Warning: This story contains descriptions of suicide and references to sexual assault, which some readers may find embarrassing. If you or your loved one is experiencing suicide, help and support is available. Visit Befrienders International for more information on support services.
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Mithi, Pakistan – Early in the morning, on the last day of the difficult year – December 31, 2020 – Chaman Lal received a call from home. His youngest sister, 20-year-old Babita, was unaccounted for.
Chaman, in his thirties, worked in the city of Hyderabad as a cashier at a gas station, but his home was the desert city of Mithi, 322 km (200 miles) and a four-hour bus ride. He rushed back. Meanwhile, at Diplo, 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Miti, Chaman’s other sister, 29-year-old Goody, woke up and found that her husband Dungar had not returned all night. He worked at Mithi for a non-governmental organization supporting orphans and widows. He owned his own motorcycle, a source of pride for the family, and traveled with it daily.
It was noon when Chaman reached Mithi. It was a winter Thursday, by desert standards — suffocating in the air, pleasantly soft sun — and the crowded city alleys, bubbling with motorcycles and qingqi rickshaws, swaying past rocking carts and angry cattle. By then, Babita and Dungar had been found and confirmed dead, their bodies found in an empty house on the edge of town, hanging on a rope from a ceiling fan.
Despite the family’s insistence on bad games and the appearance of shocking details – the house belonged to a local police officer; according to the family, Babita and Dungar almost did not interact – the police determined that it was a joint suicide. Chaman, who has sun-cut hair and amber eyes, is dizzy about the incident, his eyes involuntarily diverting to the ceiling fan above him at his home in Mithi.
According to police records, the deaths of Babita and Dungar were the 112th and 113th suicides in 2020 in the Tarparkar district, where Mithi is located. In the same year, the highest annual figures were recorded in the desert region. Quantitative data are difficult in a country like Pakistan, however, especially when it comes to suicide, which remains a crime with attempted imprisonment and fines. Pakistan does not compile national statistics on suicides, but the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the suicide rate in Pakistan as 8.9 deaths per 100,000 people, just below the world average of nine.
Local attempts at comprehensive data collection have yielded even rarer results. Last year, the mental health authority in the southeastern province of Sind concluded five-year study of suicides, with Tarparkar emerging as the highest reported area between 2016 and 2020 – despite a population of 1.65 million, well below the other Sindh districts, including the seven that make up the metropolis. Karachi. The report reports 79 suicides in Tarparkar in 2020 and does not list numbers from previous years. However, the district has the highest number of cases in the five-year period. However, local police records show more than a hundred suicides in 2020. (The Sindh Mental Health Authority did not respond to requests to clarify the discrepancy.)
Therefore, statistics provide only a fraction of the picture of suicides in Pakistan – especially in Tarparkar, among the least developed regions of the country.
However, the locals have many stories. Less than a year after Babita’s death, two streets from where he lived, a shopkeeper’s son-in-law died of suicide. On the other side of the road from where he lived, in the new settlements on top of the old sand dune to the new bypass road of Mithi, another 22-year-old did the same. A month later, his 17-year-old neighbor, a schoolgirl, also died of suicide. In an older neighborhood in Miti, a businessman whispered the news of the death of a friend’s son from suicide. Farther away, in the town of Chachro, near the Indian border, a young father threw his three sons – four, three and three months old – into an empty well, then jumped after them.
The stories do not end, but they have a beginning. “I only remember one incident from the time I was younger, about a woman in Mithi who threw herself into a well,” recalls a mother whose grown son took his own life three years ago. When she was a girl, cases were rare enough that each incident stood out, a story in itself.
Now, however, it is not uncommon to hear about one every other week, to see photos of bodies circulating on Facebook and WhatsApp. Asked if she remembered when it started, the woman was adamant. “All these deaths, we only started hearing about them seven or eight years ago.”