fakhra’s number in Rome, where she currently resides, a woman on the other line answered: “Pronto!”
“Umm…Is Fakhra there?” I inquired in English.
After a moments pause she answered in Urdu, “Yes, I am Fakhra.” Continuing in Urdu, she then exclaimed how nice it felt to talk in her language and how she missed being home. “Thank God you called… at least someone still remembers,” she remarked, when I introduced myself. She then proceeded to tell the story of her life. And a gruelling tale it is, but 39 reconstructive surgeries later (paid for by the regional sanitary service), Fakhra has lived to tell the tale.
She tells it in her autobiography Il Volto Cancellato, roughly translated as ‘The Erased Face.’ While her present life is certainly better than when she came to Rome, it is far from perfect. With the proceeds from the book and the 760 Euros she receives from the Italian government every month – and will continue to do so for the next 13 months under her status as a “civil invalid person” – along with some monetary help from Durrani every now and then, Fakhra still finds it difficult to make ends meet.
Furthermore, she maintains, she is lonely and depressed. The fact that she is still undergoing cosmetic procedures doesn’t help. Fakhra has reached out to Pakistan embassy officials for monetary help, but according to the Pakistani ambassador in Rome, due to her application for political asylum, there is a long procedure that needs to be followed before it can be determined whether she is eligible for financial support. Massarat Misbah told Newsline that Depilex Smileagain Foundation (DSF) helped pay for Fakhra’s reconstructive surgeries, but now that Fakhra has completed all surgeries, DSF’s mandate does not extend to providing for Fakhra’s daily expenditures. Critics of DSF would likely take potshots at the founder for this statement. The work of DSF has come under increased scrutiny in the last year and many people no longer see it as a trusted charity. According to the president of Smileagain Italy, Clarice Felli, Depilex Smileagain Foundation “has been making fake invoices and has also been falsifying my signatures.” Felli went on to tell Newsline that after supporting Fakhra for five years they offered to “carry out a project of education devoted to her.” However, Fakhra is no longer part of Smileagain’s project.
Massarat Misbah meanwhile, has defended her organisation and proclaimed her innocence saying that the accusations are part of a smear campaign launched by disgruntled business partners in Pakistan.
Fakhra’s sister and brother-in-law still reside in Karachi, while her mother has passed away. Bilal Khar reportedly lives in Multan with his fifth wife, the niece of the prime minister of Azad Kashmir. He remains a free man.