Nasreen’s dismembered body didn’t scare me

Published: April 29, 2012

My early days as a reporter ended with tears at work or nightmares at home. PHOTO: EXPRESS / FILE

Female body parts were found from different parts of Karachi, including Soldier Bazaar and Guru Mandar. One of the victims, whose body parts were found in the Guru Mandar area, was identified as Nasreen.

As I looked at Nasreen’s body chopped into pieces that lay on separate tables in a smelly morgue, I did not shudder. Any normal person would have trembled, I think.

I spent 15 minutes in that very room where her skinned parts were being inspected by medico legal officers (MLO). I roamed around, looking at her body for details; if I had not seen the body, I wouldn’t have done justice to the story I had to file. I saw blood-soaked bangles, her slender arms and blue plastic bags.

“Don’t you feel like throwing up?” the MLO asked curiously.

“No,” I replied with a small smile.

Inside, I mulled over his question, but I had no answer.

I felt nothing for the woman.

The following day, when the article about this woman was published, several comments criticising the story poured in. Some said I had gone overboard with describing the details; some said it was like reading a cheap thriller; some felt I was heartless.

I wanted to share my thoughts with them; that I had described everything because I felt nothing when I was writing the story; that I came across as “heartless” because I was not emotionally connected with the story. The truth is that I have stopped feeling sorry for the victims. But it wasn’t always like this.

The first time I did a story on violence, it was about a teenager whose back was burnt with an iron and nails plucked by pliers. I cried hysterically the day I wrote that story.

My early days as a reporter ended with tears at work or nightmares at home. Senior reporters would tell me to stop getting emotionally involved, to detach and become insensitive.

The victims are not your family – stop caring and concentrate on reporting. This is not social work, this is journalism.

And I listened to them.

I pushed back tears when I saw minor rape victims bleeding on hospital beds; bomb blast victims wincing in pain; mothers and sisters wailing for their loved ones dying in air crashes; people buried under rubble in a Lyari building; houses blown away by powerful blasts; target killings taking away sole bread earners.

And then one day I stopped feeling sorry for them. I wouldn’t tear up when I  saw blood or mourners.

This month, another woman’s body was found, killed in the same gruesome manner. No gory details, my editor said, and so I refrained from including them. People seemed disgusted and shocked by the incident; I felt nothing except excitement and curiosity. The murderer was believed to be a serial killer – and I have never in my life seen one.

When the suspect was arrested yesterday, journalists became emotional and screamed.

“Are you a woman hater?” they asked him.

I kept my cool; for a serial killer, he was a disappointment –  I had expected someone much cooler. I simply asked how he had killed the women standing next to him, no abusing, no curse words.

I detached.  And that is why I didn’t shudder when I saw Nasreen’s dismembered body. Her body did not scare me.



Rabia Ali

Rabia Ali

A reporter for the Karachi pages of The Express Tribune.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Nandita.

    But you’re a human first and a reporter after that. In the quest of becoming a good journalist, is it really worth it to stop being human and turn into an unfeeling robot ?Recommend

  • Jawad Khan Niazi

    Good for you, I guess being human is bad for the journalism business. What worries me is that if the people are constantly fed with articles like yours, would they also become cold and heartless eventually? And then would nobody care to do raise a voice out of sincere emotions about such incidents?Recommend

  • Karachi Feminist

    Nice article; shows how constant exposure to violence desensitizes us. I found the following lines disturbing:

    “I felt nothing except excitement and curiosity. The murderer was believed to be a serial killer – and I have never in my life seen one…..for a serial killer, he was a disappointment – I had expected someone much cooler.”

    Excitement at violence is something perturbing, as is an expectation of coolness. You should consider distancing yourself from this stuff, take a sabbatical, perhaps, and in fact newspapers should provide counseling services for reporters who are exposed to such horror in such an intimate way.Recommend

  • sabra

    I feel sorry for the writer, if everyone becomes ‘detached’, where will our society and journalists head. Recommend

  • M.Aswad Mehatb

    After i read this i recalled the Programs they show on National Geographic , Animals hunting in jungle and splitting the innocent deer in pieces , They Filming team only sit and watches ,They film them but never try to disturb what ever is going on there …

    And than it becomes clearer to me… Now we also turned into animals , Our News channels and media people cover every thing ,Most of the times they even can stop what ever is happening in front but they never try to interfere because what they only care about is there footage…

    After all Rule of Jungle is in force now !! Recommend

  • Shahzeb

    Its very beautifully written. it conveys the angst that you feel. I admire your courage for the work you do, I truly do. I think this is a good way of venting or relieving some of the feelings of what you see through your line of work. You write well, have you ever thought of writing a book about these events and your career, how you got started and why you continue to do so. The reason I say this is, in a way it could be therapeutic so to speak. I hope you have someone you share these burdens with. Recommend

  • Parvez

    I’m a bit confused. Did you stop getting upset due to over exposure to violence or did you stop feeling sorry for the victims ???
    If it’s the latter suggest take a long break from what you’re doing and have a serious rethink about things.Recommend

  • Mighty

    Quite brave piece, this.

    Dear Rabia
    I sympathize with you, not only because I’ve been a journalist, but also because I’ve been slowly desensitized as well. I’ve living in Lahore, Karachi and now in Islamabad and let me tell you that the ugliness slowly becomes mundane; the horror becomes fascinating and the gore is just white noise that can be shut out.
    But desensitization is not about becoming ‘inhuman’. The human mind is a curious thing and no matter what you feed it, it develops ways of coping with even the most horrible of computations. Ask any doctor, rescue worker, Edhi ambulance driver, police constable and morgue attendant. Desensitization is just the brain’s way of coping with continued exposure to heart-wrenching scenes.
    Outrage, moral and otherwise (as is being demonstrated by the others commenting here) is a by-product of a brain that does not know how to cope, or one which has not been exposed to such stimulus before. While I’m not saying that you (or I) are ‘normal’ and those who cannot understand aren’t, there is something to be said about having experienced something traumatic in your lifetime.
    I have had people breathe their last as I tried to resuscitate them. I’ve seen people go from radiantly lifelike to inanimate in the blink of an eye, thanks to some suicide bomber or terrorist. I’ve had shrapnel in my teeth and the smell of gunpowder in my nostrils more than I’d care to admit. I’ve had bloodstained clothes, mostly when the blood was not mine. This is not normal for our society. But it is normal for human beings.

    What I’m trying to say is that rather than trying to justify yourself to those who do not know better, it is far more useful to seek an understanding of oneself. Coping does not mean that you do not feel pain, or do not bleed when pricked with a needle. It just means that you have learnt to control what others cannot. That may seem like a curse, but it is a blessing. It makes you a better human being because you understand things that others don’t. Like the fragility of a human. Or the smell of clotted blood.

    Is my imagery grotesque enough yet?Recommend

  • THE

    Reading this blog reminded me of the prize-winning image of a vulture watching a starving child in Sudan.

    It’s not really your fault Rabia or the fault of the journalists who took this image. You won’t be able to do your job if you get emotionally involved in the story. Pakistan and specially Karachi have become all so familiar with the war and famine that Africa has seen in the recent past that it’s become part of everyday life. I still don’t blame Pakistani society for such kind of serial killing since they are not that common and am so glad that the killer was catch.
    I would say, I was totally surprised to see his picture on tv. I thought he would look much more different or maybe that wasn’t the kind of image I had in mind. The thing that I still haven’t understood is his motive? Is he really insane? Recommend

  • Pinky

    as i havnt experienced what you have gone through,so forgive me for my armchair analysis :) coz i tend to agree with mighty here. surely good journalism doesnt mean that exposure to violence & death should not evoke any sympathy for the victim & revulsion for the crime…these emotions are pretty normal as long as they dont interfere with the reporting :)Recommend

  • Awais

    Something tells me you may have become desensitized……Its okay some of already are by seeing violence first hand by living in dangerous areas which are inflicted with crime and poverty, not just in Pakistan but many other places. Some slightly incured by playing video games in which you can shoot, stab and throw semtex grenades and some by watching online videos such as “3 guys one hammer”. Recommend

  • Faria Syed

    Mighty, I love your comment.Recommend

  • Faiz

    You have such a beautiful sweet face yet comments so harsh and heart so hard. Sad to read this and the state of our journalistsRecommend

  • SK

    Beautifully written. There is no other way to report in this city. Journalists can’t afford to get attached with the stories. It’s a tough call but has to be done anyway. You are surely on way to becoming a great journalist! Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    Powerful stuff.

    Emotion, in most cases, strangles professionalism and worse, leaves the worker vulnerable to serious psychological trauma. Doctors are taught to empathize with their patients, but never to sympathize.

    When you’re entrusted with the task of informing dozens of people a day that they have cancer, or their loved ones are dying, or their limbs need to be amputated, emotional detachment becomes imperative. Otherwise, the wails and tears can easily overwhelm one to the point where he/she can no longer carry his/her duties effectively.

    The author makes perfect sense. Just because a person is not swept away by a torrent of raw emotion every time a mangled body is rolled into the morgue, does not mean he or she is incapable of understanding that it’s something wrong and worth preventing.Recommend

  • Pollack

    “I feel sorry for the writer, if everyone becomes ‘detached’, where will our society and journalists head.”

    Reporters are not social activists. This blogger is actually a reporter and is blogging about her experience as a reporter. A detached reporter is in a better position to report honestly than a reporter who gets sucked in emotionally by the story.

    If you are asking this reporter to get emotional over the stories she covers, will you ask the doctor to be emotional over his patients illness too and loose his focus? Would you want a emotional doctor operating on you? A emotional state of mind prevents a person from being objective. A emotional person may actually end up doing more harm than good in real life even though his/her intentions may be good.Recommend

  • Pollack

    @Mighty: Mighty Mighty!Recommend

  • Sam

    So much violence in the society has desensitized notonly journalists but also the citizens. no one can help. Recommend

  • I.comment

    Yes you have been desensitized, but what’s the point of writing a blog post about it? if you don’t feel sorry for the victims any more, that natural – you cant control it. but don’t you think it’s callous to actually pen that down? Nasreen was a woman who was killed in the most horrible way imaginable. her death is tragic. you may not feel sorry for her, but please show some respect. for you she might be like a character out of a stephen king novel, but for some people she was an actual living breathing person.Recommend

  • http://Shenzhen-China Muhammad Rizwan Ali

    Really best story of the week, The writer highlited ,how the women abused and handle in our society, we are not humen being, we are animal.
    God keep us on right path, nothing will be done by any body, not Government not people, it will be happening always, God only can help, …..Recommend

  • Jawad Khan Niazi

    @mighty I understand how we (the unexposed lot) are not accustomed to gore and such. Soldiers, doctors, ambulance drivers are used to all that. I also agree that their profession demands insensitivity but I have not seen any doctor, ambulance worker etc. who likes to advertise the fact that they have triumphed over the normal human reaction to such scenes. The underlying arrogance on the achievement of this ‘super human ability’ in the author’s tone ticks me off. The excitement for gore on the other hand is just sick.
    P.S. doctors, soldiers and ambulance drivers somehow help the situations that make them face gore. Bloggers, I am not so sure.Recommend

  • envincible

    I have been hearing this tale of keeping the professional foot right before the humanatarian one alot in my life. perhaps it came to me as the most ugly excue for being unapologetic. A person is known by the compassion and composure he/she possed towards humanity and inculcate the same in his work for livelihood which we call in todays world a profession. Its just that people have become obsessed with what they do as preofessionals and not by the human triats they posses. A doctor adds the Dr. to initials and labels itself a professional for life, so does the engineer, a molvi or a journo…but every one of them can even add to their professions when circling in morality and keeping thier professions well reigned by Choice of words and kindered feelings towards society and ethics. sentiments if regulated controlably will only add to the story and will give another bird eye view of what happened in the journalistic scenes to cover. Be a human professiona, just not a professional. Recommend

  • bigsaf

    Sad and chilling. Its an unhealthy coping mechanism. Therapy, along with reforms, is needed nationally to recover from such constant trauma. Consider residents in FATA, Swat, Lyari and elsewhere. There’s an urgency for mental and physical health services. Environment of violence and extreme apathy around the country. You’re not alone. Many good Pakistani citizens have become desensitized. Tragic your colleague separated idealism and humanitarian functions from journalism. It’s not restricted to news. Comedy series ‘Bol Bolay’, which provides entertainment value, left some folks upset as they made light of heinous crimes, such as kidnappers threatening to cut off a baby’s fingers. Not restricted to media either. You’ll find emotionless Pakistani doctors discuss gruesome details of a witnessed death casually over dinner in front of parents, children or spouses, on one hand, then jump into shopping or some other everyday activity. Social disconnect is not uncommon. Some doctors will never ever discuss their work with their family, as the stress silently builds. A Singaporean guest writer for Dawn, who worked in Karachi at the time the 2009 Ashur bombings which happened nearby, shared his experience and biggest fear. He was hoping he wouldn’t end up being desensitized or dehumanized to violence like the local Karachi, Pakistani residents after a day of massacres and bombings, literally feeling like the walking dead. Recommend

  • sars

    Sometimes distancing from the situation mentally helps you take better decisions.You cant always let your emotions dictate how you react to a situation. That is something we physicians have to do , to be able to do our jobs on a daily basis.
    The difference between sympathy and empathy is that the latter is more constructive.Recommend

  • Ammad Malik

    “The brave man is not he who feels no fear, For that were stupid and irrational; But he, whose noble soul its fears subdues, And bravely dares the danger nature shrinks from.”

    Joanna BaillieRecommend

  • Adnan Khan

    So you have officially become a sociopath. Disconnected from life. Looking at people, like they were insects, to be studied and cataloged. Congratulations ?. Bravo ?.
    But if you ever wish to return to humanity, put yourself in the shoes of the victims of the serial killer, as he goes about choosing the instrument or tools, to dismember you, limb from limb. See your life, flash before you. All those things that you promised to do, but will never get to see accomplished.
    Those victims, are not poultry. They were human beings, with lives and loved ones and friends.
    Just like you. Maybe.Recommend

  • asma

    To put it simply: Bakrs ghass se dosti karega tou khaye ga kia?

    Nevertheless i pity those who cant decipher the writer’s anguish behind this blog. nice piece!Recommend

  • yousaf

    They say some days are longer than the others.I wonder what is the total length of the day called 14th.of August 1947?Recommend

  • Uzma

    I’m sorry to say but it sounds like you are going through “burnout” syndrome. It’s a stage of desensitization that humanitarian aid workers are briefed about. Although getting too emotional is not a good thing, neither is “burnout” as it leads to disengagement and can also cloud decision making, just as we say getting too emotional does. Recommend

  • Ali

    My friend Mighty made many valuable comments…. and i can vouch for what he or you have been through … i myself used to work as a news producer in one of our leading channels… and it seemed like everyday i had to sift to footage containing dismembered bodies blood and relatives picking up the pieces…. what the rest see on television or read in newspapers is really a toned down version…. after a while… nothing disgusts you… everything becomes the usual… and u start yelling at your assignment desk to call up rescue services or hospitals and find out why is some other channel’s death count higher than yours… and ur just sitting there like a robot pushing buttons… typing away not concerned with what is going on at a bomb blast but more concerned about going through your cellphone and finding the relevant but useless figureheads we elect as leaders to say something on your screen… at one point u eventually think our society is disgusting and this is wat we deserve…. thats when u start losing it…. and should take a break from it all…. so Rabia…. do take a break and stay sane :) Recommend

  • AlinaSN

    It’s the same as being a doctor. My best friend used to start crying when she saw rape victims or target shootings. But she became immune to it. But once in a while she shuts herself in her room and cries for hours. It’s a stone cold world where you are expected to be emotionless.
    I don’t blame you. And neither should these other people. Instead of judging her for her short comings, first go look at yourselves in the mirror and examine your own shortcomings.Recommend

  • A.s

    I feel sorry for you.. May be feeling a little empathy would make your writing stronger. I am not proposing to attach yourself with the victims but at least have a heart. Recommend

  • psychedelic

    I fail to understand whether it is a justification for the shoddy reporting you had done earlier or are we supposed to be overwhelmed by your machismo on being desensitized? For the former, please do have a look at the reporting done on grisly crimes anywhere else. Or for starts, read the reports being filed from war zones. You need to report the facts without punctuating them with sensationalism. Something which was sadly missing from the first report done on the crime.

    For the latter, while we can certainly empathise with your emotions, i really do not understand the purpose of this article. Are you indulging in ironic self-pity? If so, perhaps you may have considered changing the title of this article from (yet again!) an attention grabbing headline to a more somber one.

    “I kept my cool; for a serial killer, he was a disappointment – I had expected someone much cooler. I simply asked how he had killed the women standing next to him, no abusing, no curse words.”

    You expected someone “much cooler?” – Sorry am I reading a newspaper or a blog of a 15 year old?Recommend

  • AAQ

    I think you still care..Recommend

  • Ayesha Mallick

    As a doctor, I know it is important to be de sensitized to the situation for it would do no good to the patient if the doctor starts sobbing after seeing his wounds. But still I have seen many senior surgeons and consultants become very upset after seeing a patient in distress , but they usually express it in doctors lounge instead of the ward, I think this is professionalism of a human being , would not let emotion rule their commitments and still feel the pain. Recommend

  • M

    The only thing I feel after reading this is plain curiosity, not unlike yourself. Do you enjoy your job?Recommend