It’s the stuff of nightmares: the sudden arrival of a number of men into the privacy of one’s home, a search, and then a family member taken away. This is what reportedly happened last month to a Ph.D student Laeeq Aslam.
According to details of the reported event, about half a dozen men barged into his Rawalpindi home late at night. The men showed the inhabitants, including the victim and his family, a search warrant, and then proceeded to go through all the contents of the house. They must have gone through personal belongings in the cupboards and drawers and everywhere else, scattering items across the floor of the home.
At the end of this, they were said to have taken some mobile phones and a laptop that belonged to Laeeq, indicating that they would need to conduct some tests on it. No one objected; after all, everyone was scared. Then, as they were leaving, they took Laeeq outside, to ‘talk’ to him. He did not return.
Laeeq’s family, his bereft mother and his father, have done everything that parents can do in such a hapless situation. They have filed a missing person’s case. In a short video, Aslam’s mother begs for her son to be returned.
They are hardly alone in their grief. In January of this year, a young scientist, Nozair Hassan, and his wife were suddenly taken away from their house in Islamabad.
Their two young children cried and watched their parents disappear. A petition filed in that case is before the Islamabad High Court, which has repeatedly demanded that the whereabouts of the couple be revealed and that they be brought before the court. So far, this has not happened.
According to the data kept by the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, which has been ordered to investigate these cases, 1,822 remained pending since April 30 this year.
A hearing before the Supreme Court earlier this month, resulted in Pakistan’s additional attorney general Sajid Ilyas Bhatti admitting that over 1,330 people were being kept in ‘internment’ centres in various parts of the country. A little over 250 have been released from these centres.
When the judge asked for more details and whether proceedings had been initiated against these centres, the AAG requested an additional two weeks. It is difficult to tell from the record of the hearing whether these obviously illegal internment centres and the people in them form part of the 1,822 total missing persons cases that are pending.
The confusion and lack of information must undoubtedly be excruciatingly painful for those whose loved ones have been ‘disappeared’. While all losses are terrible, the uncertainty of not knowing what exactly has happened to them, whether they are being tried or persecuted, held safely or are in peril, dead or alive, exerts its own torturous cruelty on those left behind.
The depth of this kind of pain is attested to in historical memoirs that speak of repressive realms as in the Soviet Union and pre-war Germany. Then, too, strange men would appear, often in the dead of night and always without warning.
Then, too, people, hurriedly dressed and still groggy from sleep, were carried away to unknown locations. Then, too, children and wives or parents and husbands were left behind, wondering if they would ever see their loved one again. Then, too, there was a regime of ‘disappearance’, where one is not dead, not alive, just inexplicably, painfully gone.
But Pakistan is not Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany. It has, at least in theory, a system that includes the rule of law, where detention must be lawful and its conditions transparent, where every citizen has the right to freedom unless they are accused of committing a crime.
But these perhaps are the pretensions of all the rest of us, the not-yet-disappeared, who choose to believe in certain sorts of fictions, such as legality and criminality. These stories, in turn, give us the courage to look away, to imagine the disappeared as inherently culpable, people who were involved in something sticky or nasty, something that offended the powers that be.
We, the play-it-safe, not-yet-disappeared, thus imagine ourselves safe, not at threat of armed and unknown men arriving in the depths of the night and rifling through our belongings and then taking away with them the most cherished, children or husbands or sons or daughters, with no explanation, not a single clue to their destination.
There may be 101 hearings, orders by courts demanding the production of the disappeared in courts, asking for explanations to these unknown ‘internment’ centres where so many Pakistanis reportedly remain far from the law of the land.
None will end the problem of enforced disappearances. For that to happen, the not-yet-disappeared, each and every one of the rest of us who imagine the gone as guilty, the present as safe, must let go of that myth, recognise disappearance as a fate worse than death imposed by unseen, unaccountable powers.
It is only when the ‘not-yet-disappeared’ recognise how perilously close their own existence, the lives they have built, are to being erased, that this problem will find a solution. It is this silence, practised by the not-yet-disappeared in the Soviet Union and in Germany, that permitted enforced disappearances to take place, their numbers to grow.
So, too, will be the consequences of similar silence in Pakistan. No one expects things to devolve, their own lives to be impacted — until it is too late. The not-yet-disappeared of Pakistan must awake, suddenly and immediately, and realise that innocence is not sufficient protection against the abyss of disappearance.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.