RAIN from earlier in the day had provided some respite from the intense heat. The air smells of damp grass. The turf outside the National Press Club in the capital is expansive and a camp easy to spot. Three women inside, with no fan or water, fully veiled, seem unperturbed by the heat. One of them fidgets with her chador but looks intently into the camera, speaking confidently though her voice is inaudible to me.
She is Zarjan, wife of Zahid Baloch, the chairman of the Baloch Students’ Organisation (Azad), who was kidnapped on March 18 this year from Satellite Town in Quetta. Posters and banners show close-ups of Zahid’s face. His wife says he’s 27 years old. But his grim, solemn face makes him seem years older.
Zarjan and her husband are first cousins. They have been married for six years but have known each other for a lifetime. She has travelled with three female cousins and two of her children from Balochistan. The journey has not been easy. They left Naal for Karachi, a six-hour ride, and then took a bus from Karachi to Islamabad that lasted 27 hours.
“Our families had hoped that if I came to Islamabad, something good would happen. This is why I came here. I’m hoping international human rights groups and the media will meet us and raise the issue,” says Zarjan, sitting in front of her husband’s photo in a traditional embroidered, red Balochi dress. Her apparel is bright but the mood sombre. Only her hands and eyes are visible. I repeatedly ask her to speak louder as her voice gets muffled in the layer of cloth draped around her face.
Zarjan says that although her family is satisfied with the coverage they are receiving in the local media, she is disheartened that even though the protest camp is in the capital city, no international human rights group has approached her as yet.
Her three-year-old son Doda frolicks around Zarjan’s cousins. As Doda grabs a poster of his father, swinging it around, Zarjan pre-empts my next question. “He asks me every day where baba is and when he would come to us.” She says her elder son, Qambar, is five and has a better sense of his father’s absence and misses him immensely. He was unwell and Zarjan left him with her relatives.
“I haven’t planned how long I’ll stay here. We are independent and there is no organisation helping us,” she says. “But we are fasting and hoping our prayers will be accepted in Ramazan.”
Zarjan says her husband committed no crime. “We want him to be freed and tried in court. Kidnapping him is no way. As he did nothing wrong, I am hopeful God will bring him back.”
Inside the tent, relentlessly dodging ants and flies, Doda slurps his ice lolly, oblivious to his mother’s ordeal. Across the street, the police direct traffic and vehicles keep moving, but life for Zarjan is at a standstill. She has been coming to the protest camp for nine days but her husband’s whereabouts are just as vague as they were four months ago when he disappeared.
Bibi Gul, a representative of the Baloch Human Rights Organisation, who travelled with Zarjan’s family, says they demand nothing illegal and want Zahid’s return so everything can be done constitutionally. She says they come here each day at 10am and leave by 5pm.
Right across from the camp, a group of men begin to assemble in a semicircle, holding placards and a loudspeaker. The sight of Palestinian flags makes me realise the imminent protest is to show solidarity with the people of Gaza.
As we all sit silently inside the camp, camerapersons, women and passers-by stop and heed the vitriolic anti-Israel and anti-America chants. A man speaks provocatively into the loudspeaker, telling the people around him to support his Muslim brothers and sisters in Gaza. As the flags of Pakistan and Palestine sway side by side in the breeze, and just as I begin to ponder how Zarjan, and her family must feel watching people gather for Gaza but not for her missing husband, her cousin breaks the silence. “This is hilarious,” she snickers as she looks at the group of protesters with a hint of derision. “Those in Palestine are Muslim brothers, but he is not?” she says, disillusioned, pointing at Zahid’s picture.
A few days later, as I cross the press club, Zarjan’s camp is not there. Nor are her husband’s photos or material from her peaceful protest of more than a week. Instinct says, she left embittered, but a conversation with Nasrullah Baloch, chairman of the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons, suggests she returned to Quetta to attend a hearing at the Balochistan High Court where the judge instructed the police to continue their investigation that has so far produced nothing significant.
“Zarjan is back because she goes wherever there’s a tiny prospect she can learn about her husband’s whereabouts,” said Nasrullah. “That is all she can do.”
Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2014