Letter from Haripur jail

By Zubeida Mustafa

I FIRST learnt of Sohail Fida from his fascinating book Soul Unshackled. The book is an autobiographical account of a young man from Swat who lands in prison on false charges of murder and makes a confession extracted through torture when he was not even 18.

While behind bars he finds solace in books — reading them and then going on to write one. Books become the means of his redemption. They facilitate his studies, shape his mind, help him overcome depression brought on by his wrongful confinement and in the span of 12 years — five of them in the death cell — he passes five examinations: Intermediate, BA and three MAs. The son of a petrol station owner, Sohail Fida could build on the schooling he had already received.

What makes this story special is not so much Sohail’s success in his exams as his extraordinary response to his adverse circumstances from April 2000 onwards. As he put it in his letter, “People say you are what your surroundings make you … but I would say your surroundings are how you see them”. Sohail went further and changed his circumstances.

His response so strongly epitomised in his book prompted me to seek out Sohail Fida. Paramount Publishing Enterprise, his publishers, were in touch with him since 2007 when he had contacted them from Haripur Jail requesting them for a book he needed. Quite uncharacteristically of the business world today, general manager Muhammad Ali Khan responded to Sohail’s communication and there was a further exchange of letters.

Then came a newspaper article on Sohail by his benefactor followed by the commutation of the prisoner’s death sentence to life imprisonment by the Federal Shariat Court. A series of life-changing responses from a number of people earned them Sohail’s gratitude.

One major outcome of Sohail’s love of books is this book itself and his aspiration to become a teacher. His passion for books and teaching will hopefully change many other lives.

Soul Unshackled is a powerful statement on Pakistan’s flawed judicial system which depends for its working on the inept functioning of a corrupt police force and an equally dehumanised jail set-up. How this impacts on the lives of ordinary people who have the ill fortune of being trapped in its clutches may not be generally known.

It is also an inspiring account of the writer’s own struggle against despair and cynicism. Through the author’s graphic descriptions, the reader learns of the conditions of our jails and the treatment meted out to prisoners that virtually criminalise them. But there is also a human dimension to this tale of brutalisation as exceptions are always present.

One of these was Sohail’s own dream to be a writer and his resolute pursuit of education to equip himself to reach out for his dream in spite of adverse circumstances. He writes in his book, “People can take away many things from me like my money, my books, my personal letters, even my personal freedom, but I will not let them take away my dream.”

Another exception in this world of viciousness is the deep love and compassion that bonds some people together even in their animal-like existence in jail. In the juvenile prison where Sohail went after undergoing 11 days of torture in a police lock-up following his arrest, the empathy he received from his haandi waals (as the fellow prisoners who were assigned various chores were called) restored his faith in humanity. “My feet were swollen and I couldn’t walk on my own. When I entered the barrack, the boys … stood up to greet me,” he writes. He continues, “Haji Gul warmed some oil and massaged my shoulders, arms and feet … which were black and blue with beatings.”

Then there was Gul Muhammad (22) who had been on death row for four years when he greeted Sohail in the death cell of Haripur jail. A year later a tearful Gul was taken away as he dragged his feet to be “hanged by the neck until death” and Sohail describes this as “the saddest and most sorrowful day of my life”.

In spite of all its negativity, jail life made education possible for a Sohail who was determined. There were the kind-hearted police personnel and education supervisors who went the extra mile to facilitate this prisoner’s exam-taking. And fellow prisoners — older and more educated — happily extended a helping hand.

Specially mentioned are the “retired major”, the “advocate”, “a death row prisoner who taught me the art of Urdu writing”, the “very highly educated man in prison Mr Iqbal” and the Caucasian “Prof Stuart convicted for trying to smuggle heroin”.

Sohail hopes to win his freedom in the summer of 2012. His excitement is palpable. But so is his anxiety. He wrote to me: “For over 12 years I have dreamed of walking out of jail a free man. Yet as the time finally arrives, my elation is mixed with fear, as I realise that I have changed. I do not feel comfortable with myself and have forgotten how to be in the outside world.”

Sohail Fida worries needlessly. He has the sagacity and maturity to re-adjust to life after prison successfully. Admittedly the world is a changed place —and sadly not for the better — from what it was 12 years ago when he last tread on the soil of Swat a free man. But books and education are his assets that will enable him to make a meaningful contribution to society.

Source: Dawn

33 thoughts on “Letter from Haripur jail”

  1. It is a sad sad story but unfortunately it is every day occurrence in our country.
    The most important facts which gets forgotten in the surge of sympathy for Sohail Fida is that there are many Sohail Fidas there, the police officers today , this minute are engaged in torture and despicable behaviour in every part of Pakistan.
    There are people like you and me who think violence against the weak is acceptable. A teacher who strikes a student ,a Mullah who hits a learner are agents of the tyranny, perpetuating the shameful ethos for the future degradation of our country. The forget ,what goes round comes round, in time they become the victims of the beast they nurtured.
    The lower courts in our country's flawed justice system is still a part of the story which can shame any right minded citizen. There is no Mullah who stands up in his pulpit and unequivocally declares that telling lies is Un -Islamic. There are no lawyers who do not coach their clients to tell manufactured lies in the court. Most of our 'leaders' do not take time off to see that they should stop telling lies and have the people of the country follow their conscience. A sad sad country.
    Shafiq

  2. Here I would include that it is surprising to me that English newspapers have been very humanistic about Sohail Fida's story. A lot of credit goes to DAWN and Financial Post. They did a lot of good for Mr. Fida. If stories like these come to mainstream Urdu print, we might see an actual change in our lives.

  3. Salam sister, I will not comment on the story of Sohail as it is self explanatory. But would like to share something regarding the issue the piece of writing is pointing at. It leaves a big question mark on our prison system. Sohail is one of those luckiest person who fortunately did something which everyone in prison deserves. I am talking about thousands other Sohails who need our attention.I am a criminologist and have worked on street children. In future I am planing to work on rehabilitation of prisoners within the prison network. In modern societies where prisons should serve as correctional institute our prisons have turned into abode where they are not only maltreated but are also provided with a secure space to learn different tactics of crime, make gangs, and sometime facilitated with different drugs. In this regard I would welcome any guideline and moral support from intellectuals. Thanks Regards

  4. Was it an educational process through the OPEN UNIVERSITY system ?

    Sohail hopes to win his freedom in the summer of 2012.

    اب آزاد ہونے کے لیے زیادہ وقت نہین رہا؛ایک دو مہینے رہ گیے ہیں

    زندگیی نو مبارک ہو !!

  5. People like Sohail Fida should be our role model,he shows us how can we change our curse into our strength. Thank you Dawn for sharing such a wonderful story also to Ms. Zubeida Mustafa.

  6. Thank you Ms. Mustafa for sharing a a tragic but great story. How one may connect with Mr. Sohail Fida? Thank you very much. Sincerely Logical Dude.

    1. Mr Sohail Fida was supposed to be released today. As soon as I have a contact email I shall post it here. Be on the look out

  7. Certainly Sohail's story is the platform which brings to fore our jail system and its management. There are hundreds of people in jails across the country, especially juvenile who are there because they were incorrectly advised apart from their own commitment of crime. Their crime was not as serious as the unaccounted period they have been in jails. I visited a section of juvenile jail some two years ago where Justice Nasir aslam Zahid was was working for welfare of those young boys who were in jails for some offence but without proces of trial. There I met prisoners who only knew that they have committed some offence but were ill-advised on how to go about it.
    If Sohail's case is taken as the basis it can form the source for further studies for improving our prison system. I feel Zubeida Mustafa has taken a bold step in the factual disclosure of Sohail's story.

  8. I think we also need to give some credit to Hadi Rizvi for translating Sohail Fida's book from Urdu to English….& of course Sohail Fida's a role model for turning around his jail experience in such a constructive manner.

    1. Yes you are right Shifa. Hadi Rizvi actually wrote a fine Prologue and an excellent Epilogue. The book was originally written by Sohail in English). It has been translated into Urdu and Pushto which will extend its reach to many more people.

    2. Just to clear the air. Mr. Hadi Rizvi is the editor. He edited what Sohail Fida originally wrote. It was Mr. Riaz Chaudhary who translated this book from English to Urdu. In his final days of imprisonment, Mr. Fida edited the Pushtu translation of the work. We hope that this book will not be just a book but it open up a new genre where we get to hear stories of amazing stature from ordinary people.

      1. Who is the translator of the Pushto edition? His work should also be acknowledged. If our language problems have to be solved we must give credit to translators who play a wonderful role in promoting communication between speakers of different languages.

        1. As we wanted local expertise on this matter, we outsourced the work. I have yet not been informed of the name of the translator as the manuscript is getting typed in Pushto. A due credit will be given once it is published. Working in Pushto has been far more difficult than working in Urdu. And the loadshedding has not help too. Our typists at times only receives a couple of electricity for work.

          Forgive me here if I am being boastful but it has been the aim of Paramount Publishing Enterprise to bring books in all the common languages of Pakistan. Soon, we will have a lot of material to read in the local language.

  9. Friends! Its 21st Century, time to wake up!
    We must not rest until things are really better!
    Truthful education, peaceful employment, open market-bazaar
    Vibrant community, honest government, humane health care!
    Stricter gun control, safer neighbourhood, polite security guards
    Friendly police, community prison, politicians we can trust!
    Public media, visionary scientists, soldiers against wars
    Patriot military, wise intelligence, guarding international Borders!
    Pristine environment, clear water, recycling garbage-paper –
    Lesser logging, woodless housing, harnessing energy in Nature!
    Judicious judges, kind court practices, decisive trial lawyers
    Global prosperity is National security without ‘War of Terror’!
    Centuries passed by repeating history over and over
    Dominant victory always claimed lives of brothers and sisters!
    Supremacy doctrine blinded us with lies, slavery, and fear –
    Thank God we have technology to see them near and clear!

    1. It will be interesting to know, if anybody has the knowledge about any other prisoner on the death row in India or Pakistan, having written any book penned from behind the prison walls let alone done three masters during internment. I am grateful to Allah that he chose me to be the publisher of Sohail Fida's book [Soul Unshackled] which is not only distinctly inspiring but in fact awe-inspiring as well. My abounding gratitude is due to Zubeda Mustafa for having shone her intellectual limelight on this special young man and even more outstanding book that he has written

  10. oh ! this sad but enlightening story reminded me of Voltaire's prophetic words: " Man is born free – but is in chains everywhere!"

    what has changed from the early renaissance period France? for us perhaps not much in terms of human development as social indicators that have been on the downslide ever further.

    salute to paramount books and also to Z M for bringing this amazing story that brought tears to my eyes – but i am tempted to be an optimist like our new found international personality, shamim chinoy – and would say " Sohail Fida – this one is for you!" wish film makers like ms chinoy take this story up for a full feature movie. i am sure it will win accolades and bring into limelight the stories of so many wretched and forgotton souls, vividly portrayed by sohail fida and now our dear Z M!

    we need more stories of broken people by conflicts in KPK and balochistan rather than tantalising breaking news that befuddle and confuse at the same time

    i feel the book "Peshawar reading club" should invite sohail fida to read to a wider audience and we should give him a standing ovation as people like him are the real heroes!

  11. Salute to ZM. She knows the art of bringing out the best in a person to the fore. This story should be considered for an award, if there is one in Pakistan.

  12. Good news is that sohail was released last night and is home.his father's tel number is03149376777.He needs to be assisted in choosing his career and linked up to people who would help clear his sights as he moves on.I had the privilege of communicating with him and the family during the last 3 years.Thankyou all for keeping his spirits high.

    1. sohail is an ardent reader.i suggest we send him books on history,education and international affairs,to follow up on his education.The address can be obtained from his father whose te No i have mentioned above.

  13. UPDATE: Sohail Fida was released yesterday in the afternoon. He is currently safe and with his family in Swat. I have talked with him and he sent the following message for the readers.

    MESSAGE FROM MR. SOHAIL FIDA: I am simply touched by the overwhelming response. I never expected that an article would appear on the day of my release. I appreciate that many of you want to get in touch with me but I am currently adjusting to a 'new life'. Accept my apologies for not contacting you soon but I will try to send my replies to each and everyone of you.

    In the end, I am thankful to Madam Zubeida Mustafa. Thank you madam and I am very honoured.

    1. Thank you Sohail for your kind words. It was your love of books that touched a chord in me and I knew I had to write. Besides we all feel that justice must be done. Please continue to read and spread the reading culture far and wide. I shall send you some books.

  14. Really a brilliant WRITE UP and let us be proud of Mr Fida. Tears rolled down as I progressed on reading the WRITE UP and all comments. All the comments are equally brilliant and have contributed positively. Ms Zubeida is a lucky person to have a team of thought provoking readers. My sincere appreciation and gratitude of all who supported Mr Fida mentally.

    This BRAVERY act of Mr Fida should serve as an example to those who surrender to the wishes of God. We can find too many Fida here and there on this earth.

    Hope the Police force and Jail authorities (not hinting toward Pakistan's but at other countries also) will grasp this real life story to conduct their future duties.

    Ms Zubeida! Please convey my sincere wishes to Mr Fida and his family.

  15. Its time to wake-up and think about for education… He is the men (Sohail Fida) who faced many problems but achieve their goal at end. Efforts and positive thinking gives him power for success.
    Best wishes Sohail Fida.

  16. I think all of us must help him when he comes out of jail.He is a great person who has kept his sanity even in difficult times.

    1. Dear Madam,

      Sohail Fida was incidentally released on the day when this article was first printed in Dawn. Mr. Arshad Durrani has provided his contact. His father has been very thankful to all of you.

  17. Mumtaz Ali, 71, 510,st 9, F 10/2 Islamabad, 03008553429 : I endorse the comments of all readers posted till now and want to reasssure Mr Shafiq (criminologist) that I will assist him in his work to the extent it may be possible for me. Other readers may please join.

  18. It is worse for women, they just vanish ! The biggest bane of a good looking female teenager is…her beauty. She is just never alone. Never being accepted by her family & community , if & when she is released from Prison.

    That is why we are such strong promoters of ditsance learning…a chance to move out tp better alternatives

  19. In the article there is a mention of an iconic prisoner who never given in to adverse circumstances. He kept his morale aloft despite all odds which is an inspiration for other interned souls. The writer articulated well the truth that no physical confinement could deter the lofty idea.

  20. I met sohail in person,for the first time, on 6 march in his hometown Mingora,Swat.He was looking bright.While i was there, he received a packet from Zubeida Mustafa. Sohail asked me to open it which i did and extracted three books for sohail,with each book endorsed by her. Sohail needs a wider range of study to choose a carrier.I have advised him to pick up psychology also,as well as Rumi. It was interesting to note that his observations,about his surroundings perplex him,particularly price hike(He was surprised that an orange now costs Rs 13 and also commented that he has noticed increased prosperity among people).I realized he had missed 12 years between age 17 and 29.
    Thankyou Ms Zubeida for a very thoughtful move.I cannot explain his exuberance over the gift u sent.

  21. I agree with Majida-we must come forward and help Sohail when he leaves the prison-and all the other Sohails in waiting.

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