Pakistan schoolboy's self-immolation over school uniform raises alarm over poverty

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — As the school term ended across Pakistan last week, proud families flocked to their children’s grade-promotion ceremonies much as they do in the United States. For a 13-year-old named Kamran Khan, the occasion promised special honors: He ranked first in his class.

But instead of attending, Kamran set himself on fire with gasoline — ashamed, his family said, that he was too poor to afford a new school uniform as he entered the seventh grade.

(Haq Nawaz Khan/For The Washington Post) - Saleem Khan, 17, holds a photo of his brother, Kamran Khan,13, as Kamran receives an award at school. Kamran set himself on fire with gasoline – ashamed, his family said, that he was too poor to afford a new school uniform as he entered the seventh grade.

Even in a country where 60 percent of the population lives in deep poverty, the boy’s self-immolation raised alarm. Kamran, who died Saturday from his burns, has become a symbol of the hopelessness of families crushed by high unemployment, rising prices for staples such as wheat and skyrocketing fuel costs.

“We lost such a brilliant student, and only because of extreme poverty,” said Zakir Ullah Khan, principal of Mohmand Education Academy, a private school that enrolled Kamran for free because of his academic promise.

The boy’s family of seven lived with relatives in Pir Qilla, a town of about 2,000 families in a rural area about 40 miles from the Afghan border in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Relatives said that Kamran’s mother is a maid and that his unemployed father went to Saudi Arabia three months ago looking for work.

With his family unable to afford treatment, Kamran succumbed to the burns that were over 65 percent of his body.

Although statistics are sparse, officials say suicides have increased among all age groups in recent years in Pakistan. “Primarily, it’s joblessness and poverty,” said Zohra Yusuf, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Kamran’s March 25 self-immolation also seemed connected to other stresses. It followed a bitter quarrel with his mother, Shahnaz Bibi, who said she had told him that she could not afford to buy him a new school outfit — a white pants-and-tunic set called a shalwar kameez — citing the need to feed the family, which included three daughters and another son.

“He threatened me that he was going to kill himself,” Bibi, 40, said in a tearful interview in Pir Qilla. “I felt he was only threatening.”

To obtain the gas, Bibi said, Kamran used his childhood savings, breaking open a small pot — the equivalent of a piggy bank.

“Mama, I am going forever,” he reportedly told her before setting himself on fire.

“I was totally helpless,” she recalled, “and, within minutes, his body was burnt.”

Kamran also harbored resentment because his mother had given up for adoption a newborn daughter two years ago, according to Kamran’s elder brother, Saleem Khan. “Had we not been poor, we would have our sister with us,” the 17-year-old said.

But Bibi said she did not regret her decision, because at the time she could not afford to feed, clothe or educate the children she already had.

The episode also led to marital strains, according to those close to the family.

Bibi collected donations and took her burned son in a relative’s car to two hospitals in Peshawar — but one would not admit him, and the other did not have a burn unit. She then took the boy to a military hospital with a burn center in the town of Kharian in Punjab province.

She said the hospital wanted 500,000 rupees, or about $5,500, to treat Kamran — a sum impossibly beyond her reach. By then, Kamran was near death.

The mother ended up selling her gold earrings to pay for an ambulance to transport her son’s body back to their home town for burial.

A military spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about Bibi’s account.

By reaching the seventh grade, Kamran had achieved the average educational standard in Pakistan. The expected length of schooling is seven years, according to figures from the U.N. Development Program.

Fifty-five percent of Pakistanis are illiterate, by U.N. measurement.

Another high-profile self-immolation occurred in October, when Raja Khan, an unemployed father of two from Sindh province, used kerosene to set himself ablaze in front of Parliament in Islamabad. He was not related to Kamran Khan.

Raja Khan, 23, cited poverty and asked the government to take care of his children. He left a letter that said: “I am taking this step because I am fed up with my financial condition.” (His third child was born within days of his death.)

Public school fees in Pakistan run just over $2 a month. Even so, many in the country never rise above the poverty line. Those who knew young Kamran Khan said he seemed destined for a better life.

“Kamran was a shining, outstanding, calm and talented student,” said Zakir Ullah Khan, the principal, who had known the boy since nursery school.

Besides his top ranking in the sixth grade, Kamran had achieved the No. 2 ranking in the entire academy, where classes extend to the 10th grade.

While relatives and friends gathered to mourn the boy Sunday, his mother sobbed as she recounted Kamran’s life and accomplishments. And she said, “I should have bought a new uniform for him.”

Khan reported from Pir Qilla, Pakistan. Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.

 
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