This is first part of Balochistan Time’s Tales from the dungeon series in which former victims of enforced disappearances tell their ordeal. Dr Yousuf Murad Baloch was among the first victims. He was taken away from Karachi in March 2005 along with other members of the Baloch Students Organization (BSO). He now lives in Germany.
If you are an educated Baloch and you do not plan to appear in the competitive exams, or you have failed to mould your voice into a specific obedient tone always beginning your sentences with “sir”, or you do not believe in the divinity of the Pakistan army, then you are most likely to end up in a secret services-operated torture cell. Also, if in any way, you happened to have read the wrong books, you can be taken to a tour to dungeons for re-education.
The pain you are inflicted upon in these torture cells is of another level. Torture is an institutionalized science in Pakistan and your torturers follow a certain protocol to inflict maximum pain, break down your spirit and influence your thinking to fit into the official narrative.
Before I start telling my ordeal in military-operated dungeons, let me explain why I happened to be present at the place which the security forces raided and took us away.
I was the elected Press Secretary of the Baloch Students Organization (BSO), responsible for the group’s press releases, press articles and publications. I directly reported to the Chairman of the organization.
The BSO, as the name suggests, is a leftist nationalist student organization in Balochistan. The literature its members are encouraged to read mostly preach anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism and independence struggles. Although the BSO perceives Pakistan as a model of Islamofascism, it has to walk a thin line when it comes to dealing with the sensitive subject of religion.
In 2005, we anticipated that the ongoing negotiations between Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti and the Pakistan government were going to fail and that the army would eventually attack the outspoken leader of the Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP).
There was always a sense of readiness and preparation among the BSO leadership for mass protests in case any move was made by the army. We were preparing to mobilise the non-tribal Baloch people to stand for their rights.
In the governance system of Pakistan and the colonial mind-set, any and all voices for rights or justice are considered as a cover for insurrectionists.
The BSO was not only challenging the lies of the state narrative but also educating the masses to dismantle the dehumanizing collaboration of tribal sardars and the state forces in Balochistan.
It was the first time after a long interval of relative calm in Balochistan that the state narrative was being questioned, and the legitimacy, authority and supremacy of the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) and the regular army was being publically challenged in Balochistan.
It was during such a press conference in Quetta that the police made a move to arrest Dr Imdad Baloch, the then Chairman of the BSO. We had to smuggle him out of Quetta to Karachi.
On March 17, 2005, the army tried to knock out Nawab Akbar Bugti in an aerial assault on his house in Dera Bugti, killing more than 70 people. We saw this as the beginning of military operations in Balochistan.
I contacted Dr Imdad and went to Karachi to discuss the BSO’s protest campaign against the looming threat of violence against Baloch civilians. With some twist of fate I, Dr Imdad, Dr Naseem, Ali Nawaz, Akhter Nadeem, Gulam Rasool and Dr Allah Nizar — all of them either current or former BSO leaders — ended up being crammed into an apartment in Karachi owned by a relative of Dr Naseem.
On the night of March 24, I cooked biryani, not knowing this might be our last biryani for a long time. After dinner I remember trying to start a discussion with Dr Allah Nizar about the recent stock market crash as I believed it was the result of investor fear from the foreseen military operations in Balochistan. He took some time out from reading a magazine to explain that the crash was more about investor greed rather than Balochistan and how politicians used stock market crashes to rob the small investors of their money.
Being on a full stomach from the oil-rich biryani coupled with tiredness, I dozed off rather quickly.
I felt heavy boots on my neck. Both my hands were forcefully pulled behind, twisted and tied, and my eyes blindfolded with a piece of cloth, all in no time, even before I could wake up properly.
I used to be a heavy sleeper but that changed after this incidence.
By the time I woke up, I had already received plenty of kicks and punches on every part of my body. “Do you have a gun on you,” asked one of my captors. “No,” I replied faintly. He shouted something to his colleagues from whom one joined him to drag me down the stairs.
The speed of the operation augmented by the terrible fear seizing me had rendered me paralyzed. I could not apprehend the noises and screams around me nor could I understand the betrayal of my body.
It was on the stairs when my bare feet-falls felt the paan juice someone had spitted on the stairway. By now I had gained my senses. I felt my heart sinking in my stomach. That dull ache in my belly persisted for days.
The person handling me checked my side pockets and took everything away. I had a mini phone book, my identification card and some money on me. I could see his disappointment when he berated me for not carrying more money. I was not certain but this behaviour confirmed my immediate presumption that our captors were from the notoriously corrupt Karachi police.
From our study circles and stories told by my grandfather I had some knowledge of enforced disappearances of Baloch activists in the 1970s. At one moment, I thought of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the dreaded premier intelligence agency of Pakistan, but I conveniently dismissed the thought, as the fear of the ISI was too great. But you can’t choose your tormentors. Not in Pakistan.
As we were dragged out of the Block H of the Nouman Avenue Apartments, the characteristic knocking noise of the pickup diesel engines could now be heard among the human noises. I was blindfolded but I could hear others being dragged along, beaten and abused all the way. One of the captors guided me to a seat in the back of a pick-up truck where I felt that someone else was sitting beforehand. When my body touched his I felt that his hands were also tied on the back. I had an instinctive sense that he was one of my friends. I did not have the strength to ask him who he was nor did I think it necessary. I also realised that my head was in a sack which had strings loosely tied to my neck.
Approximately 20 minutes in our detour to the unknown, the vehicle stopped for a short interval. I heard the opening of gates as if we were passing through a military check post. Within another minute or two, the vehicles came to a complete halt. One of the captors took hold of my hand and walked me through what I judged a gate. Then he guided me through what seemed to be four downward stairs and then through some corridors. We were in some kind of a basement.
I was made to sit on the ground. After a few minutes which I believe was when they had brought all the others, a person with an authoritative voice asked us our names. About five minutes later another person asked our names again.
Two guards grabbed me by my both arms and guided me through a corridor. I heard the opening of a lock and a metal door. My hands were still tied with a cloth on the back. They pushed me into the cell and locked it on my back. I heard one of them yelling at me to sit down.
After sitting for some time I assumed that no one was attending me. Having lost the strength to sit any longer I slowly laid myself on the ground, which had a stinky and moist smell. There was an odour of urine in the air as though we were near some toilet. I lied down motionless for hours on the stinky floor. At some point I stealthily rubbed my face against the ground to loosen the blindfolds. The cloth slipped a little and I could see that the colour of the bag on my head was black.
It is difficult to accurately judge time in a dungeon. I heard a very distant and feeble call for prayer, certainly coming from a nearby mosque. Although not being an adherent Muslim I recognized the morning azaan (prayer call) as it is different from other azaans.
I was awake but thoughts were not in my control, in an inexplicable state. A feeling of defeat and cynicism ran through my head like a dream.
I remembered my grandmother. I was twelve years old when she died from malaria. She passed away at the Panjgur Civil Hospital awaiting treatment. I was young but I knew that the lack of doctors was the reason for her loss. It was the trauma of her helpless demise that had convinced me to become a doctor. And look, I thought, how I got myself into this mess. Instead of attending my medical classes I am here, tied and blindfolded.
I was with these incoherent thoughts that I suddenly heard the door of my cell open once again. It broke the sequence of thoughts which in fact were not in any sequence. One of the guards came in. My blindfolds were removed, hands untied from the back and were instead handcuffed on the front with a Made-in-USA-inscribed handcuff. This was the first time I was seeing the faces of my captors. The feet were chained with locally-made fetters and a large Chinese lock above my ankles. The weight of the lock caused me constant pain in the ankle.
I was asked if I wanted to drink tea and bread. I declined. I had forgotten what hunger was. They hooded my face with the black cloth bag and left, locking the cell behind.
After what it felt like hours, I heard the opening of the door once again. Two people grabbed me by my hands and guided me to another room through what I believe was a corridor. Just before entering the room they told me that I had stairs ahead to climb. My fourth step fell on flat ground and I felt being inside a room. Here they removed the black bag from my head, unlocked the handcuffs and made me sit on a seat.
In front of me was a table and on the other side of the table sat four people in civilian clothes. A guard stood behind me. Our mobile phones, books, magazines, telephone diaries, ID cards etc were scattered on the table. I was asked to identify my things. I did identify my ID card and the Nokia mobile phone.
I was pleasantly surprised that my telephone directory was not there. I supposed it had been kept along with the money by the soldier who searched my pockets at the time of my apprehension, and like the money he had not handed it over to his seniors. I was in a way relieved that the poor army soldier had taken my phone book as the “spoils of war”, for I did not have to answer questions about my contacts. In another stroke of luck, someone had stepped on my mobile phone and broke it at the time of our arrest. They tried to switch it on in front of me thinking I might have broken it myself. In any case, the damaged mobile phone spared me extra questions.
One of them had thick eyebrows and an elongated nose dropping to cover the middle of his thick moustache. He was tall with a stretched-down face and seemed to be in his mid-fifties. Even in his silence he appeared to be overshadowing others.
The one who was half bald and slightly fat introduced himself as Jameel and that he was a Pashtun from Quetta and had come especially for us. He had a fairer skin than the other three and asked me for tea and biscuit which I declined.
Noticing my dry mouth, he said, “You are thirsty. Drink this glass of water.” I realized he was right. The kicks and punches had left me dehydrated. I took a few sips from the glass on the table.
The other three kept silence and let Jameel do the interrogation. While the thick moustached man observed me, the other two wrote something on the notebooks they were carrying.
“Do you know where you are?” Jameel asked.
“In Karachi police custody, sir,” I replied as naively as I could.
Giving me a mocking look, he said, “Don’t fool yourself. Your asshole would be filled with petrol by now if we were the police.”
I could not say a word.
He continued. “Look, boy. We are the ISI. That is the difference between the police and the ISI. They fill your asshole with spices because they do not know anything about you and we stuff your shithole because we know everything about you.”
Then, suddenly changing to a more stern tone, he asked why I had lied to them the other day when they asked me about my name.
I had not given them any pseudonym. Believing they had gotten it wrong, I told them my name again.
“And what is your father’s name?”
“Murad.” I replied.
He shouted at me to stand up. As soon as I stood up, I received a forceful beating at my buttocks. The guard standing behind had used his studded wide leather belt which they call Chetter in Urdu. The pain was excruciating. It was far superior than the beatstick of our schoolteachers.
“I am telling the truth, sir,” I cried out like an obedient student being punished for no reason.
He asked me my father’s name again. I was completely clueless. That was the name by which everybody knew my father.
Before I could answer, Mr Jameel said, “Your father’s name is Mohammed Murad.”
I remembered he was correct. It was me who had forgotten that my father’s official name is Mohammed Murad. But what difference did it make if you do not add Mohammed. For Jameel it made a difference and he explained why.
“Look, boy. You know what your problem is? You people take Islamic names and then feel embarrassed to use them. Do you consider yourself a Muslim when you do not know your father’s Islamic name but remember his un-Islamic name?
He waited for my reply.
“Yes, sir. I am a Muslim,” that was all I could say.
As if he had anticipated my answer, he asked promptly, “If you are a Muslim recite dua e qonoot.”
I could only recall a word or two of dua e qonoot as I had never memorized it.
I was hit again with the Chetter on my upper back and bums. I wished I had memorized dua e qonoot.
“What is your position in the BSO?” He continued his interrogation.
“I am just a member,” I lied unwittingly, hoping that I would escape some torture and questions by presenting myself as an ordinary member of the BSO.
Jameel ordered me back to my cell. In the cell, I was provided with a diaphanous white shirt and a similar pyjama. The shirt had a yellow luminous X stitched on the back. The pyjama hanged by a thin rubber band on my waist. My Made-in-USA handcuffs were replaced with Pakistani handcuffs and the hands were tied on the front. The black hood on my head was also taken away. The fetters remained with a constant heaviness on my legs.
The cell was around four feet wide and six feet long. The door was of black metal with bar openings about approximately at a height from which anyone standing outside the cell could easily look into. The light from a bulb hanging from the ceiling of the corridor illuminated my cell round the clock. Just inches above the foot of the door there was an additional horizontal opening, approximately four inches in width and one foot long. An oscillating fan with its ever humming noise was mounted on the wall just opposite the door opening.
There was no way one could tell what time it was. When they slipped flat bread and some daal in a plate from the lower hole of the door that I could tell its purpose and also the time. I still could not convince myself to eat. I knew by now that there were other prisoners in the nearby cells but I could not hear any of my friends’ voice.
When the guards had apparently left the corridor and I heard some prisoners speaking among themselves I gathered some strength and yelled out in Balochi to check if any of my friends were there. Akhter and Ghulam Rasool replied back confirming that they were in the nearby cells. Before we could initiate a conversation, a guard gave me a hard truncheon blow on the face through the upper bar opening of the door. Either the guards walked with great caution or they wore shoes which muffled sound. Either way it was difficult to know beforehand that they were coming until they tapped on the metal door with their truncheon.
The other prisoners were hardened al Qaeda members. Due to their devotion to Islam they enjoyed respect in the eyes of the guards and apparently had the privilege to exchange a few words among themselves during the day. I felt all prisoners should be treated equal; discrimination hurts, even if you are already in a cruel place like a dungeon.
The sudden realization that I had not urinated since I had been held gave rise to an urgent urge to urinate. When I timidly asked the guard, he pointed to an empty two-litre Pepsi bottle at the corner of the cell and said, “Urinate there”.
The beatings from the guards did not look so frequent, just occasional slaps on the neck, or a sporadic pulling of hair, a light kick on the legs, or, on some occasions, a twisting of ear. The guards did those things to me more out of a habit than necessity. It was their way, as I believed, to relieve themselves of their daily pressure.
Somehow, in an unexplainable way, the victim acquires these habits from their tormentors. I know this because, after being released, I used to have this urge of occasional abusive outbursts, pulling someone’s hair, or slapping them. Such is the complexity of the relation between the tormentor and the tormented.
I was in complete solitude; always in a dream like state. Facts, time and dates were all blurry with a distorted mood of helplessness and compliance. Most of the day passed in a trance like state, daydreaming.
I had learnt that to visit the toilet more frequently one should start praying. This allowed five or four visits to the toilet every day. You might get a glimpse of one of your friends peeping from the bar openings while walking through the corridor, though you are not allowed to turn and look.
By now I had confirmed that Akhter Nadeem, Ghulam Rasool and Naseem were in the same dungeon. I had not seen Imdad, Allah Nizar and Ali Nawaz Gohar. The cells were painted grey black. There were every type of graffiti on the walls. Previous victims had also carved out their names on the walls. After every three meals and the isha prayers I would carve a vertical line on the wall to keep track of the days.
At nights a guard would come once or twice and tapped the door with his truncheon. He was accompanied by an officer. We were obliged to wake up from the sleep, stand up facing the wall and raise our hands. If you took time to execute this task, the guards would open the door and start hitting you with the truncheon. I learnt this the hard way when one night I had thoughtlessly decided not to heed and kept sleeping.
It was also required that I do not look back and see the accompanying officer. The guards would always warn that a glimpse of the officer would block all our chances of getting out of there alive. I believe the job of the officer was to ensure no prisoner died of torture. He would occasionally ask questions about my health. There was complete silence otherwise.
For days I would not be spoken to. At times, despite the fear of torture, I longed to be interrogated. I longed to be spoken to by the guards despite knowing that the Punjabi language could not be spoken without verbal slurs. And these slurs were coarser in the dungeon.
Holding ones urge to defecate until the guards had the courtesy to take you to the toilet was gruelling. Going to the toilet was similarly punishing too. It was a squat toilet. The door was only two feet high so that the guards could pull the chain when required; one end of the chain was locked into the handcuffs and the other was in the guard’s hands. The guards would count to forty five and pull the chain.
One had to defecate and wash himself while the guard was looking, all in 45 counts. Most of the guards were cooperative though. They would count slowly if there was no officer around. But, again, an occasional pull before washing was always expected. In normal life this would be maddening, but in a torture cell one is even robbed of his anger. One would look with pleading eyes to the guard to count a bit slower.
One day, probably the evening of the fifth day of my detention, two guards entered my cell. They ordered me to stand and face the wall. My hands were handcuffed on the back and the black cloth bag was put on my head. The bag alone would freeze my entrails.
After being blindfolded, I was walked to the interrogation room, staggering all the while. Inside the interrogation room, a new voice sarcastically welcomed me. I could also hear Jameel say, “Sir, this guest is from my province. I hope you entertain him well”.
In a coercing tone, the interrogator started his pre-torture lecture. There was always a lecture at the beginning and one at the end of the interrogation.
“Look boy,” said he, “it has been days that you are rotting here. It does not bother us at all if you linger here for another few years. It all depends on you. If you cooperate and tell us the truth, you might suffer less and might not rot here.”
Then he read out a list of things that I had done in the last previous years, mostly about BSO lectures, seminars and protests, including the one in which I had worn a black armband. These details were enough to convince me that they had been watching me and they knew details of my political activities.
He continued his condemning lecture. “Since you have already diminished your chances by lying to us about your role in the BSO, you are a good candidate to be eliminated. You should know we know everything. You know how we eliminated Hameed Baloch*? He was hanged and he became a hero but that was a mistake. Things have changed now. We will not hang you. We will let you rot here.”
The talks were meant to inflict maximum degradation and submission before being flooded with questions ranging from politics to prostitution. I was made to step on a stool and stand on it. Being blindfolded, it was difficult to maintain my balance. There was a time frame to answer each question. The answers were always required to be instantaneous. If the interrogator felt that you are taking too much time or you are thinking, you would be either pricked with a needle on any part of your body or hit with a single blow of chetter or a slap on the face. You could never guess what sort of hitting you will get on the next question. If you fell from the stool you would be laid on the floor, feet raised, and beaten until your feet tore with pain. After being hit ruthlessly at the soles, it wold be more difficult to keep the balance on the stool with swollen feet.
The interrogation went on for hours, sometimes repeating the exact questions numerous times. Every time a question was repeated my previous answer would be presented to me in a twisted form to prove me a liar. If I tried to argue that I had not said such a thing I would be beaten with the chetter, or the truncheon until I accepted I had indeed said that.
This combined procedure of twisting my answers and torture rendered me so confused and terrified that at the end I did not know what I had actually said. At some point into the interrogation I felt that it did not matter what I said; I would always be proven, with reason, to have lied and then beaten. My calves felt like bursting out with blood after being swollen due to the hours-long stand.
At times I was told that my friends had already confessed to several acts of crime and they had also testified against me. Then they would ask me to speak about my friends’ crimes. I could have reasoned why I was being asked to testify about their crimes if they had already confessed, but I knew better than this. I had learnt that reasoning would lead to further beatings. The best bet was to avoid reasoning and give them an impression that you were in complete compliance and submission. Submission and compliance gratified their latent “army superiority complex”.
At the end of the day’s interrogation, my handcuffed hands were tied to the fetters of my feet at the back and I was laid face down so that my shoulders and knees both were raised. Two people took turns to hit my feet soles with a stick, and my knees, legs and arms with the chetter until I lost consciousness.
During the interrogation sessions, the most frequent questions were:
From where does the BSO get its money?
What plans do you have for protests against the Pakistan military?
Why are you against the military?
What is the relation between the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) BLA and the BSO?
What is the relation between the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and the BLA?
Have you ever met Nawab Akbar Bugti or Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri?
How are the BSO members trained?
Do you extort money from businessmen, or others? Why do people donate to you?
Who are leading the BLA and the BLF?
Have you ever visited any foreign country?
Do you know anyone who has carried out bomb blasts or is a guerrilla?
What does the BSO want and how are you going to get it?
Who are the BSO leaders in Karachi? They also asked about certain BSO members from Karachi.
Why does the BLF use Balochistan in its name and not Baloch like the BLA? To this, I obviously did not have any answer.
I had regained consciousness by the time I was brought back to my cell. Every part of my body was in writhing pain. I had bruises all over my body and I had started passing blood-red urine. The bottle filled with this urine was a reminder of the torture. Whenever I tried to stand a searing pain ran from the soles to the backbone. Time and dates were once again blurred as I had stopped praying and eating. I was drained, exhausted and in a vague state of mind until I fell asleep.
They had arrested some new Islamic militants and Akhter Nadeem was shifted to my cell because of shortage of space. I had not known Akhter Nadeem well before being arrested. I only knew that he was a former BSO member and a contractor in Gwadar. Yet, it was delightful to talk to someone after such a long period of complete silence and solitude.
My bruises were getting better.
(To be continued.)
*Hameed Baloch was a member of the BSO who was sentenced to death by a military court. He was executed in 1981.