Salma Bibi, a mother of four, sits in her cramped house on Qambrani Road in Sariab area of Quetta. Her family shares the premises, which has no sanitation facilities or drinking water, with three of her brothers-in-law and their children. Her husband is an auto mechanic who was recently diagnosed with cancer but, she says, they have no money to take him for his treatment. This, however, is not what keeps her up at night.
On October 30, 2017, Salma’s 16-year-old son Bebarg and 17-year-old nephew Shameer were on their way to Government Degree College, Quetta, when armed men in plain clothes arrived in three vehicles and whisked them away. Both teenagers were first-year students. The same day, her 18-year-old cousin Samiullah, who worked as a security guard at the Geo news channel office, was also picked up by men in plain clothes from outside his workplace. The staff there was allegedly forced to delete CCTV footage of his abduction. Salma and her relatives later went to the Quetta Press Club to record their protest, but no print or electronic media outlet was willing to give them coverage.
Salma’s brother and Shameer’s father, Mohammad Anwar, is a government schoolteacher. He, too, was abducted two years ago but was released within eight days. Salma’s uncle, Ghulam Mohammad, was also kidnapped briefly a few years ago.
She insists that those members of her family who have been taken away have never had any association with any political or militant group but she admits her younger brother, Aslam alias Achhu, had links with Baloch separatist groups. The security forces claim to have killed Aslam, a key commander of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), two years ago. His sister does not know about his killing. She says she has not seen him for the last 15 years.
“We are slum dwellers. We cannot carry out a campaign in Islamabad for the release of our loved ones,” she says, appealing to the Human Rights Watch to help her family get justice.
Fareed Shawani, a Quetta-based human rights activist, says the abduction of young Baloch men by security forces has gained a new momentum. “We have received 29 fresh complaints since October 2017,” he says. The actual number of disappearances might be much higher because families are often too scared to report them. They generally believe that if they stay quiet, their loved ones will eventually return home. But if they start campaigning and asking tough questions, they will either never hear of their missing relatives again or will find their dead bodies dumped somewhere.
Zarjan Atta, a mother of five, travels for several hours on bumpy deserted roads from a remote village in Balochistan to reach Karachi. Her 23-year-old son Nawaz Atta, a student at Karachi University, has gone missing. The relatives Nawaz was living with in Karachi told Zarjan that armed men dragged him out of their flat in Gulistan-e-Jauhar area on October 28 last year.
Nawaz is the information secretary of the Baloch Human Rights Organization (BHRO) which monitors and protests against human rights violations in the province. Zarjan hasn’t seen her son for over a year and a half. She is an illiterate widow who earns a living sewing traditional Balochi embroidered clothes for women in her village. Now, in Karachi, she has been trying to bring him back for months, but to no avail.
Nawaz’s fellow activists held a press conference in Karachi following his abduction to record their protest. They demanded that he be produced in a court if he was guilty of a crime and be allowed to defend himself. But this demand has fallen on deaf ears so far.
Twenty-one-year-old Sagheer Baloch, a second-year student of political science at Karachi University, was also picked up by men in plain clothes on November 20, 2017.
Sagheer’s sister Hameeda Baloch says her brother went to the university to sit for an exam on the day when he was picked up. “After the exam, he was having tea near the visual arts department when around eight men in plain clothes showed up in a car and two motorcycles and surrounded him and his friends.” Quoting one of Sagheer’s friends, she says they took him away and then returned moments later to ask for his bag. They then took his laptop and also snatched four mobile phones from his friends. His whereabouts remain unknown. His classmates find no reason why he should have been taken away.
Hameeda is the eldest of her three brothers and two sisters. Her family lives in Balochistan’s Awaran district, one of the most turbulent areas of the province. Her father decided to shift the family to Karachi after their home was destroyed in an earthquake on September 24, 2013. They have been living in a rented apartment for five years.
Not a day passes by when Hameeda does not knock on some door for justice. As a woman, she faces tremendous challenges but her determination is unwavering. “I don’t want to receive my brother’s mutilated body like those of so many other missing persons. I want justice. My brother is only a student; he is innocent. If he is a criminal, he must be tried by a Pakistani court.”
Hameeda has already lost hope in at least one institution. “I filed a petition in the Sindh High Court that first gave us January 4  as the date of hearing. The hearing was later cancelled due to unknown reasons. Since then, our case keeps getting delayed,” she claims. “My father even met Balochistan’s Chief Minister Abdul Quddus Bizenjo who also belongs to Awaran district. He assured my father of doing his best for my brother’s safe release but no headway has been made.”
On October 16, 2017, Pakistan became one of 15 states elected as members of the United Nation’s Human Rights Council. In its election pledge, Pakistan resolved to uphold, promote and safeguard human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. Yet incidents of enforced disappearances continue unabated back home — and mostly with the involvement of the state’s own institutions.
On April 16 this year, the head of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, Justice (retired) Javed Iqbal, who is also the chairman of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), briefed the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Rights. He all but absolved the state of its role in the missing persons phenomenon and said foreign spy agencies illegally apprehend people and then pin the blame on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence (MI). He also claimed that the figures of missing persons in Balochistan were often exaggerated.
The statement instigated a heated debate among political observers who saw it as an attempt to veil the incompetence of the government and as an excuse for the state’s failure to protect its people. Justice (retired) Dr Ghous Muhammad, who is a member of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, does not agree with this critique. He says even though he was not present at the standing committee’s hearing, he endorses Iqbal’s view because he has made his claims on the basis of evidence.
Anecdotal evidence, though, seems to suggest otherwise. Last month, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) released a damning report titled State of Human Rights in 2017. It highlights an increase in enforced disappearances and targeted violence against ‘soft targets’.
“The report said that 313 cases of missing persons received by the missing persons commission still remain unresolved and that 2017 was a troubling year for journalists and bloggers,” says a report published in the daily Dawn. Ironically, the Lahore residence of HRCP consultant, Maryam Hasan, who had edited the report, was ransacked in a burglary-style raid soon after the release of the report. Two men took away her laptop, phones, two hard drives, jewellery and some cash after questioning her about her professional engagements. The commission suspects they were not ordinary thieves and has called on the Punjab government to apprehend them and establish their identity. The incident begs the question: if a human rights watchdog itself is not safe, what hope is there for Salma Bibi, Zarjan Atta and Hameeda Baloch?
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue under the title 'The age of the missing'. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.