Watching My Cousin’s Death Go Viral

My cousin Salahuddin was a victim of unforgivable police brutality. But before that, he was a young man let down by a society that still treats mental illness as a kind of crime in itself.

The date in the grainy video footage says “July 17, 2019, 9:19 p.m.” A man in a muddy brown shalwar kameez enters an ATM booth. He pauses briefly to examine the machine before fiddling with it. As he sticks his finger into the cash slot, he notices the blinking red light of a camera observing him. Defiant, he sticks out his tongue and makes a face, puffing out his cheeks. The man proceeds to pry off the front panel of the ATM and notices a second camera embedded in the machine. He pulls more faces, chuckling. Finally, he grabs the cash and makes his getaway.

As far as heists go, this was nothing spectacular. The man in the video — my cousin, Salahuddin Ayubi — made off with less than $400. But thanks to his taunting, the security footage started going viral via social media and Pakistani news coverage in late August. The image of a robber brazenly sticking out his tongue at security cameras took on a Robin Hood–like quality in Pakistan, a country beset by severe and growing income inequality. And while many found the video entertaining and ballsy — stick it to the Man! — it also put Salahuddin on the Man’s radar.

The Pakistani economy is capsizing under the pressure of stolen billions, and we are one of the most corrupt countries in the world — but apparently one man taking $400 turned out to be one step too far. Salahuddin had embarrassed the state, in a way its own excesses never seem to. What’s worse, he had shown a blatant disregard for its authority. My family knew that the police were looking for him; for a week after the video went viral, my cousin Usama frantically tried to reach him and warn him to lie low. But blending into the crowd was never something Salahuddin was willing to do.

When we were little, neighbors in the small village of Gorali referred to Salahuddin as “off,” which I later understood to be code for his serious mental health conditions — possibly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to the doctors who eventually diagnosed him and who could not care for him. My earliest memories of Salahuddin are of him yelling “boo!” at me from behind the cattle sheds and on the playgrounds of Gorali. He was six years older than me; as a child I was scared of him but found his antics entertaining. I didn’t know then that my mischievous cousin would one day become a lightning rod for an entire nation’s attention — and its prejudices.

The moment of Salahuddin’s apprehension by a pair of young men who recognized him in public, seven days after the ATM video went viral, was also uploaded to social media. Virality had made Salahuddin a hero and a target. Now, the mob mentality of social media quickly translated into mob violence. A crowd formed around Salahuddin and he was slapped, pushed, and his clothes ripped open. He pretended to play mute, seeming to draw inward, and tried to shake off his assailants, but they didn’t loosen their grasp until he was turned over to the police.

After a day of interrogation in custody, Salahuddin was proudly produced in a press conference held at the Rahim Yar Khan police station, where he delivered a full confession. He swayed dangerously on camera, eyes disoriented alongside other apparent signs of concussive trauma — the look of someone who’d been beaten. Yet even then, Salahuddin continued to display small acts of defiance; he spit brusquely at the microphone thrust in his face. The police soon whisked him away and the press went home, the viral case having been put to bed. By the next day, my cousin was dead.

In a statement released the next night, the police claimed that Salahuddin had developed health issues and been transferred to Shaikh Zayed Hospital, where he later died. This claim was hotly debated, particularly because footage from the hospital’s closed-circuit television showed police bringing in a handcuffed Salahuddin on a stretcher at 9:48 p.m., where immediately upon arrival the examining physicians pronounced him deceased.

The death of a suspect in custody is a violation of the Geneva Convention, and was all the more reprehensible because of Salahuddin’s mental illness. The case became a political football, as incumbent Punjabi government officials scrambled to respond to the public’s outrage, pointing fingers at each other. Salahuddin’s face, contorted in mischief in that ATM vestibule, became an image of resistance, with hundreds making it their profile picture. Social media users demanded #JusticeforSalahuddin and stuck their tongues out in solidarity to decree #IAmSalahuddin. Nearly a thousand people rushed to my cousin’s funeral on a bleak September day in Gorali: friends, followers, strangers, well-wishers, reporters, superficially repentant police chiefs, and government agents expressing their condolences and their heartfelt advice to shut up about it all.

People with mental illnesses who are killed are often either stereotyped or sympathized with, and they are rarely seen as fully human. Salahuddin is no exception. In all the ensuing media coverage since his death, my cousin has been painted as a criminal, a victim, a martyr, and a maniac. To the public, his death is the only important thing about him. But behind the headlines, the government hush money, and the addition to troubling statistics, there was a boy. And I knew him.

The village of Gorali, in the north of Pakistan’s Punjab province, is down a long winding road, leading up to a collection of mud houses surrounded by wheat fields. The air hums with the sun’s merciless beams, and in the summers people hover behind curtains, sucked dry, and sprinkle water on each other. Gorali was where my mother was born, and her mother, and her mother’s mother before her, reaching back some 900 years. Despite its age — or perhaps because of it — the village has been left largely untouched by the workings of time.

It was here, in a simple mudbrick house, that Salahuddin was born almost 32 years ago. And from the beginning, it was clear that someone had entered Gorali who did not fit. The first signs manifested early; Salahuddin’s acts of violence began with chicks and ducklings, but quickly progressed until he was chucking goats off roofs and water tanks. Paradoxically, animals seemed to like his presence. On many occasions, he managed to ride off with the village donkeys, bareback and lugging another donkey in tow by the ear.

While Salahuddin spread mischief generously around town, it was never for his own profit. He had no concept of the value of money or power, and he didn’t seem to understand many social mores. My mother recalls giving him 2,000 rupees when he had asked for 500 to buy a toy. He stood on the edge of one of the brilliantly yellow wheat fields, tearing the extra notes into tiny pieces and letting them float away in the wind.

Every morning, he would barge into the houses around the village to exchange pleasantries for no longer than five minutes each. Many in the village thought him unstable and awful, and he took care to avoid the houses of people who he knew despised him. But as Salahuddin grew up and the nature of his pranks grew more and more costly, the villagers brought their complaints to his father.

No matter what anyone said or thought of him, Afzal wasn’t going to abandon his son.

My uncle Afzal, a quiet man with a long beard and sorrow etched irreversibly in his face, was in those days a young farmer. Many villagers advised him and his wife to get rid of their burdensome son — throw him out or drop him off at a masjid or on the side of the road. Afzal wasn’t educated in mental health awareness and didn’t know about psychiatric drugs or treatments, but he did know one thing for sure: No matter what anyone said or thought of him, he wasn’t going to abandon his son.

At first, he patiently tried to show Salahuddin the error of his ways, but eventually the external pressure reached a breaking point. In an infamous stunt, Salahuddin threw the dried cow dung that was to be used as cooking fuel into a big vat of milk, ruining a family’s entire batch of ghee. Appalled at his lack of repentance, the residents of Gorali became convinced that he was possessed by jinn. The village iman was called in to offer prayers for the boy, but when there was no miraculous cure, it was decided that whatever afflicted him was beyond the capacity of Gorali.

Afzal bundled up his son in a van, and they made their way to the provincial capital, Lahore. They went to the Institute of Mental Health on Jail Road, a psychiatric hospital where, after a checkup, Salahuddin was admitted. With a heavy heart, Afzal traveled back home, promising himself he would visit as often as he could afford to.

Treatments at institutes like IMH vary, but still include many therapies that aren’t supported by science or are proven to be harmful to patients. There have been reports of patients around Pakistan in psych wards being treated like prisoners, denied food, beaten, and sexually abused. The doctors at IMH, used to stereotyping their patients as dunces, seemed baffled by Salahuddin’s high level of functional intelligence combined with his inability to comprehend social norms. In phone calls to Afzal, they expressed doubts about being able to care for him.

Salahuddin, for his part, responded to the treatments by organizing his usually sedated and depressed fellow inmates for a mass breakout. They spilled out onto the main road with hoots of joy, relishing the feel of freedom and the sun on the backs of their necks. Soon after, they were again detained and the staff, enraged, called Afzal to fetch Salahuddin. They refused to keep him at the hospital, declaring him undiagnosable and untreatable. So Afzal took his son back home.

As in much of the world, health care is a volatile issue in Pakistan. While the rich can afford to take planes to Europe and the United States for their treatments, the masses often go without, as public hospitals are crammed with five patients to a bed and some dying on the ground while waiting to be seen. In this climate, resources for people with mental health concerns are few and far between.

There are tens of millions of people seeking mental health treatment in the country, and only around 400 practicing psychiatrists, leading to one of the lowest doctor-patient ratios in the world for mental health. In neighboring India, it has been estimated that 1 in every 6 people is living with a mental health issue. Few of those people ever receive care, and the care they do receive is often so inadequate as to be actively harmful. Despite the near-epidemic nature of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia in developing countries where people face crushing economic burdens, these diseases are still not taken seriously and are often shunted to the side when it comes to public health budgets. According to the World Health Organization, more than 75% of people with mental health disorders in the developing world do not receive care. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, 0.4% of health expenditure is directed toward mental health care.

One of the reasons people with mental health issues can be so hard for the neurotypical majority of the population to understand and accept is because they force us to recognize that our reality is just that: one perception of many possible options. Uncertainty makes it easy to fear them. Salahuddin’s family loved him, but we had no illusions about what kind of world we — and he — lived in. His aunt Firdous remarked after his death that “We knew it was going to happen someday. There were only two ways for someone like Salahuddin to end up. Dead or in jail.”

In the early 2000s, my parents and I lived in Karachi, the smoggy coastal megalopolis of Pakistan. My cousin Usama had just turned 10 and moved in with us so he could attend the better schools in the city. One afternoon, while the rest of us were out of the apartment and Usama was home taking a nap, he was awakened by the sound of someone yelling his name outside on the street.

Groggy and grumbling, Usama went to the drawing-room window to see what the ruckus was about. He froze when he saw it was a 13-year-old Salahuddin, banging on the grilled gateway of the building.

To most people, Salahuddin was a wild card. There was no knowing what he would do next — whether he would have a perfectly balanced, almost rational conversation or play a costly prank. But when it came to Usama, who had also spent his early childhood in Gorali, Salahuddin was consistent in his deep admiration and interest, bordering on obsession; gaining Usama’s validation meant the world to him. The first thing he would ask any family members was if they knew how he was doing. Later, from the moment Salahuddin first got his hands on a cellphone, he made sure to call Usama every month to directly inquire about his well-being.

“There were only two ways for someone like Salahuddin to end up. Dead or in jail.”

Usama let Salahuddin into the apartment, seated him at the dining table, and left him there momentarily, making an excuse to fetch tea. It was an impossible idea that Salahuddin, just a couple of years older than his cousin, had managed to cross the entire country on his own with no money to show up on our doorstep in Karachi. But when he was determined, he could be incredibly clever and resourceful.

Usama knew that Salahuddin’s compulsive tendencies meant he rarely stayed in one place for much longer than five or ten minutes — he’d leave the moment he felt the social interaction he wanted was complete. The thought of our cousin out on the streets of a humongous city was terrifying, so Usama came up with a solution that only a child would. While serving Salahuddin tea, he somehow managed to rope the nala (drawstring) from his shalwar (trousers) around him.

Genuinely surprised at finding himself tied up, Salahuddin howled in outrage, accusing him of betrayal, while Usama begged for his forgiveness, near tears. This was the scene that my parents and I came home to. I still remember Salahuddin’s bloodshot eyes as he screamed to be let go and my father rushed to free him. He hated being trapped. So many years later, when what happened happened, they found marks of bindings on his battered body.

Salahuddin’s uncle was called to fetch him, and in the intervening week we entertained my cousin. By day, he was alternatively boisterous and aggravated. By night, his screams echoed throughout the house. I remember waking up and tiptoeing out of my room to peer around the corner at my parents, trying to calm down a hysterical Salahuddin.

“Help me! They will kill me,” he would yell.“They are out to get me. … Oh god, they are beating me to death. … I am being ripped apart.” It was impossible to calm him down; he refused to listen to anyone’s assurances, refused to believe he was safe.

A few years later, the news came from my aunt, who had heard it from her brother, who was on his way to the Chinese border, that Salahuddin had found himself at K2 — the second-highest mountain in the world, which sits at the Pakistan–China border — and, being unimpressed, had instead made for the red state. An uncle had been dispatched to fetch him from the clutches of the Chinese border patrol.

This was about 12 years ago; Salahuddin had grown bored of his village, the people in it, and their disdain for him. So at 15 or 16 he ran away from home, penniless, to begin traveling the country in earnest. He somehow managed to transverse vast distances, from the towering peaks of the Himalayas all the way to the coast of the Arabian Sea. After the first unexpected visit, many more of these journeys ended on our doorstep in Karachi and then in Lahore.

After Salahuddin had run away the first few times, my uncle Afzal had to give up hope of restraining his son without going as far as tying him up; the boy’s wanderlust couldn’t be contained. Afzal then had the family’s home address, phone number, and Salahuddin’s condition tattooed on his son’s arm in case he got lost or in trouble with the authorities.

It was on these trips of exploration that Salahuddin had slowly started to find himself in the odd position of having a cult of personality form around him. There is a precedent in South Asian history for people “touched by madness” being seen as touched by God, and Salahuddin’s devotees would follow him around the country and show up at his village to seek his blessings. Coming from all walks of life, more than a hundred people — shopkeepers, beggars, car salespeople — saw Salahuddin as saintlike.

It’s hard to say exactly why — some combination of his charisma, the history of Sufi mysticism in the region, and the fact that Salahuddin, not realizing the value of money, was known to dole out 30,000 rupees (more than $200) for a 3-kilometer car ride. Instead of taking advantage of his followers, Salahuddin ridiculed their saintly ideas of him. He challenged them to think for themselves, and refused to give any blessings or acknowledge them as his followers; at most he would allow them to accompany him on his journeys up and down the country.

Meanwhile, I had grown up and become deeply frustrated with the status quo and the rabid conservatism I saw everywhere in Pakistan. I dedicated myself to changing it. I went to rallies against oppression and harassment; I read books about disability and mental illness. I drove my parents to tears as they begged me to back down from progressive activism in a country where progressive activists have a funny tendency to disappear, and I had my own brushes with police brutality, getting both eyes blackened after a protest. The way Salahuddin had always been mistreated by the world was always in the back of my mind, and it was a factor in my political awakening — but there it remained, in the back. In all my attempts to live out my politics by supporting the most marginalized people around me, what I failed to do was think twice about Salahuddin and how I could help him.

Perhaps, despite believing that Salahuddin needed and deserved help, I was too scared of him to do something to help him myself.

There was, I now realize, still a silent cliff’s edge in my understanding of mental illness. It is a border drawn in the minds of many people around the world between “safe” and relatable mental health issues — anxiety, depression, mood disorders — and the severe, unstable, “dangerous” ones. Darker or more difficult conditions remain largely out of mainstream understandings or sympathies. Perhaps, despite believing that Salahuddin needed and deserved help, I was too scared of him to do something to help him myself.

People like Salahuddin struggle because every door they reach for is closed to them. They are offered scraps, and in Pakistan they most often end up homeless, with a drug addiction, imprisoned, killed by police, or, in the best-case scenario, shut up in a room in their family’s house for their entire lives. Even if Salahuddin had wanted to live a normal life — go to school, have a career, have a family — he couldn’t have done that. But Salahuddin wouldn’t have been content with a normal life, and he certainly wasn’t willing to settle for the empty shell of it he was offered. He wanted more.

Salahuddin wanted adventure, and thrill, and the feeling of achievement. He had a wicked glimmer in his eyes. He wasn’t dull or dumb; his wit was as sharp as a knife, and even if he didn’t understand why people behaved the way they did, he understood how the world saw things. He saw the endless pasture of the future available to Usama and to me — the college degrees, the jet-set summers, the glimmering reputations — and then he saw the dim, decaying patch of grass that was to be his lot in life.

Perhaps it was the strange looks he got in Pakistan, and the occasional beatings by angry crowds. Perhaps his wanderlust just couldn’t be contained in one country anymore, or it was the fact that Usama had set off for Europe too. Whatever the reason, in the last few years Salahuddin had set his sights on travel beyond what he’d done before. Two of his cousins had immigrated to Italy, and he became obsessed with the idea of the Mediterranean country. But such a trip — such an escape — required money. Money he didn’t have. We’ll never really know, but perhaps it was for that reason, with images of Venetian waters and heaping plates of pasta filling his mind, that Salahuddin began in the early months of 2019 to rob ATMs.

I sometimes wonder if, in a world without Twitter, my cousin would still be alive. Almost everything that happened to Salahuddin — as he was arrested, interrogated, and tortured — was documented and seen by the entire country. And it was through social media that I found out Salahuddin was dead.

The truth of what happened on the last day of Salahuddin’s short life may never be known in full detail. But after the ATM footage, his apprehension, and the press conference, there was one more social media star moment left for him: a leaked video of him being interviewed by police, showing his last words — a video I watched for the first time, frozen in horror, on WhatsApp.

In the footage, Salahuddin is sitting on a chair in a dark room. Shadows haunt his swollen face and he seems to be reeling, yet he gathers the courage to challenge authority one last time.

“May I just ask one question?” he inquires, interrupting his inquisitor. The inspector assents. “Will you beat me if I do?" Salahuddin asks. The inspector assures him that he won’t. "Do you promise?" Salahuddin asks again. The officer promises.

"Where did you learn to torture people like this?" Salahuddin asks. Despite the pain he is in, the ghost of a smirk lingers on his lips, but fades quickly. The inspector's response is garbled, and the video clip ends abruptly.

Soon after that video cut off, 400 miles away in Gorali, the ringing of a phone broke the night’s silence in the humble mudbrick house where Salahuddin’s parents lived, and my uncle Afzal received the call he had been dreading for most of his son’s life.

Usama rushed to accompany Afzal to identify and recover Salahuddin’s body. Despite the police’s claims that there were no signs of physical torture on his body and that his death had occurred due to sudden cardiac arrest, the cause of death was left blank. The full postmortem report later confirmed that his corpse displayed signs of extensive torture. There were lashes from his forehead to his groin to the soles of his feet. In the photos of his battered body that circulated on social media, there was a nasty bruise on his forearm — right next to the tattoo of his father’s name, number, and address.

After Salahuddin’s death, his childhood playmate and closest cousin became his defender. On Sept. 2, one day after Salahuddin died, Usama — who is now a Fulbright scholar and a Columbia-educated high court lawyer — registered a murder case against police officers Mehmood Hassan, Shafaat Ali, and Matloob Hussain on behalf of Afzal. Usama and Afzal claimed that police brutality had caused Salahuddin’s death; independent forensic testing and exhumation of the corpse confirmed the claims made in the case.

Over several weeks, Usama met with local National Assembly members and opposition leaders as political players of all stripes rushed to Gorali. Gorali was not used to such lavishly wealthy visitors; certainly, its roads will never be unsettled by so many tinted-window Pajeros again. Usama told me that many of the high-powered visitors “wanted the furor to simply go away. But what they did to Salahuddin was beyond the pale. It was murder in cold blood.”

“What they did to Salahuddin was beyond the pale. It was murder in cold blood.”

If Salahuddin’s case was unusual, so was his representative. Usama is a rare breed of lawyer in Pakistan: fixated on justice, no matter the risk to himself in a country where contentious legal cases often come hand in hand with violence. He had been part of a landmark team of lawyers that won a judgment against Master Tiles, one of the nation’s largest companies, for exposing workers to silicosis, and he had faced death threats for his involvement. But his quest for justice in this case, which mattered even more to him than all the others, was not one he could win.

For many weeks after Salahuddin's death, it was rare to hear his mother speak a single word. Losing a child is always devastating. For my aunt and uncle, though, it is not the first time. Salahuddin was one of five siblings. His oldest brother and youngest brother both predeceased him — lost to senseless religious violence in Kashmir, having been brainwashed by the prominent religious leader Hafiz Saeed into believing that it was their patriotic duty to journey to the contentious India–Pakistan border and get shot at. They were just two among hundreds of young Punjabi men recruited to be freedom fighters, but in reality they were used as goats for slaughter. Their bodies would be taken back to their villages, where Saeed gave eulogies about how India had made them martyrs and collected thousands of donations at their funerals.

In October, the Punjabi government, desperate to make the PR blunder of Salahuddin’s death go away, promised to build a technical college in Gorali and provide a gas connection to the village. At first, the villagers resisted the state’s overtures. But then Saeed, hoping to cement his own political capital by brokering a peace, approached the people of Gorali after all government attempts had failed.

Saeed dangled the hope of spiritual forgiveness; he pointed out that a legal case wasn't likely to result in a favorable verdict but was certain to cause years of fruitless, harrowing hearings. His personal attention to the matter was important, as Afzal and many others in the region look to him as a guru. The family, bereft, confused, and devastated, agreed not to pursue charges against the police. As often happens with these things, the outrage dies out, the reporters go home, the government offers blood money, and all is resolved — though nothing is settled.

The litany of ways in which the world failed Salahuddin is too great to fully comprehend. He was a kind, intelligent, troubled person who managed to cobble together a life for himself in a society that despised him and tried at every opportunity to make his existence untenable. He was let down by the health care system, by family, and by society — only to be beaten to death by police officers who will face no consequences. The police can’t be the only people held responsible for his death. This whole nation killed him.

And what happened to Salahuddin, while tragic, is not unique or even unusual. In the US, people with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to face deadly violence at the hands of police; globally, people with serious mental health conditions like psychosis and bipolar disorder face a 10- to 25-year reduction in life expectancy. My cousin’s story is one in an endless list of examples of how most cultures still stigmatize and ostracize people with mental health issues, and how easily their deaths are forgotten.

In the end, I suspect Salahuddin was not killed for robbing an ATM or sticking his tongue out at a camera. He was killed for failing to understand our social mores and the brutality of our status quo; he was killed for not understanding that when there is a boot, it will come down on your neck.

In the months since September, I often think about those nights during Salahuddin’s first visit to Karachi when he couldn’t sleep peacefully. His words and screams are etched into my mind: Help me, they will kill me. … They are out to get me. … Oh god! … They are beating me to death. … I am being ripped apart. Sometimes I wander down to the kitchen where my mother is also sitting awake, poring over the same questions and memories and regrets. We sit awake together, sip our tea, and wonder: Were his dreams a portal to his other reality, or were they a journey into ours? Was he seeing monsters? Demons? Or maybe he was simply seeing his future, full of nothing more cruel and fantastical than flesh-and-blood human beings. ●

Bilal Anwar is a writer, political cartoonist, and environmental activist based in Lahore, Pakistan. He can be reached at @bilalanwarc.

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