Where are they?

May 18, 2014

Where are they?

How do you account for the missing? How do we count a person who is missing? I have three brothers, one of them is not there anymore. He is not dead. He is missing. He is there, somewhere, but just not here.

But missing from what? When do we realise that a person is missing? I am collecting empty glasses after a dinner and I count them. One, two, three, four, five…? Where is the sixth one? There is a glass missing. When do you start counting your children or siblings? One, two -- four. Because, the third one went missing.

How can we make someone disappear without a trace? In Tilasam-e-Hoshruba, Amr-Ayyar could do it with his Zambeel; everything that went into his zambeel -- his rucksack -- would disappear without a trace. But his rucksack contained a whole world in it. It wasn’t as if they went to a dark dungeon never to reappear. When Amr would take people out of his sack, they would tell us stories of the world inside. It wasn’t bad and, in any case, that was fantasy and Amr-Ayyar was fighting on the good side.

Back to counting the missing then.

How do you search for the missing? How do you acknowledge their disappearance? Remember they are not dead.

Do you keep the dinner seat for the missing? When do you start letting other people sit there? Should I set the dinner for three or four? Will the third one ever return?

My generation has a troublesome relationship with the missing persons -- something deep inside us that makes us feel uneasy about it. It makes us feel uncertain and anxious.

Do you remember PTV of yore? Ten minutes before the Khabarnama, or was it the eight o’clock drama, they used to air ads for "Talaash-e-Gumshuda." No one does that anymore as if our freedom has led us to absolve ourselves of our collective duty of looking for the missing.

Do you remember that voice?

"Mohammed Riaz vald Ahmed Riaz, umr taqreeban tera saal. Pichhlay dus saalon se lapata hai. Jisko milay iss number per itlaa de." And a grainy black and white photograph accompanying the ad.

How did people go missing and why would their families still look for them after 10 years or 25 years? As an eight or nine-year-old, I would pester Ammi for answers. It was a scary thought to go missing. And sometimes Ammi, perhaps, because she was tired after a long day or just irritated, would say, "Kids who don’t do their homework on time go missing" or "Kids who don’t listen to their mothers go missing." And that would make me go quiet. But come on, we all knew that wasn’t true. Zeeshan never did his homework on time and would have to stand on his chair everyday but he never went missing. And I used to listen to my mother way more than Noman and Salman would to theirs but they never went missing either. So obviously homework and listening bit wasntrue.

The Baloch say that 18,000 of their people are missing and the state says only 800 didn’t do their homework on time. How do you mind the gap between the two numbers? Are 800 missing better than 18,000? Can we name and locate the 800?

Zahid Baloch, Chairman Baloch Student Organisation-Azad (BSO-A), went missing on March 18, 2014. Eye-witnesses say that people in plainclothes, who abducted him, identified themselves as being from the ISI. There has been no news of Zahid since his abduction. His family and friends have gone mad looking for him. Lateef Jauhar, a member of BSO-A, decided to go on a hunger strike unto death two weeks ago to press the authorities to produce Zahid Baloch in a court of law. He hasn’t eaten a thing in more than 14 days. He is camped outside the Karachi Press Club and the last time I checked there his friends told me his glucose level had gone down to 56. His smile remains intact, though. And is becoming paler as his darkening skin and receding gums show a bit more of his white teeth and his soul with each passing day.

No political party has sent its representatives there to sympathise with his plea. He is not even asking the authorities to forgive Zahid Baloch --  whatever his crime may be. He wants a trial for him. Any trial. It doesn’t have to be fair either. But a place where he can be produced so that his family and friends and others can see him and be relieved that he only went missing.

Faisal Faraz went missing almost 10 years ago. He and I went to the same school for undergraduate degree and graduated with the same major. At the end we were at best distant friends. But Faisal used to sit next to me in the class in the very last row. I was a back-bencher and Faisal thought it was cool to do so.

Has his family stopped counting him? Does his brother now say that he is the only child of his parents? We were once two. But now we are only one.

When did we drop the ball? When did we decide that it was okay for the state to behave this way? That it was okay to make people disappear and then drop their tortured, disfigured bodies casually somewhere to be picked up by passersby.

What is inside me that stops me from raising my voice for a jihadi like Faisal Faraz or a political rights non-violent student activist like Zahid Baloch?

When did I decide that it is okay for them to go missing?

Where are they?