Unfulfilled promise – 01 May 2022

WHEN Imran Khan came to power, he was harshly criticised for breaking promises and taking U-turns. Still, I had reason to believe that as prime minister of Pakistan, Mr Khan would fulfil his promise to end enforced disappearances and introduce a law to criminalise the practice.

My hope stemmed from his past speeches and stance on the matter. On March 18, I was among three representatives of the Baloch missing persons` families who accompanied then minister of human rights Shireen Mazari and minister Zobeida Jalal to meet the former prime minister. We had many expectations: the meeting had been arranged after protesting for a week and sleeping under the open sky in Islamabad.

Mr Khan doubled those expectations. He promised to bring back our loved ones and criminalise enforced disappearances. I told him that past governments too had made such promises and given assurances that no one would be abducted again. I told him that all those promises had proven shallow. He said, firmly: `Believe my words.

With this belief, we left the prime minister`s office and returned to our homes, with the hope of reuniting with our families.

Like most who have ruled Pakistan, Mr Khan too broke his promise.

Once, during a talk show, Mr Khan had claimed that when he was in power, he would not allow security agencies to abduct innocent people. He had promised to criminalise enforced disappearances. But then, even his bill on missing persons was said to have gone missing.

One thing did change during Mr Khan`s government. In the past, we used to receive mutilated and unidentified bodies and find mass graves of missing persons. Since 2018, the forcefully disappeared were either killed in staged encounters by the police`s counterterrorism department or buried without DNA identification as abandoned and unidentified bodies.

A few weeks ago, Ali Haider Zaidi, a minister from Mr Khan`s cabinet, mocked the families of missing persons by sharing a picture of Maryam Nawaz Sharif holding a framed picture of her father. It was the worst thing to do. Since 2009, I have been protestingonthe roads andinfrontofpress clubs while holding a picture of my missing father. I have spent my entire teenage years on this depressing quest. During my struggle, I have met several leaders. Each promised they would help me and the hundreds of other missing persons` families, but never did. I sometimes think that even if my father would have been sentenced to life imprisonment, which is 14 years, he would now be walking free.

We are not asking for roads, infrastruc-ture and development just our fundamental rights. The right to a fair trial and liberty. The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances fails even to provide details on the whereabouts of our loved ones. The commissioner, Javed Iqbal, has said he cannot trace people who disappeared before 2015. Many families say they have been treated disrespectfully by the commission. Suffocating helplessness chokes the air they breathe.

Last year, when Ms Nawaz had met the families of missing persons at D-Chowk, she had wiped away tears from the eyes of grieving mothers and sisters who have been seele ing justice and demanding the recovery of their loved ones. Those eyes are now searching for her. She had held the son of missing journalist Muddasar Naru in her arms. Mr Naru`s son and hundreds of other children of missing persons now have hopes from Ms Nawaz.

Ms Nawaz might feel the pain as a woman.

She has endured the same suffering as we have. She, too, was forced to live away fromher father. She, too, could not stay with her mother when she was struggling for her life. But at least she knew they were safe: just imagine our situation we do not even know whereourfathers and brothers are.

Enforced disappearance is not only punishment for one person, it is the collective torture of an entire family. The entire family is forced to endure a painful and uncertain wait, not knowing when or if their loved ones will return. Women do not know whether they are still married or widowed; daughters like me do not know if we should call ourselves orphans or continue struggling for years more in search of our disappeared fathers.

When political parties are in the opposition, they make us expect and hope. Once again, we are hoping against hope that the PML-N and its allies will stand by their promises and responsibilities. We are hoping against hope that they will bring our people back.

But if they fail to resolve our issue, if they feel they are just as helpless as we are, then they should join us and protest against the denial of our right to a fair trial and our right to life. They should do it for democracy, because powerless words will no longer be enough to console victims` families. • The writer is a missing persons activist.

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