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AS darkness settled over the Swat Valley, Mehmood* with other children would huddle around his grandmother, called Abai in Pashto, to listen to fairy tales about the bravery of princes and of evil spirits in the mountains. He would fall asleep with his head in the lap of his Maur Jan (Dear Mother). But now Mehmood fears night.

The 13-year-old, in the impoverished neighbourhood of Malukabad, would wake up each day and narrate the dreams he saw to any audience, from the tandoor wallah to fruit vendor.

He also narrated stories that would scare other children. “My Abai says ‘children shouldn’t go to Marghu Kanda as that’s where evil spirits live’.”

Marghu Kanda, a riverside path on the foothills in Saidu Sharif, used to be the place where victims’ families would take revenge by killing the murderers during the rule of Wali-i-Swat.

In the neighbourhood, school and bazaar, Mehmood was called the “boy of dreams”.

One rainy day in February, he went to the market of ‘Khooni Chowk’, where the Taliban used to execute rivals and hang their bodies from lamp posts. He needed to buy medicine for his diabetic mother. The wind swayed the pine trees, creating an eerie whistle. It scared him a little. “My Abai once told me that the whistling sound comes when evil spirits battle one another. These spirits were defeated by the folktale hero Mulla Bahadur, but still live confined to the Karakar mountain.”

Mehmood was lost in his thoughts when two men jumped out of a red car, gagged and dragged him into the vehicle. “At the time I thought the pine tree demons had come for me from Karakar,” says Mehmood.

“They were like monsters from my dreams. I screamed and shouted. I pleaded with them to let me go home. I told them my mother was ill and I had her medicine in my pocket. I cried.”

Mehmood was caught in the net of child sexual abusers. After 12 days and nights of horrific abuse, he was dumped on the road when the gang feared a police raid.

Back home, his worried father, Taj*, a labourer, frantically searched for his son all over town, while his mother and grandmother visited shrines to pray for the child’s safe return.

Talking to Mehmood about his ordeal during my recent visit to Mingora was the most difficult thing I have ever done.

“One of them was Master Monster and two looked his servants. Master Monster said, ‘Bring my pistol. I will kill him’. I was so scared. They gave me some drugs. Then he asked me to go bathe and ordered me to take off my clothes.” Mehmood falls silent.

He then sketched his ordeal in my notebook, depicting the painful story of his captivity, of being chained to an exercise treadmill, and the bed in the room he was confined to. He drew his abuser and his own face, but then blackened it out.

“Each day I used to live and each day I used to die,” he says listlessly. “I just wanted to be with my Maur Jan and Abai.”

Mehmood was not the only victim. With him was 14-year-old Abdur Rehman, who had been in captivity for more than two years. They were drugged, threatened with guns, forcibly cross-dressed, made to witness rapes, forced to watch porn, filmed and photographed during sexual abuse, and threatened with videos and photographs. The recovery of both led to the arrest of the paedophile gang.

Master Monster, with his two accomplices, has been arrested. They face charges of kidnapping children, keeping them in illegal confinement, and committing ‘unnatural’ acts of sodomy. According to chief police investigator Siddiq Akbar, the gang had been functioning for 16 years. “We are collecting further evidence but will ensure they get the maximum punishment,” he says, adding that the trial is expected to begin soon.

Back in the neighbourhood of Malukabad, Mehmood’s father, Taj, is already in debt to pay the lawyer to prepare the case. “I don’t feel safe. I have received threatening calls and offers of huge amounts of money, telling me to withdraw the case or prepare to face the consequences. But I want justice for my child,” he says.

Sitting at the hujra of community elder Haji Maluk, Taj also expressed scepticism about the role of the police in the case.

Haji sahib shares how the case has shaken everyone in the village. “Now when the children go out to play, the slightest delay in their return makes us hysterical,” he sighs.

“Since the Taliban left we have been trying to bring back colour to our beautiful valley, but now these monsters have inflicted wounds and scars on the souls of our children.”

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2016