Gulzar Dars, a low-ranking official in the Pakistan Army deployed at Chhor Garrison in Sindh’s Umerkot district, has not returned home since late 2008. When his brother, Isa Dars, visited the garrison in the summer of 2009 to find out what happened, an army colonel told him that Gulzar had been arrested on December 2, 2008. The officer did not explain further. “When I asked him why Gulzar was arrested and what happened after his arrest, the colonel said he did not know,” Isa tells the Herald in his village Tardos, in Chhachhro region of Tharparkar district, right next to Pakistan’s border with India across the Thar desert.
Since then, their family has suffered one tragedy after the other: First Gulzar’s only child, a daughter, died and then his father, Arbab Dars, passed away. But more than three years have gone by since Isa last heard from Gulzar. “We do not know why he was arrested, what happened to him after arrest or if he is even alive.”
Gulzar’s maternal uncle, Mohammad Waris Dars, who retired from the Pakistan Army as havaldar in 1987, has been missing too since February 2, 2009. He was working as a security guard in Karachi when he disappeared and his employer told his family that he never returned to rejoin his duty after having left his workplace a day earlier. When his eldest son, Mohammad Asif, went to the police, they refused to register a case because of his father’s military background.
Many other families in the same area have similar stories. For instance, 80-year-old Ajeemat in the nearby village of Samrar has been waiting for the return of her two sons for the last three years. One of them, Inayat Ali, was still in the army when he went missing in December 2008 and is known to be in the army’s custody, and the other, Wahid Bukhsh, a retired soldier, has disappeared without a trace since early 2009 (see Three Women, Three Stories).
Dost Ali, a resident of Baliari village, also does not know why the intelligence agencies arrested his son Lance Naik Rab Dino from Pannu Aaqil Garrison in December 2009, where they have detained him and whether he is still alive.
The intelligence agencies also arrested Suleman Arisar in December 2009 on espionage charges from Umerkot town where he was running a tea stall after deserting the army. But it was only in February 2011 that his family knew who had taken him away and why and that too after his mother, Jama, filed a petition in the Sindh High Court for the recovery of her son.
Going by such harrowing tales of forced disappearances and clueless families of the disappeared people trying to catch at straws to know about their dear ones, Abdul Razzaq of Samrar can count himself lucky to have returned home alive after he was arrested in February 2009 from Hyderabad garrison where he was working as a naik in the army. “I do not remember the exact day [when] some people barged into my room in the barracks; [they] overpowered and blindfolded me and drove me away,” he tells the Herald.
When monthly money orders stopped arriving from him and he also did not visit his home for months, his family got worried. His brother contacted his regiment but did not get any reply. The family also wrote several letters to the topmost officials of the Sindh Police as well as the chief justices of the Sindh High Court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan but none of them responded. An application that his wife, Jaan Bai, sent to the Chief Justice of Pakistan on October 20, 2009 mentions that even Razzaq’s immediate bosses in his military unit did not disclose his whereabouts when contacted by the family. Then his brother filed a petition at the Sindh High Court and it was in response to this petition that the defence ministry, through its director Lieutenant-Colonel Sarfaraz Khan, informed the court in February 2010 that Razzaq, along with some other soldiers from his native area, were being held under espionage charges.
His months in captivity were tough, to say the least. “The inhuman torture that I underwent during 14 months of my detention not only left me with brutal injuries but also maimed my soul,” he narrates his ordeal to the Herald. He says he had to confess to the crime that he did not even commit to avoid torture but was later able to prove his innocence through documentary evidence (see Manufacturing Confessions).
After his interrogators cleared him of the charges he was facing, Razzaq reported back to his army unit in the Baloch Regiment. His unit head, a colonel whose name he cannot recall, congratulated him on facing the charges with courage and getting a clean chit. But, feeling demeaned and disillusioned by his superiors, he was already thinking of something else. “How could I work for those who suspect my loyalty to my country?” he asks. Wounded and shattered, he quit his job in the Pakistan Army as soon as he returned to his village.
Razzaq, who joined the army in 1996 and served as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone in 2002-2003, no longer sees his stint with the Pakistan Army as a badge of honour. He has confined himself to his village and does not like to use naik, his military rank, as a prefix with his name as most former men in the uniform would.
Dost Ali, Lance Naik Rab Dino’s father, is aghast that his son and other soldiers from the area are being arrested and interrogated for espionage. “Charges of espionage are ridiculous,” he says. It is the third generation of villagers from his area that has been working in the Pakistan Army and there were never such charges in the past. “How is it that all of a sudden they have turned into spies?” he asks.
About 20 in-service and retired soldiers from the area disappeared between 2008 and 2010. While the military authorities never informed their families about their arrests or reasons thereof, documents seen by the Herald suggest that the entire process of investigating and trying them is cloaked in secrecy. When Arisar’s family moved the court for his recovery, for example, the then chief justice of the Sindh High Court Sarmad Jalal Osmany ordered his trial through the Field General Court Martial as early as possible (see General Justice). He also ordered the military authorities to notify the court about progress in his trial. But nobody knows whether he is being tried and if so what stage his trial has proceeded to. During a hearing in February 2011, Deputy Attorney General Mian Khan Malik told the court that the military authorities did not reply to any of the several reminders his department had sent to them regarding compliance with the court orders in Arisar’s case.
Dr Ghulam Haider Samejo, a member of the National Assembly from the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party in whose constituency the families of the disappeared villagers reside, says he often hears about such arrests and disappearances but cannot verify them. “The army has its own procedures and if a serving soldier is arrested what can I do about him?” he tells the Herald when asked whether he had raised the issue in the Parliament.
The Herald sent repeated messages through email and cellphone to the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) to know the army’s side of the story but his reply never came.