SHAH DAULA'S CHUHAS

(The RAT-CHILDREN of SHAH DAULA)

SHAH DAULA'S CHUHAS (The RAT-CHILDREN of SHAH DAULA) The rat-children of Pakistan blessed by a Sufi saint but disfigured for profit Richard Galpin in Gujrat reports on a gruesome slave trade in new-born babies, fuelled by fear, a 300-year-old myth and religious fervour Monday June 29, 1998 At the entrance to the shrine of Shah Daula in the Punjabi city of Gujrat, a young woman sits on the edge of a chair, rocking back and forth. At first sight she could be one of the many devotees who travel from afar to worship at the tomb of the Sufi saint. But move closer and it is clear something is wrong. The woman has a shrunken head and deep facial scars. Her hair has been shaved and she cannot speak. She is severely disabled. Move too close with a camera and she runs away. She is one of hundreds or possibly thousands of Shah Daula's chuhas or rat-children. For centuries they have been associated with this shrine as part of a powerful myth that holds sway over many people in this region. Filing past her into the shrine are dozens of worshippers, mostly women. They sit by the tomb, touch the relics placed on it and pray. They ask God to bless them with a child. These women have not been able to conceive, but according to the myth that dates back 300 years, praying here will make them fertile. But there is a heavy price to pay: couples must promise to hand over their first-born to the shrine. The myth says the child will be born a chuha and if they do not give the baby up all their subsequent children will be disabled. "God will punish anyone who does not honour this commitment," says one woman, who is praying for a son. But the grim reality behind this tradition can be found just a few miles from Shah Daula's shrine on the streets of Gujrat, where many of the rat-children end up. At the city's main bus station several older rat-children roam between the buses, followed closely by their owners - people who say they have bought the children to look after them. But looking after the rat-children means using them to make money from begging. And they are extremely effective. The children nudge and slap passengers until they hand over some rupees. Conveniently, the myth states that the rat-children have been blessed by the saint and must not be ignored. And so the money pours in. Experts believe the rat-children command a high price in the modern-day slave trade. "It's reported that these children are sold for anything from around $1,000 [ £625] to $2,000," says Anusheh Hussain, director of Sahil, an organisation fighting child exploitation. "We've also heard that they can make around $10 per day from begging, which makes it a very lucrative business considering that's twice the amount a civil servant makes." This has led to deep suspicion that the myth of Shah Daula was fabricated to trick people into handing over healthy babies. One expert who interviewed several families says many parents told him their babies were not deformed when they gave them up. Historical accounts make this argument more compelling: the descendants of the saint had no land on which they could depend for their livelihood and so needed to find some means of generating income. Many therefore believe that the rat-children, far from being a natural phenomenon, are deliberately deformed by the people who take them from their parents. Once the process is complete, several years later, they are sold off or hired out as beggars. Although there is no irrefutable evidence, experts say that medieval contraptions are used to disfigure the children. "I have heard from many people that they use iron rings which are placed on the baby's head to stop it from growing," says Pirzada Imtiaz Syed, a senior trade union leader based in Gujrat. He estimates there are about 10,000 rat-children in Pakistan, controlled by a "begging mafia", some of whom he accuses of abusing the children physically and sexually. All these charges are denied by those associated with the shrine. A descendant of the saint, Dr Pir Nasiruddaula, argues that the deformity is caused by a congenital disease that occurs in other parts of the world. But Pakistan's leading genetic scientist, Qasim Mehdi, who spent three years investigating Shah Daula's rat-children, says this is impossible. After interviewing dozens of families, he found that none of the children were related. "For a disease to be genetically inherited you have to have the disease running in the family," says Dr Mehdi, "and our investigation shows that the rat-children come from very different families and backgrounds. If there is no blood relationship between them then it cannot be a genetic disease." But Dr Mehdi refuses to say what he believes to be the real cause of the problem, claiming he does not want to wound religious sensitivities. This perhaps explains why there has still not been a thorough investigation into the phenomenon. The government says it does not know who to believe. But the minister for religious affairs, Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, hints that the children must have been deliberately deformed. "Fifteen years ago the government took over this shrine and threw out the people who were running it," he says. "From that day until now, this business has stopped. There have not been any more of these human rats." But although the number of rat-children has declined, the problem has not been eradicated. During one visit to the bus station in Gujrat, it was possible to find and photograph a rat-child who looked at most eight years old. When this was pointed out to the minister he promised further action. Whether the government will take resolute action is another matter. But unless the secret of Shah Daula's shrine is finally exposed, then many more children are likely to suffer the same fate as the rat-children who are roaming the streets of Pakistan's towns and cities, exploited and abused by their owners. c Copyright Guardian Media Group plc.1998