Family still waiting for late athlete Shahida’s body [Express Tribune]

Family still waiting for late athlete Shahida’s body [Express Tribune]

by Natasha Raheel

KARACHI: “It has been a huge loss for those who thought of Shahida Raza as a part of themselves, as a part of the community, but here as we are waiting for her body to come. I just want to say that her family and friends are proud of her, as a person, as an athlete she was. She is a martyr now,” said Sumaiya Mushtaq, the friend of footballer Shahida Raza who perished in the Italy migrant boat wreck last month. 

The 2012 South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship semi-finalist’s body is still somewhere in Rome, and her family and friends are waiting for further details as they restlessly spend their days in the hopes of some update. So far the Government of Pakistan has not notified where and how the body will be shifted. No details of the airline or ambulance are given.

During this wait Shahida’s family take respite from reality in praying for her as the house only reminds them of her not being there anymore.

Shahida, affectionately known as ‘Chintoo’ was a member of Pakistan’s women’s football team when the country made its international debut in 2010 at the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Women’s Championship. Even though football was not her primary sport, but she was talented and agile in the field that got her the place in the squad. She kept her spot in the team for the second edition too in 2012, making sure that her presence is felt. It was also the only time that the Pakistan women’s football team reached a semi-final of any international event.

Shahida perished among more than 70 people in a boat accident on the coast of Calabria on February 26. 

However, her teammates and people who played and coached her all remember her to be an exceptional player who was also massively unassuming. 

“Shahida was a great player. I became friends with her through hockey. It was the most amazing quality of hers to make everyone feel good and at ease. I think her mark on everyone was that she was always smiling, even at times when she had problems at home. She would play the game with so much focus and passion, but in the background, on some days she would have had such a tough time to even get to the ground because she didn’t have money to come.

“But that was Shahida, filled with passion for the sports. She played because she loved to play, whether it was hockey or football. She never played for appreciation or to show others, she was self-driven, and she motivated others too. 

“However, if we look closely the sports she played did not give her back as much,” said Sumaiyya, who is staying with Shahida’s family, mourning and grieving for her sister-like friend.

Shahida’s younger sister Sadia said that the family is dealing with the tragedy through prayers only.

“It would have been our seventh anniversary as friends a few days ago,” said Sumaiyya as she, along with Shahida’s family are waiting for the body to come home.

“We are all restless. She is not with us anymore, but her body is there. I want to tell the Pakistan government to make this quick. This is the worst of the miseries. We were told last week that it will take 72 hours, but those hours have been over on Monday. It is not just those 77 people who drowned and perished in the sea, it is the 77 families who died with them.”

The boat was carrying people from different nationalities including around 24 Pakistanis who were trying to reach the European country with the prospect of a better future.

It is still overwhelming that a hugely talented, seasoned, and well-established athlete, who represented Pakistan internationally in two disciplines, including the national sport of Pakistan hockey, was among the ones who were on the boat.

Shahida’s step was an extreme one that highlights the way athletes in Pakistan are not valued, how the economy is breaking the back of even the people with the strongest of characters, and how opportunities do not come to the most vulnerable people.

Shahida was an active athlete for more than a decade. She was just 29 years old and her decision to leave the country was mainly led by her love for her child Hassan, who is a three-year-old toddler with a disability. One side of his body was paralysed since he was an infant after 50% brain damage. Sumaiya said that Shahida was paid just enough that she could arrange for Hassan’s physiotherapy.

“It was fascinating to see Shahida come back to the sport. She had given birth twice and her first-born didn’t survive, so that was such a heartache for her. Then her son was born and he also fell ill, so keeping him healthy and looking for ways to get him on his two feet became the purpose of her life.

“She always knew sports and she loved sports, therefore she made a comeback, and we were all stunned of course. A part of me was intimidated by her comeback because I played for another team and we were often opponents, and she was a formidable player in the mid-defence. It was a great rivalry too. The point is she made her comeback after a few years gap, but she was very impressive,” said Sumaiya, adding that the last hockey tournament Shahida played was in 2017 in Punjab. 

In Quetta’s Marriabad locality, where the Hazara community is settled, the air is filled with pain and grief. 

But Sumaiya adds that while there are moments of paralyzing bereavement in the day, like when having food and realising the mug was Shahida’s that is right in front of her, with memories of the beaming athlete everywhere around her house, talking about her achievements on and off the field helps. 

“She was all about making sure that her training and game is good like we would often say in her thick Urdu accent usually of people from the Hazara community, “Choro ye log apna kerte hain, hum apna kerenge [Leave them we’ll improve our game], when it comes to seeing men’s hockey or even other athletes because she always believed in being original. She never blindly followed anyone. She was a person of her own,” said Sumaiya.

She recalled that Shahida liked legends like Sohail Abbas and in football the usual popular players but mostly she held her local stars at the Hazara Quetta Football Academy in high regard and was very appreciative of the game from anyone who excelled in the field. 

Meanwhile, her football coach Abbas said that Shahida was extraordinarily talented in the midfield wearing the number 5 jersey in hockey, and he has seen her grow up with hockey.

“She made sure that she played for the players in the team, she was never selfish about the game. The funniest thing about Shahida was we often wondered how old she is. She never looked her age. We often joked that she could even play for the teenage tournaments,” said Abbas, adding that everyone in his academy in Quetta has been grieving and praying for Shahida since the news broke. 

It was the Pakistan Hockey Federation that sent the press release about Shahida’s passing. 

Like Abbas, her football coach who took her to the Saff Championship Tariq Lutfi also iterated Shahida’s ability to look young and energetic on the field. 

“Shahida was a very talented girl. She brought great skill and knowledge unlike many other footballers because she was coming with a background in hockey. I was very impressed with her agility and her understanding of the game. It was very instinctive and natural,” said Lutfi, who coached her in the national championship-winning campaigns as well as with Balochistan United.

“It is just sad that Shahida has become the third footballer among women who have passed away in an accident like this. Earlier it was Misha Dawood who passed away in the Air Blue plane crash, then our Pakistan international striker Shahlyla Baloch was lost to a car accident and now Shahida. I don’t know what to say this, but pray for their souls and everyone’s safety.”

Shahida was brought into football and taken care of by the then Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) women’s wing chairperson Rubina Irfan. Shahida was brought on board in football as Rubina wanted to create a team from Balochistan. 

The Pakistan national women’s football team played their last international tournament before 2022 in 2014, while Rubina’s youngest daughter and Pakistan’s star striker Shahlyla passed away in 2016. 

“Shahida played football with us from 2010 to 2016. We played on the national side and Balochistan United. After football stopped and Shahlyla passed, Balochistan United was unable to pick up. Chintoo moved back to her first sport which was hockey. She became the captain of the Army team and then the national team,” remembered Hajra Khan, Pakistan’s former women’s football team captain and key striker.

She added that Shahida will always be remembered as a “bright firecracker on and off the field”, while the Quetta-born has also helped Hajra score her first international goal as well. 

International karateka Kulsoom Hazara recalled Shahida as a friendly athlete who was well-liked by all. 

The doors were closing on Shahida

Shahida was an exceptional talent. She was athletically inclined since she was young. Her hockey coach said that she came to play in the Balochistan hockey academy when she was in her teens, and she kept her passion for sports which later became a career as well.

But Sumaiya said that towards the last years of her life, the departmental side treated her badly.

“Shahida played for the best teams. She represented Balochistan on several occasions and won tournaments. She was a hot commodity before she got married. She played for Wapda and Railways and then with Army in hockey,” said Sumaiya. “Her name had come up in Army among the players who were nominated to be fired and that is when her breakdown began. It was last year. She was so upset. She was heartbroken, and it worried her to the end because she was the only breadwinner for her family. Her mother, sisters, and most importantly her son received the treatment because of her job.

“Then she got fired out of punishment because she had gone to help and play football with Hazara Quetta Football Academy in 2021, when there was the National Women’s Football Championship taking place in Karachi.”

She said that Shahida thought it was fair to play football for her club where she played the game, while with Army she played hockey. So there was no clash, and she should have been allowed to stand for her football club.

“I had told her, she was such a big name, yet she was in Karachi, going for the National Football Championship supporting her club in niqab (face veil). Nobody knew who she was except for the team, and she said ‘Summi there is my community too, I have to abide by the culture and norms, I’ll do the hijab, I represent them’, but Army punished her. They would keep her on the bench, wouldn’t let her play. It was a very difficult thing for her, but she endured it, and then they fired her,” explained Sumaiya.

The Hazara Quetta Football Academy coach Rajab Ali also corroborated the account. He said that Shahida was with the team, but the Army department stopped her from playing and made her stay out of the game.

“Shahida was very well respected. We are all sad because of her demise. The younger players thought they had so much time to learn from her. She was our seasoned player and she guided the players selflessly,” said Ali.

Sumaiya added that the 2021 Women’s Football Championship was an incredibly challenging thing for Shahida as she had left her young son at home, who was also getting admitted to the hospital at the time. 

“She loved football and her community so much and she sacrificed for both a lot. At that time she could still leave Hassan with her mother and sisters, but she was so worried, yet she kept up with everything,” said Sumaiya.

But after being let go by the Army, Shahida tried to apply to many places and Sumaiya recalled sending many emails for jobs, but all was to no avail.

“Shahida was not treated well when she was alive. Honestly, the things people said to her had hurt her. It is just that she never displayed her reaction because she was an optimist.

“Like her son’s paternal side would not let her see her son. That broke her, even till an hour before she passed away on that boat, she was asking of her son. She was saying that she is missing him. She used to cry for him, she wanted a better future. Our last exchange was about her son. She travelled to Turkey legally, but when she was going to Italy, she had said that they have heard about the waters being dangerous,” said Sumaiya.

“Once her body comes here I want to take legal steps really because her son, Hassan has lost one person who loved him the most, and we all see Shahida in him. He is all that is left of her, so her mother and sisters they all are here. He has five, six mothers. I was her best friend, and often she would teach me how to take care of Hassan, I always did as she asked because I thought I’ll help, I never knew she would leave like this,” said Sumaiya.

The bottom line is that if the football and hockey federations had done their job of establishing proper professional leagues, if there were opportunities and fairness in sports, Shahida may not have been on that boat and taken an extreme step like this.

“The truth is when federations need players, the players are always there, but when the players need their federations and departments, they are never given any response. No one cares about what happens to the athletes and this is a tragedy. It is true that if there were more opportunities and fairness in Pakistan for athletes, and especially women, then she would have been alive today,” said Sumaiya.

When asked if she has any message she said,” Shahida always used to say that a player must be given the respect of players, but we can see that she never received that treatment while she was alive. She always was respectful to the sport, to the fellow athletes, to the federations too, but she used to say in Pakistan the athletes were never kept like they are valued. This was Shahida’s message too, ‘treat players like human beings’. Do not discard players leaving them to be taken care of by luck alone, everyone is not lucky or privileged.” 

Sumaiya said that the Hazara community is appreciative of sports and Shahida received immense support from her community, but it is the national federations and departmental sides along with the lack of facilities and opportunities, and lack of professionalism that ruins the lives of the athletes.

Sumaiya once again requested everyone to pray for Shahida’s soul and asked the government to help in bringing her body back home so that the last rights can be performed.

Published in Express Tribune, 10 March 2023