Amina kept all the flowers her husband Masood gave her over the years. She kept the first bottle of perfume, the first scarf. She believes he will be back as strongly as she believes in God. Tomorrow or the day after or next week or next month. She doesn’t know when, but someday. She must believe this to stay motivated. If she is a fool, okay, let her be a fool.
For years she was unaware of the miseries of the world. She decorated their Rawalpindi home, painted pictures and wrote poetry. She never read newspapers. They met in 1977 when she stopped by a gallery he administered and inquired about hanging some of her paintings. He could organize things in an instant.
They married and had children. They loved to go hiking on weekends. They enjoyed impulsively packing up their son and daughter and driving into the countryside with no specific destination in mind. When it snowed in the mountains they would go skiing on a whim, leaving behind the congestion of city life with all its problems and politics. Masood was openly critical of corruption and of his government’s ties with the War on Terror, but otherwise he was not a political person.
Nor was she—until he disappeared.
I sit across from lawyer Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, who represents families of missing persons in his Rawalpindi office.
The power has shut off and he apologizes for being able to offer me only cold tea. Dust lingers from the ceiling as if contemplating its descent before finally falling in waves upon his desk. The mildewed books filling shelves on both sides of his office offer an odor suggesting sodden wisdom lost to moisture, neglect, and poverty.
Siddiqui tells me he does not know how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people suspected of ties to jihadi groups—“you know the ones, mullahs and their followers”—are being held in jails throughout Pakistan in unknown detention centers as a result of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and the subsequent alliance between the U.S. and the dictatorship of former President Pervez Musharraf. Suddenly, he says, everyone became a suspect. Despite promises of reform, the detentions have continued under the democratically elected government of President Asif Ali Zardari. Guilt or innocence is not the issue. To impose terror on suspected terrorists, to maintain a grip on power, ah, now that is a strategy, eh?
Siddiqui believes some of the missing have been given over to U.S. authorities in exchange for cash and are held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. But who knows? Perhaps they are elsewhere.
“You will not be jailed in America if you say you hate the United States,” he says. “But I, as a Pakistani, cannot criticize the policies of America or my own government while in Pakistan for fear of becoming a missing person.”
He pushes a stack of file folders toward me. I catch them as they nearly slide off the table. Each folder has a name. Each one tells a story. I pick one up, COMPLAINT OF AMINA MASOOD JANJUA, and begin reading.
On July 30, 2005, Amina and Masood ate breakfast around nine. Fried eggs and toast. The day was sunny, nice. Their children were asleep. The morning heat increased as time passed. They knew soon the streets would be dusty and clogged with traffic amid the pandemonium of the bazaars, and that the dust would cling to them.
Masood left the house to meet a friend, Faisal Faraz. Together they bought bus tickets to Peshawar, where they planned to spend the day with friends. They would return that night. Amina can still see him walking to the door, turning around one last time to smile at her as he said Goodbye, see you tonight. He and Faisal caught the bus, but the bus arrived in Peshawar without them.
We know where your husband is, the callers said. Don’t make a fuss. He’s okay. He will come home. They did not give their names.
Amina was not worried. She assumed Masood had been delayed. Maybe at a rest stop along the way. Their only phone was a cell phone, and he had taken it with him.
The first night passed. Then the second. Then the third. By the fourth day of his absence Amina felt her heart beating so hard it made her chest ache. She could not quiet her fear. After one week she could take it no longer.
Her father-in-law, a retired colonel in the Pakistani army who had been in the same commando training unit as Pervez Musharraf, spoke to then-president Musharraf about Masood. Yes, we’ll find him, relax, Musharraf told him.
Days passed, and then weeks. No Masood.
Amina wrote letters to the Interior Ministry inquiring about Masood.
She checked with jails, hospitals.
Then mysterious men began standing outside the house. They had short haircuts. Black suits and ties. They would not speak to her.
Amina started receiving phone calls about the same time.
We know where your husband is, the callers said. Don’t make a fuss. He’s okay. He will come home. They did not give their names. No call number appeared on her new cell phone.
One year passed. She started demonstrating with four members of her family outside the parliament. They had never demonstrated before and did not know what to say, worried how the police might react if they said anything. They held placards and stood silently.
Mr. President, one placard read, please find my loving father. Another: Mr. President, please find my loving husband. Another: Where are the human rights of my son?
More days passed. The days turned into weeks, months, years. Still no Masood. Now forty-six, Amina alternates between fear, sadness, and puzzlement when she speaks of Masood’s five-year absence, and can’t imagine what she would have done had she known that so much time would pass without him. Maybe, she thinks, she would have killed herself. But now instead of despair, a weary, hardened resolve to find him compels her. They had been married sixteen years when he went missing. Twenty-one years now, when she includes the five years he has been gone. She tries not to think what another five years will be like without him.
Mohammad Arshad lives in Kalawan village near Haripur, a town two hours north of Islamabad. Green farm fields unfold just beyond the open door and burros walk gingerly on stone paths, their backs burdened with firewood. His plain concrete home stands on a hill. A table, handful of chairs, and a bed for guests to sit on emphasize a sparse atmosphere, in keeping with Arshad’s grief for his eighteen-year-old son Sheraz. When Arshad speaks of him, his face drains into his chest and he cries and can no longer speak.
On December 3, 2009, the police knocked on Arshad’s door minutes before midnight. They overturned furniture and searched the rooms.
Why Sheraz? he thinks. Sheraz had a friendly attitude with everyone. He smiled easily but shyly. He always invited people he met at the bazaar home for tea.
We arrested two guys and they say your son has a rifle, the police told him. Everyone has a gun, Arshad told the police. To protect livestock. The police ignored him and woke up Sheraz, a slight university student with a patchy beard. They took him by his arms and pushed him toward their car, tugged a hood over his head and shoved him inside. They left in a fury of stones spewed from beneath the tires and left Arshad alone in the doorway shouting after them for his son.
The next morning, Arshad walked to the Haripur police station. The police said they didn’t have Sheraz, but that the Ministry of Defense and the Inter Services Intelligence agency, Pakistan’s domestic CIA, were involved in his case. Arshad said he did not want trouble with the ISI. He simply wanted his son back. The police said nothing.
More than a month has passed. Arshad’s wife often falls to the floor and weeps when she sees Sheraz’s empty bed. The weeping chokes her, sometimes she vomits. Arshad helps her up and guides her into their room where she collapses on their bed, inconsolable. Then he stands by himself in the front doorway and stares at the fields and cries quietly.
Why Sheraz? he thinks. Sheraz had a friendly attitude with everyone. He smiled easily but shyly. He helped older people in the village with farm chores by digging furrows in their fields and taking a hoe to the hard rocky ground. He always invited people he met at the bazaar home for tea. He wanted to join the army for the opportunities an army career would present to a young man born in a humble village. He also liked the idea of wearing a crisp ironed uniform, the way he would look in it.
You know how boys are, Arshad says.
Gulam Farwo sits beside his nephew Arshad. Much taller and stockier than Arshad, and with a full black beard that reaches down to his chest, Gulam’s own sorrow-filled eyes begin to tear.
Gulam’s two younger brothers, Munir, twenty-six, and Mohammad, thirty, went missing the same day Sheraz was arrested. On that December morning, he saw them in the mosque praying. After their prayers, the two brothers returned to their homes and tended their wheat fields. Gulam drove into Haripur. Two hours later, he received a phone call from a neighbor. Two policemen and six men wearing black suits and ties took his brothers from their fields, and now they are gone.
Gulam called the police. They said they would be released in a few days. After three days, the police said, We don’t know where they are. Some agencies are involved. ISI. We don’t know. You have to wait.
Gulam asked what charges his brothers faced, what evidence resulted in their detention. But the police refused to answer. This was not police business, they told him.
Gulam is also searching for his twenty-eight-year-old nephew, Mulla Kari Sadiuk. He was in Arshad’s house when Sheraz was arrested. Who are you? the police asked him. Sadiuk told them. Oh, we’re looking for you, they said. And they took him.
Only days before, two men with military-style haircuts had asked about enrolling their children in Jamia Mosque Kalawain, where Sadiuk teaches. Gulam told him to hide. Those men are trouble, he warned. But Sadiuk ignored him.
Amina spends her days in the office that Masood used as managing director of the College of Information Technology in Rawalpindi. Circles sag beneath her eyes. A purple-patterned scarf wrapped around her head frames her face. She adjusts a brown prayer shawl across a shoulder and uses it to wipe the screen of a computer monitor. Curled lists of missing people are tacked to the walls. Above her head hangs a photo of Masood. He would be forty-nine now. He smiles at the camera, head tilted to one side as if he is trying to figure something out. His thick, graying beard rings his face.
His face pressed against their shoes, while his kidnappers drove to a house and put him in a small, dark, dirty room. They removed everything from his pockets and turned off the light.
She uses his office to administer the Defence of Human Rights, a group she founded in 2006 on behalf of missing persons. She helps collect information on nearly one hundred cases that she then turns over to lawyers representing families of the missing. Each case needs as much detail as possible for a lawyer to take it. In some cases, the families have no clue what happened to their husband, father, son. In other cases, eyewitnesses have submitted letters saying they saw so and so taken by the police or by men in civilian dress with short cropped military-style haircuts. She speaks so softly that many of the families she tries to help must lean forward to hear.
If my son is alive, I want him here, and if he is dead, I want to know about his death, a woman dressed entirely in black tells Amina. Her son has been missing for a year. Amina holds her hand.
We won’t complain to anyone if he’s dead, the woman says. We just want someone to tell us.
Do you have any clues? Did anyone see anything? Amina asks her.
No. He was just gone. Nothing was disturbed in his room.
Tell me what you know.
I want my son to be with me, the woman says.
Amina never asked Shakil Ahmad Turabi to get involved in her struggle. He chose to, and now his son Hassan is missing.
An editor at the South Asian News Agency, Shakil stares into space while recalling the night of May 18, 2007 when a car cut him off as he drove home. Two men dragged him out and pushed him into the backseat of their car and shoved him to the floor. His face pressed against their shoes, while his kidnappers drove to a house and put him in a small, dark, dirty room. They removed everything from his pockets and turned off the light. About half an hour later, a young man with a major’s bars on his jacket told Shakil to introduce himself.
Your duty is to introduce yourself to me before you question me, Shakil said, trying to assert himself beyond his fears.
You don’t know who we are.
The major complained that the South Asian News Agency had republished a New York Timesstory about who would take over the government should Musharraf resign. The story claimed that the mood of the populace seemed solidly against both him and the army.
Why publish a story critical of the army?
How was that critical? Shakil said.
Do you know the number of missing people?
Do you want your name on that list?
Who would look after your three kids?
Allah. Don’t worry about my children.
Don’t teach me philosophy. And don’t publish bad news.
The major left and turned off the lights. One hour later, they gave Shakil his things. He had messages from his daughter Fatima on his cell.
Who is Fatima? the major asked.
Don’t be rude. My daughter.
Tell her you will be home in one hour.
After seven hours, he was released.
Days later, he started receiving anonymous phone calls. Why are you so active?
Six months later, on September 14th, two men assaulted Hassan, then fourteen, after he was dropped off at school. The school called Shakil and said Hassan was ill. He called his driver to go pick him up. But then the school administrator called him again. You must come, he said. Your son is in the hospital.
Hassan’s legs were black and blue and his face was bruised. His two assailants had told him, We tried to teach a lesson to your dad, but he did not mend his ways. Hopefully after this he will mend his ways.
After the assault on Hassan, Shakil was careful about what subjects he chose to write about. He was less critical of the government. For a time, his family experienced no more problems.
But then he met Amina at a demonstration for missing persons. Her struggle was a good story for his news agency and he admired her tenacity. He told her his story and she listened to him as if she had no problems of her own. Moved, Shakil demonstrated with her when she camped outside parliament. Days later, he started receiving anonymous phone calls. Why are you so active?
He thinks about that question now, the implied threat in the voice on the other end. He thought at the time he must be very careful or he might be kidnapped again. He worried they might beat up Hassan again, but he never expected them to take him.
On January 5, 2010, Shakil’s driver dropped off Hassan, now eighteen, at Islamabad College for Boys. He never came home. A teenager likes to stay out, Shakil reasoned. But by evening, he was concerned and started looking for him. Desperate after five days of fruitless searching, Shakil met with the inspector general of police.
You can get your son on Monday the 11th at two, the inspector general said. Shakil returned on Monday. The inspector general did not meet him until three thirty that afternoon. The army men who know about your son are not here, he told Shakil. Come Tuesday. On Tuesday the inspector general did not show up for the appointment. He never came to his office and did not answer his cell phone. On Wednesday, he came to Shakil’s house.
The army told me it’s not your son, he said.
Other families of missing persons have told Shakil the authorities gave them equally mixed messages. With us, not with us. Nothing.
But how can he stop looking, Shakil asks them. You can’t. You won’t, they tell him.
Shakil takes pills at night but can’t sleep. He tries to explain to friends how he feels, but he just breaks down, covering his face in his hands, feeling himself crumbling apart. His wife tosses and turns in bed, shouting out Hassan’s name and asking, Where are you? Their twelve-year-old daughter said, Father, give me a bomb. I want to blow myself up in front of the agency that took you and my brother.
It is natural to want to retaliate, he thinks, but no one can do anything in Pakistan. There is no rule of law. He avoids any criticism of the government when he writes a news story, even if that leaves the story unbalanced and incomplete. He lives every day hating the indignity of his compromises. But, he’s decided, he won’t lose his son to his words.
In 2007, according to court documents, new evidence regarding missing persons was provided to the deputy attorney general of Pakistan from a lawyer representing physician Imran Munir, a former detainee who had been charged with espionage. In a handwritten ten-page statement in English to the court, Munir wrote that he was held in solitary confinement in Chaklala, a Rawalpindi prison. One excerpt reads, verbatim: