A `witch' is burnt in rural Pakistan

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THE RAIN finally came to the Punjab last week. Two days of downpour turned its red dust to mud. The fields are now spotted with rust-coloured pools reflecting a heavy, grey sky.

The land is fertile, irrigated by the huge canal system built by the British. Thousands of villages, still known by the numbers the Raj administrators gave them, sit like islands in a sea of wheat, cotton and sugar cane. To the east lies the Cholistan desert, known locally as the walking sands.

Two weeks ago, in the village of Chak 100P, an old, mad woman was burnt alive. The incident barely made the local papers, let alone the national news. But the story of Muradam Mai is the story of modern Pakistan.

How Muradam Mai died is simple. She burnt to death, screaming, when villagers poured petrol over her and lit it. Why she died is less straightforward. It is a mixture of Chaucer, Arthur Miller and Umberto Eco, touching madness and witchcraft, resurgent Islam, sexism, racism and an administration rotten to the core.

Muradam Mai's nightmare began two years ago when, her family says, she started behaving "stupidly". Her moods swung from ranting anger to passivity. She also began disappearing for weeks at a time.

Last June, a doctor diagnosed her as paranoid schizophrenic and referred her to a hospital in Lahore, 300 miles to the north. The referral was a joke - her family could not even afford the bus fare, let alone medication. Her husband took another wife and her wanderings worsened.

At 8am on 8 January, Muradam Mai was found sitting in Chak 100P's village shrine surrounded by burnt paper. The villagers say she had been burning pages from the shrine's Koran, the Muslim holy book.

A group of men dragged her to the village square. Her fingers were cut off and her eyes put out, probably with a stick. Two men poured petrol over her and lit it. Other villagers then stoked the flames and tyres filled with kerosene were dropped over her. When the police arrived, around noon, Muradam Mai was very dead and a crowd of 70 gloating men stood around her corpse. "She burnt the Koran, so we burnt her," they told officers.

As far as the police are concerned the reasons for the murder are clear. "These people acted in a regrettable way but are strong Muslims. We have identified the suspects and they will be brought to book," promised Maqsood Ahmed, the local police chief.

The village elders agree that the case is straightforward. Chak100.P's headman, Ishfaq, said the woman died because the villagers "love Islam".

"It was the young men who did it," Ishfaq said. "Their religion is angrier than ours was at that age. But to burn the Koran is a terrible thing. I'm not saying what happened was good but such anger is difficult to contain."

However, it is not certain the paper Muradam Mai burnt was from the Koran at all. False allegations of Koran burning - a criminal act punishable by death under Pakistan's blasphemy laws - are a favourite ploy in family feuds or land disputes. They are also often made against ethnic or religious minorities. Last week neither the police nor the village elders were able to produce the Koran Muradam Mai was supposed to have burnt.

Instead, according to some locals, Muradam Mai may actually have burnt only paper charms given her by a local holy man - a "pir" - in the hope that her mental health would be restored. Such rituals are rarely remarked on. But Muradam Mai was already a target.

"This woman was an outcast. She was hated and feared for supposedly casting curses or, at the very least, bringing bad luck on the village," said Dr Aslam Naru, a local teacher.

"The accusation of burning a Koran was an excuse for the lynching. It was a witch-hunt, like in Europe centuries ago."

According to Akram Bhatti, who owns much of the land around Chak 100P, there were other reasons for the animosity suffered by Muradam Mai. He says she had transgressed a number of basic codes: she was a single women, wandering alone and not properly in "purdah" - the strict seclusion of women traditionally followed in rural Pakistan. She was mentally ill. And she was also Soriaki - a local ethnic minority - in a village of Punjabis. He says the police took three hours to come, despite their headquarters being only a 20-minute drive away.

But the crucial factor, said Bhatti, was that Muradam Mai had no one who was prepared to protect her. "She needed someone to look after her ... but no one came," he said.

In a society where the strong bully the weak and the weak prey on the even weaker, Muradam Mai's memory will last only as long as it takes the rain to wash a smudge of ash from the red Punjabi soil.