Refusing to Disappear

Enforced disappearance

1) The deprivation of liberty against the will of a person; (2) Involvement of government officials, at least by acquiescence; (3) Refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.

Enforced disappearances in Pakistan started under the reign of military dictator General Pervez Musharraf and have continued ever since. Most often, male members of the family are abducted by state agencies on mere suspicion, due to their speaking out against official policies, or even for no apparent reason. No charges. No whereabouts. Nothing.

I had heard about these disappearances. I felt sorry for the families held in the strangest limbo, with the children not knowing if they are orphaned or not, the wives not knowing if they are widowed or not, and the men themselves having no idea why they were picked up in the first place.

I sympathised from a distance. Then it happened to us.

The morning of a spring day in 2016

We were sorting books that day.

There were books all over the place – we’re avid readers – and even dusty old books that I had never seen were pulled out of the cupboards.

I came across an old magazine – some sort of astronomy journal – and found a cool photograph of a night sky, the milky way clearly visible.

I went over to my dad. He was sitting at his desk, the tabletop holding two big monitors, a stack of folders, his calendar and various other work-related stuff – and in the corner, a jar of my sister’s home-baked ginger cookies. CEO’s aren’t invincible to a sweet tooth – my dad definitely isn’t. Even as his fingers raced over the keyboard, he still hadn’t had the heart to refuse our beloved ginger cat, Cado, a place in his lap.

“Hey, Baba, look what I found for you,” I said, holding the picture up.

He could have been in the middle of a crucial project pitch or key client chat, but as always, he dropped everything and turned his full attention to me.

“Oh, wow, that’s wonderful, jani!” he said, a big grin that always sent the opposite message of ‘tired’. “Could you cut it out for my wall?”

Baba’s ‘wall’ was the wooden partition behind his computer, where he would tape the drawings we ‘gifted’ him as well as pictures of constellations. Baba likes the stars.

“Alright, great!” I walked off to fetch the scissors.

After all the sorting was done, we put everything back in place, swept the floor and closed the cupboards. They wouldn’t stay closed for long.

The evening of the same spring day in 2016

I remember that day like it was yesterday. That’s not meant as a metaphor. I mean literally, I can recount every single moment of the most horrific day of my life like it just happened. I was eleven then. I even remember the clothes I was wearing – pink and gray.

They knocked on the door of my room. I was writing a story at that time. A fantasy story where I was the main character, with dragons and ninjas and evil robots.

“Who is it?” I asked, confused. I had not heard anyone come into the house.

“We need to search,” someone said.

My brain went numb, just disconnecting from the rest of my body. I couldn’t process what was happening.

I was still clutching my pencil when I somehow moved my legs and walked out. Our house was ransacked. The cupboards were flung open, things laid strewn around and plainclothes men with masks and guns were everywhere. As I went past the couch and looked over my shoulder, I saw two men – one with a gun – searching through our toys.

Our toys.

What they were looking for, I still do not know. What could they possibly find in our house other than books and computers? I joined my siblings and mom in the living room – the place they’d already searched – and just stood there, dazed.

After a few minutes, the rooms emptied, the doors sounded, and they were gone.

“Where’s Baba?” my then 7-year-old sister asked my mom, as we stood in the middle of our own ransacked house.

I remember saying over and over in my head, “Don’t say it. Please don’t say it.”

Mama looked around the house, expressionless. “They took him.”

I walked back to the living room, my brain refusing to process anything, my heart refusing to believe anything. I found the picture of the stars. The one I had cut out for Baba. It lay amongst the rest of the papers on the ground, as if it was not any more important. As if it did not mean anything else.

I picked it up and held it in my hand. For a moment, I didn’t do anything.

Then my fingers came together, my palm clenched into a fist, and the paper crumpled.

I walked over to the trash can and threw it away.

A day later

Relatives and neighbours came and went by. None of them stayed for very long. I guess they were afraid to linger in case our house cursed them.

“Where’s Baba?” my then 7-year-old sister asked my mom, as we stood in the middle of our own ransacked house.

I was sitting with my mom, the guests in the other room, and she was talking to me about being brave and patient.

I finally said it. “Alright, Mama, I can be patient. But please just tell me how long we have to wait.”

She hesitated. “Beta…”

“Just tell me! An estimate. Just a guess. So that I can be prepared. How long? One week? One…month?” and then I finally burst out my worst fear, “One YEAR?”

My mom took a deep breath. “We..we don’t know.”

“We don’t know?”

That was when the tears came.

I scoff at my childish estimates now. One year was the worst I could think of then.

It’s been a lot, lot longer.

The ones who noticed first

I was in the car with my mother when we pulled up into the gas station after grocery shopping. It was the first time I had been out after Baba had gone. It was also the first time for my mother to be getting the groceries and the gas on her own. We couldn’t decide whether to feel refreshed or miserable.

The attendant came over to Mama’s window, asked how much we needed and then put in the pipe. But instead of usually staying put, he came back.

“This is haji sahab’s car, right?” he asked anxiously. As soon as he spoke, I sensed the other attendants stiffening and trying to hear Mama’s answer.

“Yes, it is,” Mama faltered slightly.

“Where is he?” the attendant was clearly worried. “We haven’t seen him for a few weeks. Is everything alright?”

Mama looked over at me, sitting wide-eyed in the front seat. I knew Baba was friends with everyone, but a gas station worker? I recalled Baba chatting with them, but I didn’t know they’d be concerned enough to ask.

Mama hesitated, then turned to the attendant. “Just….make dua for him, please.”

They weren’t the only ones who asked. The newspaper vendor at the crossroads stopped us many times.The refugee chacha who sold corn-cobs on the street rung by a month in. When Mama asked the local grocery store uncle if there were any payments Baba had left to settle with him, he choked up. When he did speak, he said there was no need to.

I knew Baba was a people-magnet, and I knew he gave generously. But until he disappeared, I hadn’t realized how many lives he’d actually touched.

The first Ramadan

Whenever I made Dua’ for Baba’s return, eleven-year-old me always went, “Please, Allah Ta’ala, I know I can’t bear one more day without Baba…one more week without Baba…one more month without Baba…”

It soon turned into “I can’t bear a Ramadan without Baba, so please, please, bring him back.”

The evening the moon was sighted, I was upstairs in my room when the doorbell rang. My heart kicked into double gear and I frantically tried to catch a glimpse of who it was from the window. When I couldn’t see anything in the dark, I dropped in sajdah and made the same fervent – childish – prayer.

It wasn’t Baba.

Perhaps Allah was showing me that in fact, I could bear much, much more.

The first Eid

As I stood in the Masjid on the first Eid without Baba, I looked around as the prayer finished, the Aunties giving everyone big hugs and the girls laughing amongst each other. I wondered how many of them had a missing father or husband. I wondered if these few people in the crowd had perhaps learnt to just act well so that I couldn’t identify any faces as long as ours. Or maybe there weren’t any others at all.

I felt incredibly alone.

We used to go to Baba’s rural village, two hours away from the city, every Eid as well as every two weeks to visit my grandparents. Since my mom had never driven the unpaved roads there, we didn’t visit for the whole year. I guess it was a good excuse for getting a little time to gather some courage. On this eid-ul-fitr, our relatives came instead of us going.

My grandmother was not told that her son had gone missing for as long as possible. My Baba is her favourite son – the star of the family, always obedient to his parents and caring towards his siblings. But the secret couldn’t be hidden forever. She walked into our house with a damp face and hugged us without a word.

I thought I couldn’t survive Ramadan without Baba, let alone an Eid. But here I was.

Perhaps I had died the day he was taken.

The first court hearing

I was twelve now. Twelve-year-olds don’t usually go to the High Court. Neither do eight-year-olds. But that’s where my younger sister and I found ourselves, along with Mama and our grandfather Abbu Ji, for our case’s hearing.

It was a big compound. Small gardens alternated between buildings. There were a few TV cameras and lawyers in their black suits clustered around. Above it all, a large Pakistani flag fluttered.

Our lawyer was a cool guy, with wild hair and mis-matched socks: all the signs of a genius. He seemed to be well-respected amongst the legal circle. Greeting us warmly, he led us inside the courtroom. I thought about how Baba would’ve liked to meet him, and felt the torn part of me open up again.

I obviously didn’t know what to expect, but this room could very well decide what would happen next. As we sat in the back of the packed courtroom waiting for our turn, I looked on as the other cases were presented; disputes over inheritance, squabbles over money, arguments about dismissals. Compared to all that, I was here to find out where in the world my father had disappeared.

Illustration by Aymun Sajid

Finally, our turn came. I’ll admit I was nervous. As we stood on one side of the rostrum, the people presenting ‘against’ us came up on the other. Baba could’ve made friends with them too. He could make friends with anyone.

I hesitantly looked up at the judge in the high chair –  he seemed like a regal but kindly man. He listened to what our lawyer had to say, then took off his glasses and looked at the police.“So you’ve been unable to trace him?”

“Your honour…you see…the time…”

“This citizen has been missing for six months!” he exclaimed. “That still isn’t enough time?”

Time they asked for – and time they were given. They conducted a thorough investigation; they interviewed our neighbours and asked us for a written statement. For us, it was just reliving the horror over and over again. Hearing after hearing, report after report, the result was always the same; my Baba is innocent, all the neighbours spoke well of him, and yes, it is indeed an enforced disappearance. Month after month, hopes were raised, then dashed and driven to the ground again.

Then, two years later, the High Court gave the final judgement, that Baba be produced immediately. 

What laughed in my face was that Baba still didn’t come back. I remembered the flag above the High Court. I remembered how Baba would put it up every Independence day. I remembered how he would stop the car to pick up the green-and-white buntings off the road with us because he couldn’t bear seeing the flag on the ground.

But the systems that were under the flag he loved had failed him.

That tea party

Two years on, I had learnt a lot of things – how to hope, how to numb feelings – and how to lie.

We, as a family, had an unstated understanding that only those who needed to know – or who accidentally found out – would know about our situation. We didn’t want people to pity us – or run away from us, frankly. But our closest friends knew by now. They had to – Baba was always out there in the community, a larger-than-life extrovert, doing charity drives and events – with good laughs all the way. His sudden absence couldn’t go unnoticed. Some friends cut off, but the real ones stayed, Alhamdulillah.

We had to act up to the wider circle of friends.

This tea party was at such a friend’s place – whole families invited. Dads and sons on the right of the backyard, moms and daughters on the left. Dads would sometimes cross over to the middle strip of garden to speak to a wife or daughter.

I’m 14 now, sitting with a group of other teenage girls. We became acquainted with each other, and as we chit-chatted, I was feeling more of a normal teenager than I had in a long time.

Then a father called over to one of the girls I had just met. She pushed back her glasses and answered him. Then she poked me with her elbow, still looking in her father’s direction.

“Hey, where’s your Abbu?” She asked. “Can you point him out to me?”

For a moment, I felt offended. How dare she ask such a personal question. Couldn’t she consider the possibility…

Illustration by Aymun Sajid

Well, why would she? Most people don’t really know what missing persons are.

“He’s not here,” I said quickly.

“Huh? Why not?” Innocent question. But if she knew what she was doing, it wouldn’t be.

“He’s…working.” I was trained in that now, but it still made me feel guilty. Not just for lying – I felt as if I was betraying my father somehow.

But what could I answer her? “My father is a missing person?” “My father was kidnapped?” “My father was whisked away by masked government officials in an unmarked car two years ago and I have no idea where the heck he could be?”

Lies are easier sometimes.

The charade of college life

As we progressed ahead in the life that had to somehow go on without my father, I found myself not prizing, but rather dreading every milestone we achieved. My sister’s hifz finished: and although she had waited months to complete the last page, Baba was not there for getting dad-proud and excited. We got A+ grades in our first official exams: Baba was not there to congratulate us. And now, at the age of 16, I was about to go to college – and Baba was still not back.

I wondered how much longer I’d have to wait, how much more life I’d have to spend without Baba. My mother reminded me of what Baba had always taught us: that this life is temporary anyway – meeting up together in Jannah is what really matters. Four years ago, eleven-year-old me would translate that to ‘we might never see Baba again all our lives’ and be horrified afresh; now, I was old enough to start finding solace in it.

That doesn’t mean that college was a piece of cake.

I thought it would be easy to pretend there, but a few weeks in, it was starting to get a little obvious.

A casual question came from a classmate whom I’d gotten to know a little. Both of us stood in front of the big black gate, bags slung over our shoulders as we waited for our rides. The merciless Pakistani heat beat down on us.

“Your Ammi is coming to pick you again?” She barely bothered to take the lollipop she was sucking on out of her mouth. “Why doesn’t your Abbu?”

“He’s got work,” I said quickly, a small wound reopening as I recalled the first time I’d had to tell the lie. “He’s busy at this time, so my mom picks us.”

“Oh…and what does he do?”

What does he do? I have no idea. He may be in a cell in some secret base. Does he pray? Does he do push-ups? Does he read? On second thought…is he allowed to do any of that? Is he forced to do labour? Is he allowed to eat?

Illustration by Aymun Sajid

“He’s an engineer.”

“Coooool.” She stuck the lollipop back in her mouth, unaware of what she’d done to me, what horrible scenarios she’d forced me to think of. “Doehs youhr mohm do anyfing?”

“She’s… also an engineer.”

She was. She’d left working after we were born. After they took Baba, she’d been forced to start again, despite all the other new pressures she was dealing with.

“Naaaiicceee…” My classmate popped the lollipop out and looked up the road. “Ooooh, my Abba is here now. Gotta go, see you tomorrow!” and just like that, ponytail swinging, she walked towards the car that happened to contain her father.

I don’t think she realized, but I didn’t answer her back.

It was worse on prize distribution day.

Both my older sister and I had won prizes for debates – that’s my Baba’s genes there – and so, we both got invitation cards that would each ensure the presence of one family member at the ceremony.

“Congratulations, beta, this is wonderful!” Our co-curricular teacher stood over us, her perfume a little too strong. “Now since you both got invitation cards, your mother as well as your father will be able to attend! It’s a little rare, you know!” and she let out a cheery laugh that sounded across the hall. “I can’t wait to meet your parents!”

My sister and I exchanged uneasy glances. “I….I don’t think our father…will be able to make it,” my sister hesitantly offered.

The laughter abruptly stopped and a pair of slightly concerned, heavily eye-shadowed eyes looked over at us. “Oh dear, why is that, beta?

He’s missing.

“He’s got work.” It rolled easily off my tongue now.

The last Eid

It’s this Eid-ul-Adha. I sit outside at night time on a traditional charpai in the village. Baba’s village. You can see every star out here. It’s where Baba got his passion from. But for now, there’s a thick cloud cover and I can’t see a thing.

It’s six years later. I’m eighteen now.

Baba is still not back.

I wonder if he will recognize me when he In Sha Allah comes back. I wonder if I’ll recognize him. What if I’ve changed too much? What if he’s changed too much?

I also think of something else.

All these years, we’ve tried to hide it, blend into the background, play an endless act. We say it’s so that people don’t pity us or isolate us. But it’s also because we fear ‘them’.

There are many activists and journalists out there who simply spoke up for missing persons and ended up disappearing themselves – journalists Matiullah Jan and Sajid Gondal are yesterday’s examples. There are many people out there who have received threats for actively pursuing their cases in court. And that is why the families and children of the missing stay silent.

But that’s what ‘they’ want.

They want all these cases to go unnoticed. They want to scare us so that we stay shut up. It’s just another way of torturing us; taking our loved ones away and then not letting us do anything.

As I sit in the place of my Baba’s roots, I realize that it’s now up to us, the youth left behind – especially the women – to speak up for the forcibly disappeared. They like to bother high profile people who take a stand. But even in the shambles of what’s left of our democracy, they’ll still think twice before threatening kids.

And anyway, forget all the hero stuff. I just want to make peace with myself. I just want to be able to stop living with guilt. I just want to be able to look my Baba in the eye and say that I did at least a little something for him, that I tried.

So, I sit under that night sky and break my silence, scribbling out the first draft of this story. Not the story I was writing five years ago – of dragons and ninjas and evil robots – but my story, and the story of thousands of children across the country who have been trained not to tell it, for a very, very long time.

I’m forced to go through every stage of it again, reliving the first moment of horror, all the way to seeing my grandmother’s tear-stained face yesterday as she prayed for Baba. I tell the story that I have always wanted to tell, but have never been able to, as I agonizingly pull out every memory and place it in chronological order.

It’s difficult, but it’s almost like therapy. I feel better after writing it down.

If you have a story to tell, whether it’s like mine or about any other form of oppression – I beg you to say Bismillah and tell it. If you don’t have such a story to tell – I ask you to listen to those who do. Don’t pity us. Don’t alienate us. Just know. Know what it’s like to live as the daughter of a missing person, or the son of a deported immigrant, or the child of a refugee.

I close my diary and glance up. The clouds have parted. The picture I’d cut out for Baba and then crumpled up on day one looks down at me from the night sky.

This story is completely real and true. It is not finished yet.

I just hope the ending is a happy one.

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A Timeline since Sajid’s abduction