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He sent home his shirt buttons to tell us he was alive

November 11, 2013
Zakir Majeed's family.
Zakir Majeed's family.
Protesters and long march participants holding slogans demanding the recovery of missing persons.
Protesters and long march participants holding slogans demanding the recovery of missing persons.
Long march participants.
Long march participants.
Long march participants.
Long march participants.
Long march participants.
Long march participants.

Her face covered with a shawl, feet swollen, eyes dried, holding a picture of her brother tightly in her hands, Farzana Majeed is slowly and painfully covering the 450 mile distance from Quetta to Karachi on foot for the past nine days. In reality, this painful journey for Farzana began four years ago, when her family received a call at their home informing that her brother had been “picked up” on his way from Mastung. Having attended funerals of hundreds of tortured and mutilated young men, who had been disappeared under similar circumstances and later dumped in various corners of Balochistan, Farzana knew very well that her brother may meet the same fate.

Farzana’s brother, Zakir Majeed, was a student of English literature at the Balochistan University. With excellent leadership and communication skills and a heightened sense of awareness for the rights of the people of Balochistan, Zakir was intensely involved in campus activism. Zakir had no record of violence against his name and his means of protest were strictly peaceful in nature.

Farzana herself is a graduate of biochemistry and was until recently enrolled in a Master of Philosophy program at the Balochistan University. Her educational achievements are a rare feat for a woman from Balochistan, where the rate of transition to tertiary education is one of the lowest in the world. But ever since her brother’s disappearance, Farzana’s own life has come to a grinding halt; attending classes at the university is now an indulgence she simply cannot afford.

She moves from one city to another setting up protest camps outside various press clubs, attending court hearings and organising rallies in collaboration with the families of hundreds of other young Baloch men who have disappeared. In search of her brother, Farzana has knocked on all the doors. Each time she hears about a tortured and abandoned body found somewhere in Karachi or Balochistan, she rushes to the morgue, praying for it not to be her brother. With each passing day Farzana’s hope for the recovery of her brother is fading away. In an interview given a few months ago, she said,

He was kept at Quli camp. Other people who were kept in that camp and later released have brought us his messages. He sent us his love. He took the buttons off his shirt and sent them to reassure us that he was alive.

She says she does not know how to comfort her old mother or how to give her hope that one day Zakir will return home alive and not as a disfigured corpse.

Farzana’s story and the plight of hundreds of other Baloch families’ are not sensational or significant enough to warrant much attention, neither from the West nor from the people of Pakistan. When 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai was shot, there was an international outcry against the ruthless attack. United Nation’s Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and the US President both released statements condemning the cowardly attack by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Malala soon became a powerful symbol for girls’ education across the globe; her battle to secure a right to education for the girls in Swat Valley was aptly raised and praised on the global stage. The perpetrators in her case were the Taliban; a clear-enough enemy. No diplomatic ties were at risk of being sabotaged by condemning the Taliban and certainly no ally lifelines were at peril of being severed. The support for Malala was not going to affect Pakistan’s war on terror; if anything, it would further legitimise it.

Nabila Rehman, the young girl whose grandmother was killed in a drone strike, is currently in Washington DC to record her testimony in front of the US Congress. She is in Washington DC to share her story, and those of other innocent victims, with US lawmakers, the American public and the rest of the world. Nabila is getting an international stage to record her protest and has given hours of recorded interviews to the US and international media. Citizens across Pakistan are not happy; they think Nabila deserves as much, if not more, attention than Malala. They are also upset about the embarrassingly low turn-out of lawmakers (just five senators) at the congressional hearing where Nabila was testifying. People across Pakistan are lobbying online for greater awareness and attention for Nabila’s plight and that of other drone victims.

So, while Malala enjoys support in the West for her cause, Nabila has managed to secure an overwhelming amount of support from the people of Pakistan, Farzana, the sister in quest for her missing brother, remains as lonesome as ever. And yet, she marches on.

For most international powers, talking about Balochistan and the human rights abuses occurring there, adds to the complexity of dealing with Pakistan. With most western powers already in a dysfunctional relationship with a rapidly spiraling Pakistan, raising or discussing the Baloch cause is seen as not worth the headache nor does it, in the short run, directly affect their own national security interests.

For the international media, Balochistan is strictly a ‘no-go’ area, not only because it is widely-considered unsafe for outsiders but also because journalists and camera crews are said to be immediately denied clearance by the intelligence authorities. Pakistan’s own local media is perhaps under strict directions to limit or altogether exclude stories from Balochistan.

For the people at large, it is more comforting and makes more sense to believe that the sovereignty of a people can only be violated by external forces. No rallies are held in Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad, like they have been held in the past for drone attack victims. Nor will they ever question the fact that if Nabila can fly to Washington DC to ask the US Congress, ‘why did you kill my grandmother?’ Why can Farzana not ask the same question on the floor of Pakistan’s own parliament? Does Farzana not have the right to ask Pakistani lawmakers, ‘where is my brother?’

Farzana Majeed’s brother, and all those missing Baloch men and women, are unfortunately not the victims of drone strikes nor are they victims of the Taliban’s savagery. They are, instead, victims at the hands of a known yet unknown enemy for raising their voice against injustice and demanding their basic rights.

Farzana will continue walking; she knows when she will reach Karachi, there will be no politicians or public crowds waiting to receive her or express their solidarity. The United Nations and key international powers will not condemn the disappearance of her brother, let alone the government or people of Pakistan. She is left to fight this battle alone. A battle she is not willing to give up on until her brother returns home; hopefully alive.