It is sunset. The green fields and ochre terrain are illuminated by a dazzling light. The landscape stretches out into infinity, unvaried, towards the horizon of the Pakistani Punjab countryside only a few kilometers from the Indian border. The road leading to India is a silver slither, fleeting to the gaze, under sky speckled with pink-hued clouds.
Suddenly a spiral of smoke breaks out on the horizon of the Lahore countryside. Columns rise out of dozens of chimneys, standing high, invading. the sky, torchbearers of a memory appointing them as iconographies of evil. They were the symbols prophesizing the great Horror of the 1900s, and it is they who today, again, announce religious hatred and discrimination in modern-day Pakistan.
Where there is a smokestack, there is a brick factory and dozens of Christian families living and working there. Discrimination against the religious minority and the law on blasphemy which since 1986 arbitrarily punishes those who name Mohamed and the Quran have relegated a great part of the Christian minority, 2% of the population, to a condition of poverty and subordination. Therefore a number of Catholic believers are forced to accept the most miserable and soul-crushing jobs in order to survive. There are over six thousand brick factories in Punjab with nearly 24,000 children working there according to Punjab’s Labour Department. Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi also worked in a brick factory in Kasur, near Lahore. In November 2014 the Christian couple were taken prisoners for two days by a hate-filled mob and then burnt alive in the factory oven with the accusation of having burnt pages of the Quran.
Taking a right turn off the main road leading to Amritsar, a row of mud brick houses precedes the entrance to the Manaawalla plant; approaching the factory, from afar shadows hunched next to each other appear indistinctly. As you get closer their outline becomes clearer: they are the silhouettes of men and women ho drain life, moment after moment, rooted firmly and deeply in the land of their misery. Like in a Millet painting, a landscape of extreme realism with apocalyptic tints announces the entrance to the factory. Everything is the colour of clay: the smokestack towers domineering, the bricks with geometric precision underpinning the ground like the foundations of a persecution fort made up of the faces of thousands of manual labourers.
Men and women wrapped in salwar kamiz have been trudging through the mud for hours, carrying pounds of bricks and stacking them on trucks; others, still squatting, get through the ticking of time continually turning blocks over; others still bake them by inserting them into the furnace; and then there are those who, covering their mouths and noses with a scarf to protect themselves from the soot and dust, shovel coal into the fire. The activities go in incessantly. Foreheads dripping with sweat, hardened hands, backs bent over and wrinkles, outlining maps of desperation on their faces, photographs of lives consumed by sacrifice and exhaustion. Fifty-five Christian families live in the small houses built within the perimeter of Manaawala factory. From the moment the sun rises until darkness completely shrouds the plant, the labourers never stop producing, not even for a minute.
Iqbal Bashir is the Muslim owner of the factory. He oversees the work and with no hesitation and the hauteur of those who detain unconditional power, he describes flat out what life is like in his factory: “The labourers work between 10 and 12 hours per day. Sometimes even more. They are paid per piece, and every one thousand bricks they receive 890 rupees (9€ approx. A/N)”. Iqbal walks slowly and examines every face he meets. Then when asked if he doesn’t think it shameful that in 2016 people should be exploited in such a manner he smiles and replies: “Shameful? Do you call feeding these people shameful? This is the only option they have, it’s very simple.” He goes on to tell us that his workers are happy, that they like working for him and don’t want to leave; but the owner’s words slowly seem to drift off, becoming a distant and senseless chatter, void of any sense in the face of the deafening noise of the tragedy that surrounds us.
A boy wearing an image of Jesus around his neck, a man making the sign of the Cross before shaking your hand, an image of the Madonna. The labourers live hanging on to a faith which is rejected by the majority, their only personal lifeline, the means to survive a sentence which knows no mercy. That is what it’s like for Nargas Munawar, 35 years old and her son, who, aged 7, already works alongside her: ”I’ve always done this job. I did it as a girl and I still do it today. I’ve worked in many factories and now I’m here. I haven’t seen the world, I’ve never been to the city, so this is my life and this is the work I do. But I do know that I don’t want my son to suffer the same fate as me and I pray that one day he will be able to leave”.
But fate does not seem to offer any way out for now and the present of children and adolescents seems to run along set rails. They toil and labour with no respite: some carry panniers full of grass, others dig in the mud, and then there is Safina, who recently turned twelve and spends her days moving identical rows of bricks. She turns them on one side and then on the other so that they take on a good shape; she spends her day bent over, her gaze always set on the slabs and on her numbed hands which nimbly continue to turn them around. She is alone: the sun is setting, only a thin ray of light is left to illuminate the girl in her endless labor. Then, Safina abruptly stops, looks up and with a delicacy which appears in stark contrast with everything surrounding her, she moves her hand to raise her scarf and reveal her eyes. They are the eyes of a Gorgon, green with hints of blue, they will turn you to stone, they are frightening. Her irises look like they have been painted by Caravaggio; those eyes are absolute, petrifying but at the same time void of any emotion. Pure light but no life. They are eyes which see no way of escape, not even in the form of a dream. They are eyes that have no past, no future, eyes worn out by the bricks which they have stared at for their entire brief existence. They bear their weight in the pupils and know of nothing else. There is no world except for those obsessively identical blocks in those eyes borne of the sublime, which terrify: this is the look of slavery in Pakistan today.
Photos by Marco Gualazzini www.marcogualazzini.com