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Footprints: A hope and a prayer

Updated November 24, 2017
WIVES of the missing coal miners hold photographs of their husbands who have been missing since September 2011 when they were abducted by gunmen in Khyber Agency. A young man holds a photograph of his brother who he has not heard from in six years.
—Photo by writer
WIVES of the missing coal miners hold photographs of their husbands who have been missing since September 2011 when they were abducted by gunmen in Khyber Agency. A young man holds a photograph of his brother who he has not heard from in six years. —Photo by writer

SHANGLA: Hope is fading and only uncertainty remains as the wives of dozens of abducted coal miners desperately wait for them to return home.

Six years have passed since the kidnapping. On Sept 9, 2011, as they were working their routine night shift in a coal mine of the Kala Khel area in Khyber Agency, unknown armed men forcibly took with them 40 of the workers.

Of them, 32 were from Shangla district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Over the next three months, 16 of the Shangla workers escaped while 16 others remain missing. Twelve of these were very young men; today, their wives continue to wait for them — neither wives, nor widows. For the families, life has not moved on. The possibility remains that their loved ones are still alive.

Hussan Baha, 24, one of the wives left bereft, says she can’t help but keep looking into the street in the hope that she might see her husband walk home. “I see the same path that my husband left six years ago,” she says. “But I only end up getting back to work. My life has become miserable since then.” Hussan had only been married for three years before he disappeared. Today, no one is left to feed the family.

Her family has had five of its men taken — Sardar Hussain, Imam Hussain, Zahir Rehman, Sardar Rehman and her husband, Umar Rehman.

“Umar Rehman married me when I was just 15 years old,” says Hussan. “We have no kids but we were happy. One day he and his brothers received a call for this job, so they left.”

But when they reached the location, they were abducted. Their families were informed a week later.

“With the men gone, all the breadwinners are gone. Now, often the neighbours help with the food and cash as charity, because of which we can eat, at least,” she laments.

Asked about any compensation payment by the government, she says she has no idea. “Probably the payment was received and was used in domestic expenditures,” she muses.

Apart from the men of Hussan’s family, belonging to the Basia area of Ranyal union council, the other missing miners include Muhammad Azam of Shalmanu Pir Abad, Umar Muhammad of Kandaw Pagorai, Sajid Gul and Dostam Gul, brothers from Pir Abad, Bakht Shahzada of Pir Abad, Dil Muhammad of Shen Sar, Umar Zada of Pagorai, Saeed Aslam and Aman Khan, brothers from Bnar Dehrai, Qabil Muhammad of Larai and Sher Baaz Khan of Damorai.

Abdara Bibi’s eyes well up as she remembers Zahir Rehman. “My children often ask about their father,” she says weeping. “Last Eid, my eldest daughter was asking for shoes and new clothes. And I was helpless.” She talks about how other children in school tell her offspring that their father would never return.

Amir Rehman has lost the energy to even fight any longer.

“I sold all my land and spent all of that money knocking on every door,” he says sadly. “But I can’t find my beloved son.” He talks about how his son, Muhammad Azam, has three children and is hard-working and trustworthy. “After he was abducted, he contacted us saying that they had been taken somewhere in the mountains in the dark of night by masked men,” he recounts. “He told us that they had been brought to the top of the mountain only to speak to their families, as the mobile phone service was available, and would afterwards be taken back.”

That was the last time they heard from him.

The youngest daughter of Sardar Hussain, Zeenat bibi, says that she misses her father: “When I ask my mother about him, she says that he has gone somewhere for work but there is no news about his return.” She adds that the teachers and fellow students in her school tell her that her father will come back very soon, but actually he comes only in her dreams. She wants the government and the Pakistan Army to find her father and the other missing persons of Shangla.

Dr Zahra Shah, a psychiatrist in Shangla, says that prolonged mental illnesses can be caused by this kind of uncertainty. “The women are unable to remarry as their husbands have disappeared,” she says. “Waiting for them causes depression.” She explains that married women with children face more financial issues, but the children can help them feel less alone. Of those who slide into depression, “If they get no help, they can even think of taking their lives,” Dr Shah adds.

A majority of Shangla residents live in remote, hilly areas and the women do not leave their houses. Only a few of the rural women work in the fields. Because of this culture, the wives of the abducted coal miners have to resort to taking aid from their neighbours to keep their kitchens running.

They could wait forever for their husbands, they say, even if they face social problems. But the misery is so intense that life cannot go on. Their only hope is that the government comes forward to trace the missing men.

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2017