Mohammad Zaman Shaikh woke up on Christmas Day 2011 feeling sick and uneasy. He had slept badly but couldn’t say precisely why. All he knew was that something wasn’t right.
When, at 10am that morning, the police knocked on the door of the family home in Rochdale with the news that his 32-year-old son, Khuram, had been murdered in Sri Lanka, Zaman initially assumed they had made a mistake.
It seemed unlikely that his youngest son, a rehabilitation programme manager with the International Committee of the Red Cross, could have died in a hotel at the seaside resort of Tangalle. He had, after all, worked in some of the most dangerous and desolate places on earth, from North Korea to Ethiopia, and had gone to Sri Lanka to relax with his girlfriend after a stint fitting prosthetic limbs in Gaza.
After a little while, though, Zaman’s certainty began to evaporate.
“I remember my heart beginning to beat faster and faster and my eyes began to fill up as I started to think that the police information could be correct,” he says. “When they told Khuram’s mother, she screamed and cried hysterically, then she fell to the floor and fainted.”
Khuram is thought to have been attacked and killed while trying to protect his girlfriend from a group of men who had arrived at the hotel and started to sexually harass her. Two years on, Khuram’s mother still cries as she goes through the daily torture of trying to imagine her son’s final moments.
“While I worry for her health and mental state of mind there is very little I can do to help her,” says Zaman. “A mother’s loss is different to anyone else’s and only a mother can explain that.”
Zaman, a 67-year-old retired businessman, tries to cope by visiting Khuram’s grave several times a week and by clutching to the hope that one day his son will get justice.
But although the trial of the six men accused of murdering Khuram and raping his girlfriend is finally due to begin in March, and although Prince Charles and David Cameron have raised the murder with the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Zaman is far from confident about the island’s judicial system.
Frequent delays in bringing the accused to court – not to mention the fact that one of the alleged attackers is a politician with close ties to Rajapaksa – have taught him to limit his hopes.
“The Sri Lankan authorities have handled the case in a painfully slow manner,” he says. “They are trying to brush it under the carpet in the hope that people will forget about what happened and that we will stop fighting for justice.”
But what they fail to understand, he adds, is that “we will never stop fighting for justice”.
Zaman, who has been unable to speak publicly about Khuram’s murder until now, is succinct when he reflects on what the loss has done to the family: “It has shattered our whole world.”
He remembers Khuram as a happy, handsome and sporty boy who was obsessed with Liverpool FC and would take any opportunity to play football, cricket or snooker. “My son grew into the most kind-hearted, selfless and ambitious person you could ever wish to meet,” he says. “He put everyone else’s needs above his own and I am incredibly proud of everything he achieved in his short life.”
Zaman’s pride reached a pinnacle when Khuram got his job with the International Red Cross. Despite realising how dangerous the work would be, he knew his son had set his heart on it.
“When he explained that he wanted to use his skills and knowledge to help those less fortunate than himself, we started to come round to the idea,” says Zaman. “He assured us that he would stay safe wherever he went.”
The Shaikhs’ MP, Simon Danczuk, has travelled to Sri Lanka twice this year to ask ministers why the case is progressing so slowly, and was instrumental in bringing the matter to Cameron’s attention. “The loss this family has suffered is unbearable and I’ve seen for myself the pain in the parents’ eyes as they struggle to come to terms with what happened to their son,” says the Labour MP. “I do not want another Christmas to pass with Khuram’s killers still walking free.”
At the end of last month, Cameron wrote to Danczuk to tell him that he had raised the subject of Khuram’s murder “very directly” with Rajapaksa during the Commonwealth summit in Colombo, adding that he had told the president that the “shocking and appalling case” needed to be resolved as quickly as possible.
Until that day, the family is fated to remain trapped somewhere between grief and despair. Khuram’s father will keep up his near-daily trips to his son’s grave; his mother will tear herself to pieces trying to imagine his suffering, and his five-year-old niece will continue asking for the uncle she does not know is dead.
Closure, if such a thing exists for a family who have lost a son in such circumstances, is very distant – a fact of which Zaman Shaikh is painfully aware.
“Khuram was incredibly close with his siblings, especially his younger sister,” he says. “Khuram was a mummy’s boy and although he has died once, I watch his mother die every single day.” (The Guardian)