The confessions of a serial child killer

It was perhaps the ghastliest news of the year. On 3 December, newspapers in Pakistan went to town about the killings of around 100 children by a sodomite. The news was broken by the killer himself, who sent out a packet to the Lahore office of the Jang group of newspapers containing photographs of his little victims and a confessional letter. A day earlier, he had sent a similar packet to the police, but the cops were not willing to believe its contents. It was only after reporters began digging, that the police began their investigation. And by 30 December, the case looked sealed as the man turned himself in, again at the Jang office.

That was a surprise as he had claimed that after the packet was sent, he would commit suicide. Before his dramatic appearance, all that the police had by way of clue were what they had found from the scene of the crime, a rented house in Lahore: two vats of acid containing the remains of at least two children, and pathetic heaps of clothes and shoes —a chilling testimony to the truth of the confession.

The 100 or so boys feared to have been killed were either runaways or homeless beggars, apparently lured by the murderer, Javed Iqbal, with promises of sweets, videos or other goodies. Iqbal´s confessional letter says that after some three dozen killings, he began taking his victims´ photographs (mostly smiling, unaware of the fate awaiting them) and noting their names and addresses, before committing sodomy and killing them with the help of a couple of accomplices. One such accomplice ´jumped´ to his death from a police station while under interrogation.

Of course, also silenced forever were the boys who endured the humiliation and torture of sodomy before being suffocated to death. Would they have spoken out had they survived? Unlikely, given that thousands of victims of child abuse in homes rich and poor, routinely bury it deep in their inner recesses, because to speak of it would expose them to further hurt and humiliation at the hands of a society that places the blame of sexual offences squarely on the victim.

Those who work with rape survivors and abused children have long been stressing that rape is not a sexual act, but an act of assertion of power; for this purpose the culprit invariably chooses a younger, weaker, more vulnerable victim. Rape, say psychologists, is a question of identity, of self-assertion.

The Pavlovian condition
"It´s a wake-up call to society," says Dr Haroon Ahmed, the Karachi-based president of the Pakistan Mental Health Association. He links the murders to continual interruptions in the political system. Such interruptions contribute to what he identifies as a "classic and neurotic Pavlovian situation", producing a conditioned response to issues of right and wrong. It can also be attributed to urban-related, skewed development-related phenomena like poverty, migration, alienation, lack of social amenities, and children being exposed to all kinds of danger while forced to work on the streets.

"There are no role models, no institutions, no symbols, no norms that are safe to follow. Just as one norm is established, there is a dras-tic change. Feudal, thinking discourages the setting up of such norms or institutions, and when the conditioned response becomes inadequate for the current generation, there is panic and search for a new ´ norm," says the psychiatrist. "We have to address these issues on a psychological level rather than just take administrative action."

The question of why the killer sent photographs of his victims, and confessions to police and media, relates to that of identity, explains Dr Haroon. "He is a nonentity in his own mind and wants to prove that he is an entity. He wants power and he wants recognition, a sense of importance." Feeling like a non-entity can stem from the perpetrator himself having been abused or sodomised as a child, he adds.

In this case, all these factors appear to have combined in the mind one man to create a sexual devi-fct and a power-hungry killer. "He feels sexually inadequate so he catches hold of younger, weaker prey, and rapes them to prove that he is fit enough —then eliminates them because he still feels inadequate and doesn´t want his weak nesses exposed," is Dr Haroon´s analysis.

None of this in any way excuses or justifies the culprit —many abuse survivors internalise their anger rather than taking it out on others. But abuse takes a long-term emotional, psychological toll. In this case, it contributed to creating a psychopath. And it should lead to introspection about how societal indifference contributes to creating the likes of Javed Iqbal, particularly in societies in flux.

The issue of why the murders happened in the first place, is also linked to why the children were not reported missing. First, how could so many children go missing and not be noticed? It is alarming that no first information reports (FIRs) were lodged in the respective police stations about any of the victims by their over-worked, poverty-struck parents. It does not take much imagination to visualise the two different scenarios arising when two sets of parents, one rich and one poor, find their child missing. Besides, the police have a way of dealing with the poor, which generally leave them to hope for nothing from the law. And coupled with the fact that the police have generally become desensitised to the value of human life, an officer would dismiss such a case, as he tries to avoid registering a report that will only reflect poorly on his station if the missing youngster is not found.

The government´s top priority now should be to arrange for counselling service for the families, especially siblings, of the child victims who have been identified, feels Dr Haroon. "They need a tremendous amount of emotional support, if they are to grow up as normal human beings," he says Dr Haroon.

There are plenty of lessons to be learnt from this horror story. Each one equally important: the breaking of the silence and stigma attached to rape and child abuse; changing the way the police are trained and conditioned; and, of course, the addressing of inequities that push children out of the home and into the street. A beginning could be made with the immediate implementation of a universal, compulsory primary education system.

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Himal Southasian