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Pakistan Mourns Legendary Humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi

Jul 11, 2016
Originally published on July 11, 2016 8:10 am
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Next, we remember a man who, in a cynical age, was almost universally given credit as a force for good. He was a citizen of Pakistan. He never held political office in that country, but received a state funeral over the weekend. NPR's Philip Reeves reports on just what he did.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Pakistan is saying farewell to a man some saw as a saint and everyone saw as a hero. Abdul Sattar Edhi was famous for his simple, frugal life. His funeral is far from that. Arranged by the government, it's in a Karachi cricket stadium. There's a ceremonial gun salute. Surveillance helicopters circle overhead as Pakistan's military and political leaders file in. Thousands from the public are here, too. Mourner Mohammad Faisal says news of the death of Edhi, or Eedie (ph), as some call him, caused him great distress.

MOHAMMAD FAISAL: We don't have any other Edhi. There was only one Edhi, and he has passed away.

REEVES: When Edhi started charity work more than 60 years ago, he was penniless and uneducated. He begged on the streets for funds. Gradually, he created a huge humanitarian network, helping people who the government failed - orphans, abused women, the old and destitute, the mentally ill and the dead. Over the years, Edhi personally collected thousands of unidentified corpses from Karachi streets. He also built a nationwide fleet of ambulances. Whenever there's a car crash, a bombing, an earthquake, a flood, an Edhi ambulance somehow shows up, says Salman Najib, another mourner.

SALMAN NAJIB: For each and every catastrophe in Pakistan, he was the first person to go there, most of the times before the government.

REEVES: Edhi stood out in Pakistan, where politicians are often reviled for their corruption and VIP lifestyle. He wore coarse cotton and the same pair of shoes for decades. He was, says Fahad Siddiqui, who's also here to pay his respects, a man you could trust.

FAHAD SIDDIQUI: Edhi was one of the persons or organizations where you know, if you're donating something, it is going to the right place.

REEVES: The usually boisterous alleys outside Edhi's Karachi headquarters are quieter now than usual. Inside, small girls and boys kneel on the floor in a circle and pray for Edhi. They belong to a multitude of abandoned kids given shelter by Edhi over the years. Azra Allah Ditta works here. She's a Christian, a minority frequently targeted by violence in Pakistan. In a society rife with sectarianism, Edhi was the exception, she says.

AZRA ALLAH DITTA: (Through interpreter) He never singled me out as Christian or viewed others as Muslims, Hindus or Sikhs. He saw all human beings as equal.

REEVES: After the funeral, at a Karachi mosque, men lined up to give their condolences to Edhi's son, Faisal.

FAISAL EDHI: From all over the world we have been receiving messages, phone calls. I didn't - I didn't know that so many people loved him that much.

REEVES: As for Edhi's humanitarian work, Faisal says...

EDHI: It will continue. It will continue. I was helping him since he was sick, and he loved me, and he always counted on me. And I will not let him down.

REEVES: Evidence of that was easy to find on the streets of this city today. Edhi's ambulances are still hard at work. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Karachi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.