(The names of those Ahmadis who are still living in Pakistan have been changed to protect their personal security)
Basharat ur Rehman was agitated as he drove his father, Muhammad Younas, to the Baitul Nur mosque in Model Town, Lahore, for the Friday congregational prayer. He’d been facing problems at work, and they were weighing on his mind. His father advised him to pray for guidance. After a short silence, their discussion became of a different order. With his voice carrying something of an edge, Younas told Basharat to recognize his responsibilities to the people in his life, and to look after his mother; he and his siblings owed their stability and purpose to the many sacrifices she had made for them, his father said.
It was the last time the two of them would ever speak to each other.
After attending to some tasks at his office, Basharat returned to the mosque at 1 p.m. and, finding the main room full, proceeded to the mezzanine hall at the back. The sermon had just begun when the sound of gunfire broke out nearby. He did not think anything of it at first, but as it got closer the noise became more unnerving. Soon there were sounds of other guns too, ringing in a shrill chorus as though a fire-fight was taking place. Over the loudspeaker, the Imam reassured the worshippers and told them to stay calm. The guards outside the mosque would take care of the situation.
“That was when I knew for sure that the mosque itself was being attacked,” Basharat told me.
According to various eyewitness accounts of the attack, the assault on Baitul Nur on May 28, 2010 began when two men armed with hand grenades and AK-47 Kalashnikovs arrived by motorcycle and opened fire on the volunteers guarding the building. At the first burst of fire, many of them ran away and hid in the park across the street. But one man, Mirza Mansoor Baig, remained at his post. He was the first person killed in the violence that played out on that day. Baig was 29 and had been married for just over a year. He and his wife were expecting their first child.
Mansoor Arif and Muhammad Anwar, the mosque’s caretaker and security guard, were armed and fought back against the attackers. Arif was struck by five bullets, four of them to the stomach. He survived, but Anwar, who was hit and then shot again at close range by one of the two gunmen, did not.
By 2010, following the country’s support for the War on Terror that was launched after 9/11, Pakistan had suffered from nearly a decade of terrorist violence, carried out by a wide array of interlinked militant outfits; these were often offshoots of state-sponsored affiliates created to help fight the American-led wars in Afghanistan, and the Indian-led conflict over Kashmir. But they were also the by-product of the country’s tilt toward a hardline extremist religious identity. In handing down his now-infamous Islamization polices, military dictator General Zia ul Haq created a fertile ground for extremist ideologies and militant recruitment in Pakistan.
The insurgency spared no one. Militants targeted temples, shrines, mosques, rallies, marketplaces and government buildings. In December 2007 former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, perhaps Pakistan’s most famous and recognisable politician, was assassinated in a shooting and suicide bombing that also killed 23 others. In March 2009 the country made global headlines when a group of 12 gunmen fired on a convoy carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. At the beginning of 2010, over 100 people were killed by a suicide bomber at a volleyball game in Lakki Marwat.
But religious minorities, whose murder could be more readily excused through viciously distorted interpretations of religious scripture, proved the most vulnerable; and among these, Pakistan’s small Ahmadi community—to which the congregants of the Baitul Nur mosque belonged—were the most open to attack. Decades of government-led discrimination trapped Ahmadis at the farthest margins of society and enshrined hatred of their community as a part of everyday life in Pakistan.
So entrenched is this discrimination that Pakistan’s passport application requires Muslims to sign a declaration affirming that Ahmadis are non-Muslim, and denouncing their founder as an imposter prophet. Those seeking visas to visit Pakistan are required to make similar declarations, or their paperwork won’t be processed.
Pakistan’s first Nobel Laureate, theoretical physicist Abdus Salam (Malala Yousafzai is the second) won the prize for physics in 1979, but because he was an Ahmadi his legacy has been diminished. His grave has been desecrated. Princeton economics professor Atif Mian had been asked to sit on Imran Khan’s advisory board, but once word got out of his Ahmadi faith, the offer was rescinded.
Ten kilometers north of Baitul Nur, Anees Mahmud was sitting in the main hall of Darul Zikr, the Ahmadi community’s largest mosque in Lahore, when he heard the first echoes of shots in the distance. Even in a city where the sound of gunshots was familiar, he immediately recognised the noise as unusual. The mosque was located on the side of a busy dual carriageway in Garhi Shahu, one of Lahore’s oldest neighbourhoods. As the shots grew louder, a breathless man rushed into the hall and pleaded for a doctor. There were injured people outside, he said. Someone volunteered to help, and the two of them sprinted out together. The firing continued. Within minutes, Anees and the other worshippers heard shots coming from the front driveway of the mosque compound. The head of the community in Lahore, Munir Ahmad Sheikh, called out for someone to cut off the electricity. The hall fell into a partial darkness, lit only by the greying light that filtered in from outside. Another barrage of bullets burst through the windows. Anees could see a man he recognized, Aslam Bharwana, stand up to shut the door that opened on to the mihrab. But before he could fasten it, a man peered through and began shooting inside. The attacker then threw a grenade and walked in, spraying bullets in every direction. A second Ahmadi mosque was under attack.
Anees and his older brother Nasir ran a printing agency. Before the attack, Anees had returned to the agency from his morning rounds, tired and covered in grime. The weather was thick and dusty and portended the arrival of a storm. He suggested to his brother that they miss the Friday prayer, but Nasir insisted they go.
When they arrived at the mosque, Anees dropped his brother off at the gate and then went to park his bike. “For some reason, I had a strange sense of foreboding,” Anees told me. “When we were children our elders used to say that a red storm would blow in whenever an injustice took place or an innocent person was killed. Thinking back now, that is how it felt.” But whatever apprehensions Anees had, they did not stay with him for long, and he made his way to the main prayer hall.
The next few hours there would split his life into a before and after.
The Ahmadiyya Community was founded in British India by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who lived from 1835 to 1908 in the town of Qadian, Punjab. Ahmad claimed to be the Messiah and Mahdi long awaited by the Muslim world. He forbade Jihad against the British on the grounds that they afforded full religious freedoms to their citizens. Orthodox Muslims scorned his message, and he was swiftly declared an apostate and an agent of the Raj.
In 1953, hardline Islamist groups issued an ultimatum to the federal government of Pakistan. They called for Ahmadis to be expelled from the Muslim body and to be removed from positions within the government and bureaucracy. When the administration refused to comply, agitation broke out across the Punjab In Lahore, with widespread riots and looting. The Prime Minister, Khuwaja Nazimuddin, called in the army to quell the disturbances, and martial law was declared in the city. For Ahmadis, the years that followed were ones of relative calm. Then came a constitutional amendment that changed everything.
Following a war, the subsequent dissolution of a unified Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto emerged as the undisputed leader in west Pakistan. He was installed as Prime Minister in 1973. Bhutto turned to religion to resolve the country’s existential crises, identifying Pakistan as an ideological state rooted in Islam; religion was heralded as the binding force and raison d’être of the nation, and the mantra of his party became one of Islamic socialism. In that year, Islam was recognized as the official state religion in the constitution.
The new ideological blueprint reinvigorated the country’s religious right, fueling the fire of its claims against Ahmadis.
But instead of shunning their demands, as the government had in 1953, Bhutto chose to appease the clerics who hoped to delegitimize the Ahmadis. He referred the matter to the national assembly, and in September 1974, the second amendment of the constitution was passed, which officially declared the Ahmadis non-Muslims.
Bhutto’s successor, the military dictator General Zia ul Haq, took the spirit of the second amendment one step further by making laws that explicitly targeted Ahmadis; they prohibited the group from using Islamic terminology, and from referring to their places of worship as mosques. In the years ahead, these efforts guided Pakistan into a violent instability from which the nation and its people have never recovered.
Munawwar Ahmad and his wife Ansa had been marked by the agony of this hatred for almost their entire lives. Both their fathers had been lost in religiously motivated murders during the most oppressive years of the Zia regime. As the eldest male, it fell upon Munawwar to manage the small plot of agricultural land his family depended on for their income. But the violence that had taken his father never went away. Laborers would steal from his farm and then threaten to report him for preaching, in order to cover up for their theft. After only two and a half years, his father’s killer was released from prison, and would often stalk him in silence when Munawwar visited the market. He and his family eventually moved out of their home and settled in Rabwah, a small city on the banks of the River Chenab, where the Ahmadi community had settled after the Partition.
Shortly after Munawwar came home from his prayers that Friday, the telephone rang. It was their 17-year-old son, Waleed, who had moved to Lahore about a year prior to train as a medical technician at a private college. Waleed was the pride of the family, their eldest and only son, and Ansa would often encourage him to bring honor to his parents by studying hard.
Waleed told his mother that he was in Darul Zikr and that there had been an attack on the mosque. He asked her to pray and then cut off the call. Over the next hour and a half, amid scattered TV reports about the attack, Munawwar called Waleed back several times. Each time, his son picked up and assured him he was okay. Until the final call. Waleed told his father not to worry. He was safe. Munawwar then heard gunshots in the background. On Waleed’s end, the line went silent.
When Colonel Yasin Ahmad, a retired army veteran of 26 years heard the first pops of gunfire outside Baitul Nur, he recognized what was happening and knew that it wasn’t good. With terrorist attacks in Pakistan as normal as the changing of the weather, he had long worried that an assault like this could happen; now his worst fears were being realized.
When the gunmen entered the compound, the side door of the main hall of the mosque was open, Yasin recalled. As one of them rushed towards the door, three men from the mosque maneuvered to secure the entryway. One of them, Muhammad Ashraf Bhullar, managed to lock the door and then pressed his back against it while the attacker pounded away from the outside. He continued to block the entrance until the terrorist unleashed a salvo of bullets that ripped through the door and killed him instantly. Others were hit as well, including the Imam of the mosque, Mahmood Ahmad Shad, who also lost his life.
After more shots were fired into the hall through the windows, there came a pause. Yasin could see the attacker sitting outside on a plastic patio chair, reloading his rifle. “Does anybody here have a pistol? If only somebody had a pistol,” he remembers whispering to himself.The terrorist took out a grenade and Yasin followed, tracking him, calculating where the grenade might enter the building, and whether he would have enough time to hurl it outside. But it wasn’t to be. When the attacker flung the explosive inside, Yasin was too far away to catch it. He had only enough time to leap up and run as far away as he could. The grenade blew up, and Yasin fell to the ground.
In the hall where Basharat was sitting there was calm, with an underlying sense of urgency. Congregants began to shuffle into the back corridor in a half-crouched position as the first shots were fired. Some headed into the basement, and some ascended to the first floor; others, Basharat among them, crammed into the landing and huddled together. There they endured a long and agonizing wait. Seconds felt like hours and minutes stretched out like days. Shots continued to ring out. Basharat could hear the crack of every last bullet as the firing closed in on him, until bullets crashed through the windows of the doors to the hall and glass flew everywhere. It felt like the end. And then there was silence.
Having survived the blast of the grenade, Colonel Yasin took cover behind a crumpled body on the floor; he couldn’t tell if this person was dead or alive. He stole a look through the entryway at the back of the prayer room and could see the attacker in the mezzanine hall. It was deserted now, except for three men who, with hands tightly clasped together, stood in a knot in one corner. With a smooth, easy turn of his rifle, the gunman shot each one with a bullet straight to the chest.
After lobbing another grenade, the terrorist made his way into the prayer room. Yasin could see him firing indiscriminately at the bodies of the dead and the living. But then Yasin glanced up and saw that the terrorist, his back turned away, was within striking distance. The air fell silent. With a rapid thrust Yasin pushed himself up and tackled the gunman with his shoulder. More survivors came to help. Two men grabbed the attacker’s arms, while others ripped off their ties to bind him. It was only then that they noticed he was wearing a suicide belt, which they cautiously removed. “By the end of it my clothes were covered in blood and sweat,” Yasin said. “I actually had possession of the attacker’s gun. And given the state I was in, it crossed my mind that if the police or anyone else arrived at that moment, they could easily mistake me for him.” But he knew that the second attacker was on the loose, and he needed to find him.
Colonel Yasin needn’t have worried. The second gunman had already been overpowered on the first floor by a slender 17-year-old named Muzaffar, who had found the courage to creep up on the attacker and grab the barrel of his rifle from behind. There was a scuffle. The heat from the metal seared Muzaffar’s hands, but they remained clasped on the rifle. If he let go he would likely die—and so would the other six men who had taken shelter there. His grip remained firm, and as the terrorist tried to free himself, Muzaffar threw him on the floor. The other men ran to help subdue the attacker. They tied him with whatever they could find: electrical wires, cords from the blinds on the window. But it wasn’t over. There was still his suicide belt. “Oh God, let it blow up by itself,” the men could hear him say. How best to proceed? They knew nothing about explosives. Step by step they unclipped the belt, lifted it up and placed it in the far corner of the hall. The siege had ended.
With the attack finally over, Basharat emerged from his hiding place and went to the main prayer hall to look for his father. He found the scene of a massacre—the kind of spectacle he had seen on the news but never imagined actually experiencing in his own world. Bodies lay strewn everywhere. There was blood on the walls. The dead were almost holding hands. Basharat scanned the room to see if his father was among them. After passing across several bodies, he saw someone wrapped in a prayer mat. Though most of the body was covered, he knew that it was his father. When Basharat lifted the mat, the soft lines of Younas’s face greeted him. “At first, it felt as though my world had ended,” said Basharat. “I had never thought my father could die this way.” Basharat kissed Younas’ forehead, straightened his body and placed the mat over him again.
Thanks to so many acts of heroism, the attack in Baitul Nur was over within half an hour. The situation in Darul Zikr, however, was very different. The assault there lasted until the afternoon, and Anees Mahmud was trapped inside the whole time.
The attackers entered the prayer hall and continued to shoot and set off grenades. Within moments, dozens were dead or injured. Many bolted for the back door that led outside onto the courtyard. Some escaped, while others were gunned down midstride.
“I was trying to get out,” said Anees. “But before I had made it very far, a grenade was thrown in my direction and I had to turn back to escape the blast.” His right foot was wounded in the blast, making escape impossible. He crawled to the side of the hall farthest away from the gunmen and slumped to the ground.
It is unclear how many terrorists were in Darul Zikr. Eyewitness accounts are inconsistent; there may have been as many as seven attackers, though most put the number at two. What is certain from video footage is that the terrorists moved with studied deliberation. One was stationed at the top of the minaret of the mosque and repeatedly shot onto the main road to keep the police and other law enforcement at bay.
After almost 45 minutes, Anees felt his phone ring. With the attackers gone for now, he picked up the call and heard his brother on the other end. Nasir told him that he had managed to make it outside and had taken cover on the staircase that led up to the prayer room on the first floor. Anees in turn reassured Nasir that he was okay.
Even though Nasir was only a year and a half older than Anees, he had always been less of a brother to him and more of a guardian. “My brother was quiet and earnest,” Anees told me. Nasir was happiest at home, looking after his family. He was the one who would go out and get groceries for the family. He would even take my son to school,” Anees said. “He did everything for us, for me, without any complaint.”
Death, or the threat of it, was a constant presence throughout the ordeal. But Anees recalled that he felt almost nothing. He did not think of his children. His parents. His personal peril. All the unfinished space of the future that could be taken away from him. The thickness of the air around him. The suffocating heat in the hall. The sweat trickling down his back. The ache in his foot. It was as though any connection with himself had been severed. All he knew was that he wanted the violence to end.
The siege was still happening when Anees heard the sound of the afternoon azan wash into his ears. In that moment it seemed like a cruel irony to listen to the rhythms and melody of the call to prayer in a house of worship.
“Why has nobody come to help us?” he thought. “Why have we been abandoned?” He continued to lie down in stillness, waiting to be rescued. Then the gunmen returned to the hall and chanted Allahu Akbar. They approached the bodies in the hall and shot at them at close range. Whether dead or alive, it didn’t matter. Shots passed above him and to his side, but none of them hit. Slowly, one of the gunmen drew nearer. He was now so close that from where Anees lay, he could see only up to the man’s waist. He could feel his end approaching, but it never came. The gunman retreated to the middle of the hall. There was quiet; a moment of calm. Then an explosion. Smoke rose from where the attackers had stood. Anees saw that they had blown themselves away.
“Is anyone still alive?” came the call. “This is the police, is anyone in the hall still alive?”
“Yes there are people still alive,” Anees heard a man reply.
He limped out of the hall, and passed the smoking crater where the attackers had detonated their explosive belts. There were bodies and parts of bodies scattered across the room. Blood pooled on the floor. The smell reminded him of a freshly struck match, but more acrid. He left without looking back.
Nasir didn’t make it. Anees’s brother died seizing a grenade that had been thrown in the direction of worshippers who’d been hiding behind an old satellite dish that lay abandoned in the courtyard. A man called out to warn Nasir not to pick it up. But he was selfless to the last moment. He caught the grenade and threw it back in the direction of the attacker. There wasn’t enough time. It exploded and Nasir was driven back, entering another world as he fell.
After his last telephone call with Waleed, Munawwar went to the communal kitchen run by the community in Rabwah and gave them money to sacrifice a goat on his behalf and distribute the meat amongst the poor. He then came home, ordered a rental car and made the three-hour journey to Lahore.
On the way, someone had shared with him the names of the hospitals where the victims of the attack had been taken. He visited one but found no sign of his son. Then his nephew called to tell him that he’d located Waleed.
Waleed’s body was in the mortuary of the King Edward Medical College. At 17, he was the youngest victim of the attack. Munawwar was finally able to look upon Waleed’s face, now still and lifeless forever. An echo of grief rising out of the past made him shudder. “I thought about how we’d had to uproot our lives and start again in a new place and all the hopes we had for a better future for our children,” Munawwar said. “And yet despite our best efforts, the hatred didn’t leave us alone, it caught up with us and took away our son.”
Eighty-seven people were killed in the attacks on May 28, among them a retired army general and the head of the Ahmadi community in Lahore, who refused to leave the hall of the Darul Zikr mosque as long as people were still there. Former civil servants, businessmen, labourers, students and a Christian caretaker were also among the dead.
Terror attacks should bring communities together. But the siege on Baitul Nur and Darul Zikr followed a different script. This was clear in the immediate post-mortem. News presenters could be seen awkwardly tripping over themselves as they struggled to find the words to describe what had happened, in the face of oppressive laws which forbid the use of Islamic terms in relation to Ahmadis. Were Baitul Nur and Darul Zikr mosques, places of worship, were they temples or were they mandirs? Who were the Ahmadis? Were they a sect, a new religion, a faith or a group? The language in which to inscribe this history was absent.
At its worst, the reaction was openly hostile. Two weeks after the attack, TV host Mubashir Lucman invited a group of clerics onto his nightly talk show, “Point Blank” to engage in a conservative backlash against any sort of perceived sympathy toward Ahmadis in the wake of the massacre. Towards the end of the show one of the clerics even justified the killings by suggesting that Ahmadis were wajibul-qatal (deserving of death) because of their beliefs.
This same ferment found its way into the world of politics. Former Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, Nawaz Sharif, spoke in defense of Ahmadis after the attack, calling them “our brothers and a credit to the country.” For many, this simple statement represented a reconciliation too far. Shortly afterwards, he had to take back his words.
“Here is a question,” wrote the columnist Nadeem Paracha in “Dawn,” Pakistan’s largest English language newspaper. “How come whenever there is a drone attack…or a case of perceived obscenity or blasphemy surfaces, street corners are at once filled with burqa-clad women and bearded men chanting slogans like ‘Death to infidels’? But none of these fine, sensitive Muslims can be seen protesting when there’s an attack on innocent civilians – Ahmadis or others – by the extremists?” The answers did not come.
The Ahmadi issue has become the great corrupting evil at the heart of Pakistani society. As the years pass hostility towards the community proliferates and seeps further into the DNA of the country, infecting its institutions, courts, media and law enforcement agencies. Since 1974, the government itself has chosen to grade citizenship on the basis of religion, and made the case for some groups to be considered less Pakistani than others, setting the stage for ineradicable prejudices and resentments.
Statistically, there has not been an act of violence against Ahmadis equal to the grim standard of the assault on Baitul Nur and Darul Zikr in the years since. But the community has seen their publications banned. In Punjab, Ahmadis are no longer allowed to print or own copies of the Quran. Members of the community have been arrested for being in possession of them, or for sharing Quranic references on social media. Markets have banned their entry.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only increased this hostility in recent days. Clerics have called the “Qadiani pandemic” (“Qadiani” being a derogatory term used for Ahmadis in Pakistan) a greater threat to Pakistan than the coronavirus. Across the country, people have refused rations from charities suspected of being run by Ahmadis. And when the government made efforts to include Ahmadis in a commission for minorities, hundreds of people on social media claimed that the community should instead be killed for their treachery to Pakistan. One government minister even tweeted in support of the beheading of Ahmadi people.
“In Pakistan, we have only seen a rise in hatred,” Saleem ud Din, the official spokesperson of the Ahmadi community in Pakistan, told me. “Even in the immediate aftermath of the attack, clerics began to assert themselves and push back against any goodwill shown toward the community. There were numerous hate campaigns, which continue to this day. For the clerics this is a battle for the soul of Pakistan, and in their minds it can only be won by ensuring that the idea that Ahmadis can live as full and equal citizens of Pakistan never gains any sort of traction.”
Basharat now lives in Finland in a small suburb of Helsinki. He moved there as a student a year after the attack and eventually settled in the country after finding a job as a cloud architect. His family are happy. Weekends are spent fishing or playing sports with his children and helping out at the Ahmadi mosque in the city, where both he and his wife are active members.
For Basharat and many of the other survivors, the aftermath of the attacks marked a period of great struggle. Basharat first got a sense of this when a colleague told him not to rush back to work. There were people at the office who thought Younas deserved his fate and were not shy to say so. His neighbours also turned against him after finding out he was an Ahmadi. Almost every day someone would pelt the family home with stones or throw shoes at it. Things got so bad that in the hours that Basharat was at the office his wife would find herself too frightened to leave their bedroom. Eventually she and their son went to live with her parents. One evening not long after the attacks, Basharat was on the phone when he thought he heard someone jump over the wall of their home. As he cut the call, footsteps could be heard outside the house. Basharat shut off the lights and locked the doors before hiding in a closet, from which he heard gunshots being fired into the air. The firing lasted for several minutes and then disappeared, leaving behind a heaviness and tension that only reinforced Basharat’s growing sense that they were now unwanted strangers in their homeland.
Having to operate in survival mode had continued to wear the family down. They had to leave, if for nothing else than to offer a better life for their children. And so they moved away, finding in a foreign land the peace and security that had not been extended to them back home.
In 2019, Basharat returned to Pakistan for the first time after his departure. He made it a point to visit the places he knew and had grown up in, but even though the buildings, streets and landscape were familiar, everything had changed. They were physically still there, but somehow out of reach, as though caught between the past and the present, but failing to exist in either.
“Pakistan will always be my home,” said Basharat, “if things were okay, if there was peace and security, there is no other place in the world I’d rather live. If tomorrow I knew that my family would be safe there, I would come back in an instant. I may have left Pakistan, but it hasn’t left me. It never will, even if I don’t get the chance to come back.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Waleed Ahmad’s body was found in the mortuary of Sheikh Zaid Hospital. It was found in the mortuary of King Edward Medical College. We regret the error.
Correction: A photo was incorrectly captioned. The minaret view is at Darul Zikr, not Baitul Nur.