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Pakistan: my return to the scene of the crime and the plight of Aafia Siddiqui

Written by Moazzam Begg Friday, 24 September 2010
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Qadr (fate) is a difficult concept to understand and an even harder one to explain but, travelling to Pakistan during the days of ‘Eid ul-fitr, on the ninth anniversary of 9/11 was indeed fated.

The decision was spontaneous, but I have to thank Yvonne Ridley for making it happen: I'd planned to go for 'umrah for the last ten days of Ramadan but was denied a visa by the Saudi authorities at the last minute, whom I must ultimately thank too.

Some would have said that my choice to visit Pakistan, especially at this time, would not have been the wisest of moves. My father was dead against the idea, my wife apprehensive and my friends, although supportive, were worried for me. Kidnappings, shootings, robberies and corruption occur regularly.

And if that wasn’t enough, over the past few weeks this country has been under sustained attack, both in an earthly and divine sense, on an unprecedented scale: earthquakes, floods, drone attacks, bombings and a state of civil war in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Even the one thing the nation usually feels proud about, cricket, has not escaped the onslaught.

I had vowed not to visit Pakistan again as long as Pervez Musharraf was still in power and even then, I'd wondered exactly under what circumstances I could return to the country that sold me over to the US war machine.

 Yvonne had asked me if I'd be willing to return to Pakistan with her to help with the campaign for Aafia Siddiqui and to meet some of the people there fighting for justice regarding disappeared Pakistani prisoners. I had two days to decide; I prayed istikhaarah (prayer of seeking the good wherever it is) and made my decision. The flight out was on September 11.

 

Pakistan: The Return

The Pakistani capital was in the grip of another downpour by the time we finally reached our destination. In all honesty I wasn’t even sure if we’d find what we were looking for. I gazed out of the aeroplane onto Islamabad, the city of Islam, with a sense of excitement and dread. My heart was beating fast, my nerves and thoughts racing back and forth between that fateful night nine years ago and what has happened in my life since.

It was the night I was abducted from my house at gunpoint by the Pakistani and American intelligence services - with British intelligence services in full cahoots. That night is engraved in my memory with blood and tears when like thieves they came and stole from me what was not theirs to take: my freedom. That night shaped the person I am today.

It took us a little time to get there but I recognised the area: where we’d shop, the restaurants we’d eat in, the mosque we prayed in, the park we played in and the tailors shop where the shalwar kameez I was wearing even now was made.

We drove around and approached the road where the house still stands. This was it.

“How do you feel?” Yvonne asked me. How could I answer her question, how could I explain properly that the last memories I have of this place before my kidnap are of Zaynab, Marium, Omar and Nusyabah – my wife and children – shut behind this green metal gate. It is this place I’m referring to when I tell people that “I have never been to America, America has been to me.”

“I feel like the weather, “I replied to Yvonne, my eyes welling up and my heart in my throat. The heavens were opening up as we sat in silence, scouring the house for signs of life.

The rain abated and we came out, examining the gates closer. Yes, this was the house for sure. In my subconscious I was half-expecting my children to throw open the gate and pounce on me, asking for chocolates and ice cream. This is the place I’d thought about during my time in Bagram, believing that my family was here waiting. Once upon a time, this was my home.

The current occupier of the house came out and we asked him if we could just film the door and courtyard. This was the door I opened for the last time on the night of 31st January 2002, this was the courtyard in which I was forced down on the floor at gunpoint, my hands shackled behind my back, my ankles cuffed and where both a real and metaphorical hood was placed over my head to darken the next three years.

The new resident, an Afghan gentleman from Jalalabad, then invited us in for tea. None of us wanted to intrude upon him and his family, which included a young girl with cerebral palsy but, how could I refuse? I had to maintain my composure, couldn’t let people see how I was feeling. He didn’t know what had happened here, that in fact we were returning to the scene of a crime. 

The house hadn’t changed – only the occupants. They’d moved in during 2005 so were not aware of any other history. Just as well. There were ghosts here that needed to be put to rest for me and, in sha Allah, I believe that has happened.

But there is more, much more.

From his UK base former president Musharraf is attempting a comeback into Pakistani politics. His justification for handing people over to the US in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was the threat that Pakistan would be bombed into the Stone Age if he refused to co-operate . The irony may be lost on him but, Pakistan has suffered trauma after trauma since we were handed over: drone attacks, terrorism and war with its own people over the last nine years. Devastating earthquakes, with tremors recurring to this day and vast swathes of Pakistan’s soil submerged under the flood waters, all creating refugee crises on a biblical scale, make some parts of the country look as if the Stone Age is yet to arrive.

Could it be that the men and women handed over to America were raising their hands in prayer against the entire nation? The Prophet (pbuh) said: "Fear the supplication of the oppressed, for between it and Allah there is no barrier." 

 The vast majority of the men sent to Guantanamo were sold over to the Americans for bounties of millions of dollars, as confirmed by Musharraf in his autobiography, In the Line of Fire. These people included citizens of Pakistan who were sold over without any legal process. There are fourteen remaining Pakistanis in Guantanamo and scores of others in Bagram.

 

Amina Masood Janjua

There are also hundreds of people ‘disappeared’ and still unaccounted for in Pakistan. Their case is fought by an incredible woman, Amina Masood Janjua who with her Defence of Human Rights Campaign (DHRC), has fought for the last five years to trace her own husband, Masood Janjua, and hundreds of others in the process.  It was an honour to meet this woman who fights day and night, sometimes alone, to seek justice for the hundreds of disappeared and detained without trial around the country. I tried to give her some consolation during my meeting with her, that like me, her husband will surely be home soon. She’s appreciative of the sentiments but then tells me about the corrosive effects all this has had on her daughter, who often accompanies her .

DHRC have registered over 900 cases of missing persons and believe that is only the tip of the iceberg. Estimates suggest the figures are ten times that number.

Amina has just been demonstrating outside the Supreme court in Islamabad carrying mock coffins as a symbol of the living-dead lives they are leading with their loved ones still unaccounted for and, with men dressed in Guantanamo signature orange suits wearing shackles. Her struggle is an uphill one, requiring full-time commitment with insufficient support or funds.

Amina Janjua was to be our main guest at the Cageprisoners Annual Iftaar this year but, for reasons unexplained was refused a visa to the UK despite having come before at the behest of Amnesty International.

 

Dr. Ghairat Baheer

I first met Dr. Ghairat Baheer in 2009 at the start of Cageprisoners’ Two Sides, One Story tour. It was a strange, but truly historical occasion: 12 former Guantanamo and Bagram prisoners sat down to dinner at a Turkish restaurant with a former US soldier and guard from Guantanamo.

Dr. Baheer is the son-in-law of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and an Hizb-e-Islami leader. They have both been opposed to the Taliban in the past but equally have fought against the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. For this, Dr. Baheer, more a politician than fighter, was kidnapped by armed CIA and Pakistani intelligence agents from his Islamabad home, like me, and ended up spending six years in US custody in the Salt Pit, Bagram (where he encountered female prisoner 650) and the Panjshir prison where he met Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi who told him how he’d given the infamous false confession about Saddam and weapons of mass destruction after being water-boarded numerous times.

Dr. Baheer is a highly cultured, educated and hospitable physician whose manners are impeccable and company delightful.  I stayed with him in the same house he’d been abducted from where he showed me ICRC (Red Cross) letters from his children in perfect English, Arabic and Pashto. They were clearly written by intelligent children who both loved and revered their father but, only when I met his sons did I realise just why they wrote so well.

I spoke with them for a whole evening and they told me about how their father had been so careful to ensure they had a good Islamic and secular education. They speak English, Arabic, Urdu, Pashto and Farsi fluently. They can quote from the Quran and Sunnah in all languages and understand the intricacies of aqeedah (creed) and fiqh (jurisprudence) as they do the poetry of Tennyson and Poe. They also understand the obligation of resisting occupation as much as the need to build nations. Between the boys and the girls, the latter of whom I was told are more intelligent, they’re studying Islam, engineering, political science, medicine and languages. The eldest told me how he’d became a man at the age of fifteen as the responsibilities of the father all fell on his shoulders after he was seized. Little surprise that they also help Amina Janjua in her campaign for justice.

At Dr. Baheer’s house I also met Farhad Mohammed, a former Guantanamo prisoner. The last time I saw him was in Bagram. He’d suffered terrible beatings at the hands of the Pakistanis who’d then handed him over to the Americans. The reason: Farhad was a shop-keeper who ran a store on the famous Chicken Street in Kabul where Arabs used to do their shopping. I remember my disbelief at seeing him in Bagram. Farhad returned home after four years in Guantanamo to his mud house in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan.

 

Drone Attacks

One of the other things I was hoping to achieve during this visit was to get more information about the drone attacks in the Waziristan region and to obtain more eye-witness testimony about their effects. I remember when evacuating Afghanistan in 2001 we would see numerous spy-planes flying over head and expect that airstrikes might follow at any given moment. Now of course, the Predator drones carry the ‘hellfire’ payload themselves and strike targets with utter disregard for life, liberty or law. I met several people who told me about the effects on the population of the strikes. In addition to the deaths, injuries and refugee crises ensuing directly from these bombings the attitudes towards people from that region from other parts of Pakistan seems to have worsened. Exasperated by the floods and retaliatory strikes against the Pakistani army the refugees become the easiest targets: hit by the Americans, killed by the Pakistani Army and despised by the rest of the population.

There is also a sense that foreigners, namely Arabs, must be linked by default to al-Qaida and subsequently forfeit the right to life. Despite this, the ones I met did not condone the spate of bombings against schools and mosques that have recently plagued the country.

And yet, drone attacks take place almost on a daily basis and go largely unreported. Whilst US officials often miraculously claim exact numbers of ‘militants killed’ the reality is that there is hardly any independently sourced information regarding casualties and even less first-hand testimony.

 

Aafia Siddiqui

Despite all of this my primary reason for going to Pakistan was to assist in whatever little way I could to in the case of Aafia Siddiqui.

Waiting to collect our luggage near the exit at Karachi airport we could hear the sounds of a crowd gathered outside, but I didn’t know for what. As we walked out I realised it was for us. Hundreds of people had come to welcome us. It was overwhelming. They put so many flower garlands around my neck I that I was in a permanent nod. We were showered with rose petals, people shaking our hands and shouting more slogans than I can remember, except for one: “We want Aafia!”

After what seemed an age walking through the crowds we made it to the vehicles waiting to take us to some rally points. We drove through the packed streets of Karachi with a large convoy in tow, blasting on huge speakers songs about Aafia and American injustice. All along the way someone bellowed out on the loudspeakers that we had arrived, that Aafia, the daughter of the nation, must not be forgotten and that the shameless rulers were responsible for her continued ordeal. There were signs visible all over Karachi that say: DAUGHTERS NOT FOR SALE.

We arrived at a destination where both Yvonne and I were asked to address the people through the sunroof of the car, Benazir-style. Now, I’m no stranger giving speeches and rarely get nervous doing so but this was different. And, my very first speech out of a car, I realised, was also going to be my very first in Urdu. 

I didn’t realise but people knew my story, especially as Yvonne had told them previously how she’d first heard about women in US custody from me and what I’d heard in Bagram.

After hearing Dr. Fawzia’s heartfelt thanks to the crowd for their support it was someone else’s turn to deliver his very first speech. We all listened in pin-drop silence as Ahmed Siddiqui, Aafia’s son, sat on the bonnet of the car and spoke of his determination to get his mother back. It was hard to fight back the tears.

Going to Aafia’s house and meeting her family was the most moving experience I’ve had in many years. Aafia’s mother, Ismet Siddiqui, embraced me like a son with tears in her eyes. At dinner she explained to me so many things I hadn’t comprehended properly: the levels to which the family has fought to get justice for Aafia, the love a mother has for a daughter whose dishevelled pictures she cannot even recognise have now become the iconic image of qaum ki beti (daughter of the nation). Ismet showed me the rooms where Aafia would have her friends over and described how she was loved by all who knew her. With the care of a mother but the heart of a believer whose faith is being tested she told me how she cannot bow her head to injustice or bear to hear the terrible predicament of her daughter. The light and joy she said have left the Siddiqui houselhold, even though overwhelming happiness was felt with the return of Aafia’s children, Mariam and Ahmed. No one even talks of Suleman to me, perhaps from fearing the worst.

Fawzia showed me pictures of Mariam distributing aid to the flood victims and Ahmed talked to me about his plans for the future. He’s one of these boys who always smiles, extremely respectful and dutiful. Only Allah and his loved ones know just how much he has had to bear. The thought is crushing. Fawzia also showed me one of Aafia’s headscarves that was ripped while is US custody, along with a Quran with English translation – all sent from the prison. Several of the pages are bookmarked and I read the underlined verses, trying to understand what may have been going through her mind when she did so. One of the many is from the chapter of the Prophets:23

He will not be questioned as to that which He does but they will be questioned. And verse 28:

He knows what is before them, and what is behind them, and they offer no intercession except for those who are acceptable, and they stand in awe and reverence of His (glory).

 

Sentencing the 'daughter of the nation'

Although I returned to the Siddiqui household the following day for more press engagements I was hoping that we really might get to hear, somehow, that everyone has relented and that Aafia will be coming home, before the sentence. The government did announce officially that they had requested Aafia’s repatriation from the Americans but, we all knew that all real efforts for repatriation could only begin after sentencing.

I went on to give more press conferences in Lahore and Islamabad contrasting Aafia’s case with some of the released Guantanamo prisoners who include Bin Laden bodyguards and senior Taliban ministers. How is it that Aafia is still there? I cast great doubt too on the US version of events in her case, stating that in over nine years of US detentions around the world no strong, committed al-Qaida or Taliban man has yet once managed to acquire a firearm from a US soldier, how did Aafia manage such a fait accompli?

And now, Aafia has been sentenced in a US court to a term of 86 years for the attempted murder of a US soldier in Afghanistan. Thousands of US soldiers have been killed or wounded in Afghanistan and yet no one has been taken to the US to be charged with their killing. What is it about Aafia they fear so much?

During an interview with Binyam Mohamed last year I showed him a photograph of Aafia and asked him if she was the same woman he and the others had seen in Bagram. He confirmed that she was one and the same. Yvonne Ridley presented this evidence and much more regarding the inconsistencies of the alleged shooting in her film In Search of Prisoner 650. None of this eye-witness testimony was accepted by the US courts during the trial of Aafia Siddiqui.

At the sentencing, Judge Berman praised Aafia’s attitude in calling for calm and ended by telling her that she had the right to file an appeal. She replied simply by saying, “I appeal to God and he hears me.”

Today, the streets of Pakistan literally burn for the return of its daughter. Every Pakistani leader – secular or religious – has called for the repatriation of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. Her antagonists may not have intended it but through their violations of her rights she has become the daughter of the nation – the daughter of the ummah. And that ummah will not rest until she is home.

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