Mehmood* used to wait for nightfall. As the shadows of darkness settled over Swat valley, Mehmood along with other children would huddle around his grandmother ‘Abai’ to listen to fairytales about the bravery of princes and evil spirits in the mountains. He would fall asleep with his head in his mother Maur Jan’s lap. But now he fears the night.
The 13-year-old boy grew up with those stories in this poor neighbourhood of Malukabad. Every morning he would wake up and narrate the dreams he saw. In school break, he used to tell stories to any audience, from the tandoor wallah to fruit vendors.
His favourite was one in which a fairy comes to the valley from Koh-i-Qaf, falls in love with a shepherd of Kochis (gypsies) and takes him away to make him a prince. He also had stories that would scare other children. “My Abai says ‘children shouldn’t go to ‘Marghu Kanda’, that's where the evil spirits live.” Marghu Kanda, a riverine on the foothills of the mountain in Saidu Sharif, used to be the place where victims’ families would take revenge by killing the murderers during the times of Wali-e-Swat. In the neighbourhood, school and bazar, Mehmood was called the “boy of dreams.”
One evening, he went to the market of ‘Khooni Chowk’, the roundabout where the Taliban used to slaughter rivals and hang their bodies on lampposts. He needed to buy medicine for his diabetic mother. It was the second rainy day of February. The wind swayed the pine trees, creating an eerie whistling. It scared him a little. “My Abai (grandmother) once told me that the whistling sound comes when evil spirits battle each other. These spirits were defeated by 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 inside the vehicle. “At that time I thought the pine tree demons had come for me from Karakar,” narrated 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 is ill and I have her medicine in my pocket. I cried and cried…” He looked away.
Mehmood was caught in the net of child sexual abusers. After twelve days and nights of horrific abuse, the pedophiles dumped him on the road when they feared a police raid. The horrendous episode has left the whole valley reeling.
Back home, his worried father *Taj, a labourer, was frantically searching for him all over town, while his mother and grandmother visited shrines to offer prayers for their child’s return.
Talking to this innocent boy about his ordeal during my recent visit to Mingora is the most difficult thing I have ever done.
Mehmood recounted what happened. “One of them was Master Monster and two looked like his servants. Master Monster said ‘Bring my pistol. I will kill you…send you to your grave’. I was so scared. They gave me some drugs. Then Master Monster asked me to go and bathe and ordered me to take off my clothes…” He fell silent.
I felt numb. I put my arm around his shoulders to comfort him and walked away to give him some time. I walked towards where his family and community elders were sitting and had some water. When I came back, he was scribbling with my pen in his notebook. I asked to see his drawings.
Mehmood had sketched his ordeal. He depicted the painful story of his captivity, being chained to an exercise treadmill, and the bed in the room he was confined in. He drew his abuser and his own face, but then blacked it out.
“Everyday I used to live and everyday I used to die,” he said listlessly, “I just wanted to be with my Maur Jan and Abai.”
Mehmood was not the only victim. With him was another boy, 14-year-old Qaiser*, who had been in captivity for more than two years. The children were drugged, threatened with guns, forcibly cross-dressed, made to witness rapes, forced to watch porn movies, filmed and photographed during sexual abuse and threatened with videos and photographs. Both were recovered in a police raid that led to the arrests of the pedophile gang.
Master Monster was Aurengzeb, who along with his two assistants Sajjad and Umer Khaliq alias Nawab have been arrested. I met them at the Mingora police station, handcuffed and behind bars. They face charges of kidnapping children, keeping them in illegal confinement, and committing ‘unnatural’ acts of sodomy.
There is another character named Sherinzada who provided videos and pictures to a group of local journalists, claiming that his nephew was also missing. But police officials say he was also an accomplice and played a ‘double game’ by providing proof to journalists on one hand, and threatening the estranged brothers of Aurenzeb to extract money. Sherinzada, according to police officials, is also in custody.
According to the chief police investigator Siddiq Akbar, the gang has been functioning for sixteen years. He says Aurangzeb has confessed to the sexual abuse of 17 children, but the police are currently dealing with two live investigations in the case of Mehmood and Qaiser. He says they will look into the other 15 cases he has confessed to as well. “We are collecting further evidence to add but will ensure they get the maximum punishment,” he says, adding the trial is expected to begin soon.
Given our social attitudes, the scale and seriousness of such child sexual abuse has always been underplayed, in Swat and in the rest of the country as well. Initially a group of local journalists decided not to highlight the case fearing it might explode like the Kasur child sexual abuse scandal and bring disrepute to the people of Swat. They did however provide visual proof to the police and demanded immediate action. The mainstream media, barring a few, was too obsessed with the stormy political situation triggered by Panama Leaks to follow up the story.
This response of denial and taboo was mirrored by PEMRA, which recently issued a notice to Hum TV for airing drama serial Udaari, aimed at creating awareness about child sexual abuse. The regulatory body believed such a depiction was against the societal norms. That this gang remained operational in highly guarded Swat suggests that such denial explains why these issues are not given priority.
Back in the neighbourhood of Malookabad of Mingora town, Mehmood’s illiterate poor father, Taj, vows to fight the case against the perpetrators and seek justice. He is already under debt of Rs20,000, which he borrowed to pay the lawyer to prepare the case. “I don't feel safe. I feel Aurengzeb’s operatives are chasing me. I received threatening calls and offers of huge amounts of money, telling me to accept money and withdraw from the case or prepare to face consequence. But I want justice for my child,” says courageous Taj, while sitting at the hujra of community elder and influential Haji Maluk Saheb.
Mehmood’s father and other men of this neighbourhood are skeptical about the role of police in the progress of the case. “We all are worried and disturbed. The case has shaken us all, our women are under tremendous stress. Now when the children go out to play, the slightest of delay in their return makes them hysterical,” says Haji Maluk Saheb as others nodded in unison. “Since the Taliban left we have been trying to bring colours to our beautiful valley but now these monsters have inflicted wounds and scars on the souls of our children.”
In this case, the children and the victims’ families have got the support of their community. “We want exemplary punishment for the culprits. We have started a donation campaign for the legal battle. We will not let the police be lenient,” the men in the hujra tell me.
As the sun starts setting over Malukabad neighborhood, the gathering at the hujra disperses, with Taj expressing gratitude to Haji Saheb. He holds his son Mehmood’s hand and walks away towards his home.
As the shadows of darkness lengthen in Swat, I imagine that Mehmood huddles with other children around his grandmother. I wonder which stories he wants to hear, and which tales he will share with others now. In one of his new sketches, he is shooting his abuser in the face. As the sky lights up with stars, I hope this ‘boy of dreams’ can let go of this nightmare and find his dreams again.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
Photos by Murad Ali and Kamran
Owais Tohid is a leading journalist and writer. He tweets @OwaisTohid and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org