KARACHI — It’s time for the evening prayer at the Edhi Shelter Home in Karachi, Pakistan. For nine-year-old Rehmatullah Khan, it’s a reminder of a painful childhood past.
His parents sent him to an Islamic boarding school in the northwestern city of Quetta when he was just three. "At seminary, my teacher would beat me and the other students," he recalls. "The teacher would beat us for not memorizing the lessons or making a noise. He sometimes hit us with sticks and would punch me when the other students told him it was me making noise in the classroom."
After six years he ran away, traveling 700 kilometers to this shelter home in Karachi. Khan’s body is covered with signs of abuse. His left ear is still bleeding, his wrists have dark scars and his legs have wounds that have yet to heal. "My father took me to the Madrassah and dropped me off there, even though I was crying and wanted to go home with him. He left me and went away. I was kept in chains, my hands and feet cuffed together. Some other students were also chained."
There are officially 8,000 private Madressahs in Pakistan where some two million students study and live. There are many more unofficial Islamic boarding schools, and because there is no government monitoring system, there are many stories of abuse.
Seven-year-old Usman arrived at this shelter last month. "One day I went to a shop, but forgot the way back home," he says. "Someone took me to the Madressah, where I was tortured for some mistakes. On Saturday, I just ran away from there. And one policeman brought me here."
A 2011 video shows police rescuing 43 students from chains at a Karachi seminary. Anwar Kazmi, spokesperson for the Edhi Welfare Trust, says he has seen countless similar cases in the four decades he has been running this shelter.
"The children are subjected to physical punishments, sexual abuses or kept in chains," he says. "We are receiving 30 to 40 runaway children at our shelter homes every month all over the country.”
Teacher Farzana Faisal says the children are also suffering from psychological scars. “I’ve noticed that the children coming from the seminaries have very rude behavior and they’re so aggressive because physical torture builds their character in a violent manner," she says. "In such situations I stay calm and pamper them because they've not been loved being away from their parents. But it destroys their childhood and personality."
Here at the shelter, the children are given a limited religious education until the age of 16 years old. But for many, staying here is the only option. "We miss our family, our home," says one child. "We want to go back to our home, but we don’t want to go back to the Madressah again."