A brave little boy
By Brandon Astor Jones
"If you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of love, clear your hands from slaves, burden not your children or country with them." — Richard Allen (1760-1831), former slave and founder of the Free African Society.
It is hard to imagine that in these times a four-year-old boy could be sold into slavery. It is harder still to imagine that his parents did the selling. Alas, such was life for Iqbal Masih.
After being sold to the owner of a carpet factory, he was routinely shackled to a loom, at which he tied knots. In Pakistan, carpet producers like to use small children because they have tiny fingers, which make smaller knots — and therefore a finer carpet.
Despite his daily toil, six years later, the child owed the factory owner 13,000 rupees (US$419). When you consider that he earned only one rupee per day, at that rate it would have taken 35 years for him to pay off the debt!
That was what his young life was like before he managed to sneak a message out to the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), a group that fights against forced child labour. The BLLF, shortly thereafter, was instrumental in obtaining his freedom.
Since then Masih, a Christian, has toured the world speaking on, and exposing, his country's forced child labour practices. On Easter Sunday, the then 12-year-old boy was shot and killed as he and two of his friends rode their bicycles through the streets of Muritke.
After exposing the carpet industry, the boy lost his life. It has been rumoured that the so-called "carpet Mafia" had him killed, because his disclosures were directly responsible for the total shutdown of scores of illegal carpet factories in his region. A man known only as Ashraf was arrested in connection with the boy's death, but soon released.
Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has spoken out against the forced labour of children. It would seem that the carpet industry is far more powerful than her government. In 1991, the Pakistani government outlawed the employment of children under the age of 13; however, it is clear that the law is a paper tiger.
The chairman of the BLLF, Ehsan Ullah Khan, in admiration said, "He was so brave ... He also managed to free thousands of children."
An independent Human Rights Commission (in Pakistan) recently reported that there are more than 6 million children in that country's forced child labour pool in textile industries, brick kilns, foundries, tanneries, bakeries, eating establishments, construction companies and as house servants.
I invoked the memory of the once enslaved Richard Allen, at the beginning of this article, because Masih and Allen had so much in common as is evidenced in the latter's exasperation when he said, "We have ... made fortunes for thousands, and still they are not weary of our services".
I think that what the African-American man from Philadelphia and the Pakistani boy from Muritke had most in common was their selflessness, courage and desire to be free. Despite their labours and deaths, selfishness, greed and evil are as persistent and inhumane as ever in this world. They did all that they could do; and they gave all that they could give.
[The writer is a prisoner on death row in the United States. He is happy to receive letters commenting on his columns. He can be written to at: Brandon Astor Jones, EF-122216, G2-51, GD&CC, PO Box 3877, Jackson, GA 30233, USA.]