Dispatches from AfPak: Notes from a Rally

by Joshua Foust on 6/29/2010 · 2 comments

Naheed Mustafa is a Canadian freelance broadcast and print journalist. She’s currently on a reporting trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan and will be posting dispatches from her trip.

ISLAMABAD – “I would rather they kill him. Just take him into the street, fake a police encounter, and shoot him like a dog. At least then I will have his corpse and I will learn to live with his death. The way it is now, I am neither living nor dead. I don’t know if or when my son will come home.”

They were a small group, maybe 80 or so, holding pictures in gilt frames of their sons and fathers and brothers, shouting slogans and demanding justice. They assembled here in Islamabad in front of Parliament House, kept sufficiently far away from anyone with any power, by reams of barbed wire, concrete blocks, and a line of police. They called out President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani, punching the air with their fists; cars drove by, slowing down to stare momentarily at these families of the disappeared.

The members of this group — disparate in their backgrounds, education, sophistication — shared a camaraderie. Many have been meeting at these rallies for nearly half a decade. They alternated between chatting about the mundane details of life and breaking down in sobs, overwhelmed by the enormity of their tiny requests: give me back my son; I want to see my husband; please tell me where my father is.

Thousands of people have been picked up by Pakistan’s secret agencies, often at the behest of the CIA, often in return for a bounty. The stories of these disappearances are devoid of detail, identical in their brevity: he went to work, he didn’t come home; he left for school, he didn’t come home; he went to visit his uncle, he didn’t come home.

For the very few who have come home, they are typically lost to themselves and their families, unable to cope, suffering physically and emotionally. The scant details that do emerge paint a picture of a campaign of detention and torture that is methodical and purposeful.

At one point a woman rushed out of the crowd to its fringes, heading straight toward me. “I want to tell you something. My husband was picked up in the case of Faisal Shahzad. He’s been missing since May 17th and they won’t tell me where he is. I have a one-month old baby. I want my husband home and they won’t tell me where he is. We don’t even know Faisal Shahzad.” She breaks down, tears streaming past her dark glasses.

Hands reached out of the crowd to console her. An old man from Peshawar in a bright green turban advised her to be patient. His brother was picked up a little over five years ago. The old man held a picture of his silver-haired brother with a trimmed beard and white turban.

But underneath the tears and grief lay a festering anger that at times burst to the surface. As Zainab Khatoon was pleading for her son’s dead body for God’s sake, the government buildings in the distance suddenly caught her eye and it was as though she saw them for the first time, realizing the people over there had the power to give her what she demanded over here. She screamed her rage at the buildings behind the barriers and wire and police, cursing, telling those men they won’t escape the ill wishes of a widowed mother who only wants her son back. “I will never forgive you! I will never forgive you!”

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Naheed June 29, 2010 at 1:13 am

ah! formatting error! first line of para 2 is not part of the body text, it’s to explain the quote. (continuity is everything!)

Joshua Foust June 29, 2010 at 8:16 am

Woops! Fixed it!

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