KARACHI, PAKISTAN — This is a tale of every missing person who has borne the brunt of torture in a detention center.
The torture is meant to be painful but more painful and damaging is the psychological effect on the missing persons and their family members. The experience damages them mentally and reshapes their personalities.
Spending just a few days in a detention center – more aptly a dungeon — with no window and proper space to lay down completely reshaped the life of Khalil Ahmed. He was abducted in June 2010. At the time of his abduction, he was a premedical student at Khuzdar Degree College in Balochistan. He left his studies after the incident.
When he was released after three days of harrowing torture, Ahmed reached home trussed and blindfolded. It seemed, however, that his abductors had uncovered his eyes.
We met the silent and lost Ahmed in Karachi when he was brought to the metropolitan city for routine checkups with a psychiatrist. Medication keeps him in a semi-stupor and he rarely talks; despite many attempts, he did not respond to me. When his younger brother asked him if he was beaten and interrogated in captivity, Ahmed left the room without a word.
Any experience that changes one’s emotional, intellectual, and physical being in a negative sense is called trauma. The missing persons who are released after torture remain traumatized and scarred for life — along with their family members.
Despite pressure from the Pakistani establishment, the issue of “disappeared” people has been raised nationally and internationally. Not too many people are raising the issue, but a few have written on this pressing matter. However, the mental health of missing people and their loved ones is often overlooked, especially upon their return.
“Missing persons and their loved ones, the traumatized ones, live in a state of helplessness and resignation. It’s like someone stops existing,” Farah Nasim, a psychotherapist, told The Diplomat. “The main reason behind torture is to break someone’s will and rob him of his dignity, pride, respect, and dreams… so the tortured people, who come from dungeons, can’t be the same again. They can’t act in the same way as they used to. It is like raping a woman and robbing her dignity and respect and expecting her to act normal. This is impossible.”
Most of the missing persons’ cases have been reported in Balochistan and the Federally Tribal Administered Areas (which now have been merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province). Since 1948 Balochistan has witnessed various rounds of insurgencies; the current, fifth round began in the rugged mountains of Kohlu and Dera Bugti. It permeated across Balochistan after the killing of the former chief minister of Balochistan and the chief of the Bugti tribe, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, in a military operation initiated by Pakistan’s then-dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, in August 2006.
The disappearances are a response by the state to the separatist movement. Separatists, sympathizers, their family members, supporters, and political workers have been whisked away by the state. But this fire has engulfed more innocent souls than supporters of insurgents.
The case of FATA is a bit different than Balochistan. In this northwestern region, the issue of people going missing emerged when Pakistan joined the war against terrorism.
As their region shared borders with Afghanistan, the local people had to bear the brunt of Pakistan’s anti-terror campaigns. Manzoor Pashteen, the founder of the Pashtun Tahafuz (protection) Movement (PTM), has consistently raised his voice against enforced disappearances in FATA.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) data, 728 people reportedly went missing last year. HRCP also says that since 2001, over 10,000 people have gone missing, of which approximately 3,000 are unaccounted for.
The government of Pakistan and its institutions provide very contradictory figures to that of HRCP and other human rights organizations. As per the Pakistani institutions, not more than 2,000 people are missing across the country.
Pashteen claims that in the past decade, approximately 32,000 Pashtuns have gone missing from FATA. That means 32,ooo families have been affected. At Pashteen’s gatherings, the families of missing persons come forward and narrate their heart-wrenching ordeals.
The PTM leader has been campaigning for the release of missing persons. The most haunting fact is that the missing are never charged openly – or given a chance to defend themselves — in a court of law. Instead, they are tortured and humiliated in a secret dungeon. Pashteen demands that the state and security forces present the missing persons in court and punish them if they have committed any crime — but simply whisking them away is unconstitutional.
Pashteen has even blamed the officials of the “missing persons commission” for harassing the wife of a missing man. If the commission’s officials harass and mentally torture family members, then how will the missing be treated in a dungeon?
Ahmed typifies an extreme case of devastated mental health after being “disappeared.” There are also those who can’t integrate into society again. Despite their psychological trauma, most missing persons after being released prefer to be silent — because narrating what they went through might land them in the dungeon again.
Many victims we met refused interviews. Some refused to meet at all. They lose trust in people; some even lose faith in God. “How could they trust anyone when no one helped them in the dungeon?” said Farah.
It’s not only missing persons who go through trauma; their family members suffer as well. “The people who love the victims can equally feel the torture and bear the brunt of it. Trauma is always shared,” said Farah.
Asad Baloch has spent over seven years waiting for his father to be returned. Asad was in his teens when his father was whisked away during a military operation on February 18, 2011. Now Asad is an adult, and he does not know whether his father is alive or dead.
“I want to know if my dad is in a dungeon or has been killed. This thought had made me restless. I can’t live a normal life,” said Asad.
As the eldest son, and living in a tribal society, the many responsibilities after his father’s sudden disappearance have overburdened Asad.
During our talks, Asad goes numb and sometimes silent. He never knew that he was suffering from severe mental disorders until one of his family friends told him to visit a psychologist after witnessing changes in his personality.
Asad suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. He has lost the ability of resilience and suffers frequent panic attacks as well. This incident also increased Asad’s hatred against security forces. “I feel like hitting and harming paramilitary forces when I see them or their convoys. I just detest them,” he said angrily.
Asad, in a sense, is one of the lucky ones. Not everyone can afford to visit a psychotherapist or psychologist; many will suffer indefinitely without ever receiving help or a diagnosis.
Professionally working with “missing persons” is an unknown branch of trauma, and academically represents the development of a new aspect of human psychology, said Farah.
After the Vietnam War, when soldiers and survivors came back, psychologists began to examine how killing and being killed in the name of war can damage even those who survive. When the survivors came out of the war they were totally different people suffering with a severe “fear of living.”
All over the world mental health practitioners and researchers have extensively worked on how the atrocities of war impact mental health. Whether victorious or defeated in battle, either way the soldiers were mentally damaged.
“The world needed to stop glorifying the solders by giving them the medals,” Farah said.
Balochistan and FATA are among the most undeveloped places of Pakistan, meaning victims and their family members don’t have access to psychologists. Ahmed and Asad both travel about a thousand kilometers to Karachi for their checkups.
Even if a person has access, social pressure may prevent treatment. In tribal societies like those in Balochistan and FATA, victims and their families rarely visit psychologists because psychological issues are stigmatized.
Thus feelings of helplessness prevail in victims and their family members.
“The victims can integrate with society again but they do need professional and family or societal help,” Farah explained. “Definitely, they can’t be the same person again but they can at least cope with the issues.”
The most disturbing fact is that relatives and friends view the victims and those closest to them with suspicious eyes after they return. Some even distance themselves from the victims because of fear that they may be harmed by the state.
In Pakistan, the issue of missing persons is a red line. Media houses and journalists refrain from crossing it. Digging deep into this matter sometimes invites the wrath of the establishment.
Sajid Hussain is one of the few journalists who have extensively reported on the issue. Doing so put his own life in danger, and he is now living in self-exile. Hussain could not go unscathed after reporting the ordeals of missing people; he too has some scars.
“The dead do not haunt me as much as the missing do,” Hussain told The Diplomat. “To tell the truth, I feel relieved when I hear about the discovery of a missing person’s body. But the stories of those languishing blindfolded in tiny, dark cells for years make me avoid dark, congested places.
“My prose betrays me if I try to write about any subject other than the missing persons. I am forced to think I should be trying to help highlight another case of enforced disappearance. At the same time, I’m bored of writing the same damn story for over 10 years. ‘The story of this guy who was whisked away by uniformed men and is still missing.’ I want to write about happier things, about personal things. The problem is I can’t. Is that what you call PTSD?”
Asad Baloch’s missing father was a political activist and worker of the Balochistan National Party (BNP). BNP’s chief, Sardar Akthar Mengal, in his maiden speech in Pakistan’s Parliament raised the issue of missing people. Mengal submitted a record of around 5,000 missing persons. He blamed the state for doing nothing to ensure their recovery.
Surprisingly, there is no governmental or nongovernmental organization for treating the mental health issues of victims and their loved ones. Fazila Alyani, who is a member of the Balochistan chapter of the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), told The Diplomat, “Unfortunately, no one has raised the issue of their mental health before but we will put this issue on the government’s table soon.”
The Diplomat tried to reach Pakistani Minister for Human Rights Dr. Shireen Mazari for comment but got no response. When contacted, other officials at the ministry refused to comment on the issue, saying “it has no relevance with the ministry.”
Farah observed that “if the state takes any steps to resolve the issue, it directly decreases the stresses of the victims and their family members go through. Peace in a society brings mental peace as well.”
Before his abduction, Ahmed was the brightest and most intelligent son in his family. He dreamed of being a doctor and rendering his valuable services to the most impoverished people in the most impoverished Pakistani province, Balochistan. But now dark rooms and inhuman torture haunts him.
The helplessness of his dungeon has taken over Ahmed. Once, he wanted to treat others but now he is roaming city to city for his own treatment. Doctors and family members alike seem hopeless about his recovery.
Ahmed has returned from the dungeon, but his ordeal is far from over.