KARACHI: The founder of Pakistan’s largest welfare organization, Abdul Sattar Edhi, died Friday at the age of 92, his son confirmed, as tributes swiftly poured in for the humble man almost unanimously revered as a national hero.
“Abdul Sattar is dead,” his son and heir to his charitable empire Faisal told Agence France-Presse. “My father was suffering from severe kidney problems and both of his kidneys had failed,” he said.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced a state funeral and day of national mourning in honor of the man who owned just two sets of clothes, but whose work uplifting the nation’s destitute and orphans cemented his place in the hearts of Pakistan’s masses.
“We have lost a great servant of humanity,” Sharif said in a statement. “He was the real manifestation of love for those who were socially vulnerable, impoverished, helpless and poor. This loss is irreparable for the people of Pakistan.”
Motivated by a spiritual quest for justice, over the years Edhi and his team created maternity wards, morgues, orphanages, shelters, and homes for the elderly, picking up where limited government-run services fell short.
His ethos of humanitarianism transcended religious and ethnic lines, but made him the target of many ferocious smear campaigns.
Hardliners branded him an infidel and his work un-Islamic. His response was hard work and an obstinate asceticism, a bid to leave his enemies with no ammunition.
He slept in a windowless room adjoining the office of his foundation furnished with just a bed, a sink and a hotplate.
Edhi leaves behind his wife Bilquis and six children including son Faisal, who said his father’s funeral will be held near Karachi on Saturday.
The last time Pakistan held a state funeral was for military dictator General Zia ul-Haq in 1988.
‘I am satisfied with my life’
Born to a family of Muslim traders in Gujarat in British India, Edhi arrived in Pakistan after its bloody creation in 1947.
The state’s failure to help his struggling family care for his mother — paralyzed and suffering from mental health issues — was his painful and decisive turning point toward philanthropy.
In the sticky streets in the heart of Karachi, Edhi, full of idealism and hope, opened his first clinic in 1951.
Abandoned children and the elderly, battered women, the disabled, drug addicts; Edhi’s foundation now houses some 5,700 people in 17 shelters across the country.
The most prominent symbols of the foundation — its 1,500 ambulances — are deployed with unusual efficiency to the scene of extremist attacks that tear through Pakistan with devastating regularity.
He was so widely respected that armed groups and bandits were known to spare his ambulances.
Meanwhile, the foundation’s adoption service sees unwanted children — many of them girls — left in cradles placed in front of every center, where they can be safely cared for.
Without Edhi, “I would have had no life,” Seher, 16, one of several thousand children who has grown up in the foundation’s care, told AFP earlier this year.
As news broke of his death, social media lit up with tributes lauding him as “the greatest Pakistani.”
Opposition leader Imran Khan described Edhi as a “noble soul,” while Pakistan’s powerful military chief General Raheel Sharif expressed his “deepest sorrow and regret.”
Edhi has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, and appears on the list again this year — put there by Malala Yousafzai, Pakistan’s teenage Nobel laureate.
Frail and weak in his later years, he appointed his son Faisal as managing trustee in early 2016.
He gave until the very end, his son told AFP, seeking to donate all his body organs — though doctors said that due to his age he could only donate his corneas.
“I have done a lot of work. I am satisfied with my life,” he told AFP in an interview earlier this year. AFP