It was an officer from the National Defence University of Malaysia (UPNM) – the military college where his eldest son, Zulfarhan Osman, 21, was attending, hoping to obtain a Navy commission.
“Your son has died,” he told Zulkarnain.
There was a long pause.
“He was burnt to death.”
When Hawa Osman, Zulkarnain’s 54-year-old wife, heard the news, she broke into tears. “Allah… my son…”
Initially, the officer read Zulfarhan’s military identity number over the phone. Unable and unwilling to believe the terrible news, the father asked for his civilian identity number instead.
“My mind was racing,” the round-faced Zulkarnain explained. “I kept thinking that it was all a mistake. Maybe it was someone else’s child? I needed to see him for myself.”
At midnight, Zulkarnain, Hawa and their three younger children set off from their home in the southern Malaysian state of Johor for the 300km trip to the Serdang Hospital in Kajang, Selangor.
Hawa, a woman with an intense and somewhat sorrowful expression recalls how she had suspected something was amiss long before the call.
“My son usually called every night, but I hadn’t heard from him for more than a week because he’d lost his phone. Even so, after a few days, I felt something was wrong,”
Finally, and just after 3:00am, the family arrived at the Serdang Hospital. The UPNM officer was there to greet them.
However, they weren’t allowed to see the body until later that morning at 9:00am, leaving them to wait for six agonizing hours.
According to news reports, Zulfarhan was allegedly tortured by a group of his peers from May 21 to 22, 2017 for stealing a laptop.
He was burned with a steam iron that was pressed and dragged along his limbs and torso. A belt, rubber hose and a hanger were also used.
The offence was allegedly committed at the UPNM Jebat hostel between 2:30am and 5:30am on May 21 and 1:30am to 5:45am the following day.
The same news reports added that a week later on May 27, two of his batch mates drove Zulfarhan to a clinic in Bangi for treatment. They subsequently brought him to the clinic again on May 31.
On June 1, some 11 days after the initial attack, Zulfarhan was finally taken to the hospital. He died almost immediately on arrival despite two attempts to revive his shattered body.
For the parents, the initial viewing was tense and unbelievably painful. As Hawa explains: “When they first brought us in to identify him, we were only shown his face.”
She says this with her hand to her chest, indicating the part of Zulfarhan’s body that was exposed. “We asked to see our son’s entire body,” at which point her voice falls silent as the pain of her grief momentarily overwhelms her.
According to an autopsy report, 80% of Zulfarhan’s body was covered in burns. Zulkarnain picks up the thread of the narrative: “I have no words to describe how it felt to see our son in that state. I had no more tears left. It’s particularly heart breaking for his mother. She gave birth to a perfect, healthy baby boy.”
The father continues haltingly: “I couldn’t stop asking myself: why do we have to bury him like this? What happened?”
Zulfarhan’s body was released to the family at 3:00pm on June 2, 2017. He was buried in Johor that evening.
I met the family at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex on October 27. Both parents were wearing T-shirts with “#justice4farhan” printed across the chest. It was the court mention for the nineteen young men charged in connection with Zulfarhan’s death.
Five were charged with murder and one with abetment. Both charges carry the mandatory death penalty and these boys – they looked so young – had been remanded in custody. They were chained alongside the drug offenders and petty thieves that appear all too regularly in big city courts.
Thirteen others were charged with voluntarily causing hurt and if found guilty, they face up to seven years in prison. They weren’t in remand.
Instead, they were more formally dressed in long-sleeved shirts (some were even in suits) – waiting at the side and the back of the public gallery. As the Registrar called out their names they walked – some seemed to march, I remember thinking they were military cadets after all – to the front where they crowded out the dock, creating a degree of confusion.
I couldn’t help but feel deeply disturbed by the scene in court. It was so bizarre.
All these fresh-faced and smart-looking boys. In any other context, I would be thinking “Here are a bunch of bright young things: my country’s future.” But instead, they were gathered in the centre of the courtroom and their futures very much in question all because of what happened to Zulfarhan some six months earlier.
One boy – one of their number – had died and hideously so.
Only they – this group of nineteen – knew why. Only they knew how.
Throughout the proceedings, Zulkarnain, Hawa and their 15-year-old daughter sat in the front row of the public gallery. Silent and dignified, they looked on as the alleged perpetrators of their son’s murder thronged in front of them.
Meanwhile, all around them were the parents of the nineteen, some looking shame-faced, others trying their best to cheer up their boys.
Having noticed the invisible divide between the two groups I asked if there had been any interaction.
The father explained: “Two of the suspects’ parents have approached me to apologise.”
“I said to them: if I forgive you, will my son come back?”
But at least with a trial date pending, the family will soon learn about their son’s last days and the reasons – if any – behind the extraordinary brutality of his death.
Zulkarnain is candid when he describes how they feel. “We have no idea what happened in that whole week from when he was tortured to when he was found. It’s like no one even noticed he was missing. That’s why we have to come to the trial.”
Despite mandatory, nightly roll calls, Zulfarhan’s absence remained a secret.
Hawa adds: “There has been a lot of gossip since the incident. We’ve heard many rumours about what happened. But we need to find out the truth. Although this case will take a very long time, I will continue following it for my son. We can’t just let it go.”
You can understand why as you listen to Zulkarnain (who, despite his suffering, never loses his warm, special smile) and Hawa talk about their eldest child.
He was a loving and responsible third-year electrical engineering student. He dreamt of captaining ships one day.
Those hopes are now gone. But for the nineteen accused, the future has become almost as cloudy. An endless trial. Legal fees. Glittering careers destroyed.
Amidst it all, Hawa, the grieving mother is implacable. “I have to know. I can accept that my son has died, but I can’t accept the way he died.”
NOTE: Follow Karim Raslan on Twitter @fromKMR / Instagram @fromkmr