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Stabroek News

Winner is rebuilding his home town
published: Saturday | December 17, 2005

BATAGRAM, Pakistan:

IHSAN KHAN angrily walks the rubble-strewn streets of his home town where buildings tumbled like children's play blocks during the recent magnitude 7.6 temblor that killed 87,000 people.

Where was the heavy equipment that was so desperately needed to help free those who were trapped beneath the debris, Khan wants to know.

"We heard children crying to be saved from the rubble, but we couldn't get to them," he says. "We used horses and mules against tons of broken concrete because there was not one bulldozer in our entire region. Why is this? Where does the money go?"

The 47-year-old Khan aims to find out. And more than anyone else in this tiny Himalayan town, he has the means to do so.

Khan's is an unlikely international tale of abject poverty turned to fantastic riches. Leaving Batagram for the United States penniless in 1977, he returned two decades later as one of the wealthiest men in Pakistan.

For years, the slightly built Khan, who worked as a cabbie in Washington, D.C., had regularly played the lottery.

He sometimes slept in his cab, but Khan never gave up hope. He kept a fortune cookie prediction that read, 'Among winners, you are the chosen one.' He played numbers that came to him in a dream: 2, 4, 6, 17, 25 and 31.

Then the incredible happened: In November 2001, the immigrant won a US$55.2 million jackpot. He opted for a lump-sum prize payout and posed for photos with an oversized checque for US$32,499,939.24.

Soon after, Khan cashed in the American dream for Pakistani rupees, returning to a region where the average salary is US$500 a year.

The former hardworking hack transformed himself into a high-energy public figure who is now promising to rebuild his home town, where 4,500 people died in the October 8 quake. He has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to get the job done.

GOOD SAMARITAN

Just days before the earthquake, Khan was elected district nazim, or mayor, of Batagram. After the quake hit, he helped pull survivors from the rubble, and paid to get the most seriously injured to regional hospitals. He told pharmacists he would pay them later for dispensing all the medicine on their shelves. The bill came to 10 million rupees, almost US$200,000.

Khan has bankrolled a programme to supply roofing materials to rebuild shattered dwellings. He bought 150 tents, some of which occupy land just outside his mansion with breathtaking views of snowcapped peaks.

Most important, Khan has emerged as a colourful and outspoken critic of local government corruption.

In recent days, the blue-eyed nazim ­ who refers to himself simply as Khan ­ has dismissed the town's police chief and fired another official.

Khan promises to continue the house cleaning. "We have a calamity and people are lazy, unable to move," he says. "So I started firing people."

Relief workers are impressed. "He's a take-charge person," says Aziuddin Ahmad, who works with a Malaysian aid group.

One of Khan's targets is the Pakistani army. "The army is worthless," he says on his cellphone, pacing the living room of his 20,000-square-foot mansion. An American citizen since 1984, he keeps a similarly-sized house outside Washington as well as a smaller home in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, where his second wife and two younger children live.

In rapid-fire sentences spoken in his native Urdu but laced with English expletives, Khan directs a personal staff of six that includes two bodyguards. He collects no public salary and is chauffeured about his domain in his own new Toyota 4x4.

Khan arrived in the U.S. at 19. He earned a political science degree at Northern Illinois University, where he met his first wife. They had one child, but the marriage didn't last: "She was a good Christian and I was a bad Muslim.''

CAB DRIVER

After his divorce, Khan moved to Washington, where he began driving a cab: "It's the worst job in the world. But I told myself I'd go on until I had a heart attack and then people would know what Khan went through.''

He often returned to Pakistan for months at a time. On one trip, Khan remarried and later fathered two more children, who remained in Batagram. But the cab driver, hungry to make his mark, always returned to Washington.

In 1995, his son from the first marriage told Khan he was applying to Georgetown University.

How was a cabbie going to come up with that kind of cash for one child, then for two more? Several years later, Khan won the lottery.

Returning to Batagram, Khan noticed how the poor were denied equal education and job opportunities by provincial officials who favoured their friends.

Two weeks before the October election for district nazim, Khan entered the race. Like a plain-talking Pakistani Ross Perot, he campaigned with his own money, promising to build a modern Batagram with street lighting, parks and more schools. He defeated an incumbent whose family had been involved in local politics for 45 years, yet who Khan contends was not getting the job done.

"A lot of politicians in this country are happy to just have a flag on their car. I'm not one of them. Voters gave me a sacred trust. If a single penny of their public money was wasted, I'm responsible,'' he says.

­ Los Angeles Times­ Washington Post News Service

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