8-year-old Beenish says her parents have gone to heaven, but she's already been to the hell of a Saudi jail with them.
Little Beenish does not like to talk to people. When spoken to, she chides the person: “You love to ramble on, don’t you?”
Just eight years old, her expressions are grave, as those of a much older person. Underscored by the dupatta wound tightly around her head, Beenish is a tiny child who never smiles.
She knows only silence and solitude. She often locks herself up in a room in her maternal uncle’s house so that no one can bother her. She does not play with other kids her age and has no interest in their games.
They did not play many games in prison.
Beenish was just five years old when her parents took her with them for umrah to Saudi Arabia. Her father was over the moon, recalls his family.
One of her father’s acquaintances, who claimed to be a travel agent, had arranged their visas and travel documents. His brother, Imdad, says they didn’t even know he and his family had passports.
After all, he was a poor labourer who took on whatever work he got his hands on to get by — he would be a butcher or a mason, depending on the season.
His family figured he wanted to go pray for stability, for a more comfortable life, even for affluence. Little did they know he and his wife will never return.
The family of three left their home in July with the travel agent. The extended family later found out they had departed for Saudi Arabia on July 10, 2016. Their best guess is that they boarded the plane from Multan International Airport. This is where the nightmare began.
Upon landing in Jeddah, Saudi authorities detained the family for transporting heroin to the Kingdom. The father was imprisoned separately while the mother and daughter were kept together in Jeddah’s Dhahban Prison.
Their family back home had no contact with them for the first few weeks. They only heard rumours about what happened to him, his wife and their young daughter.
Imdad says they heard so many different versions of what had happened they did not know what or who to believe. But his father recalls telling his son that he was unsure if he would ever get to see him again.
Threatened with death, the family was forced to carry heroin by the travel agent and they were arrested as soon as they landed, as the Saudis found the drugs on them. This is according to the couple's family. There is no way to verify it since the couple is dead and no independent investigation has been done by either the Pakistani or Saudi authorities.
Beenish spent the next six months with her mother in Dhahban. One cannot fathom what impact the incarceration had on the child’s development.
She started speaking less and less. Six months later, she was shifted to a facility for children. Barely old enough to attend grade school, Beenish was made to live in a room with three other girls around the same age, perhaps just a little older.
Here there was a little more freedom. They were allowed to watch television, play basketball in the compound outside and even given treats by their teacher.
She picked up Arabic and slowly started conversing with the other girls. But fear often stalked Beenish late into the night. Sometimes she would ask her friend Salma to sleep on the same bed as her.
Beenish and the other girls attended school and Quran lessons outside the facility. She says they were driven to another place in a white vehicle with sliding doors. Apart from that, she rarely left the building.
She only saw her father twice over a period of more than two years there. He was difficult to recognise. His head was shaven and the shackles binding his hands made him look unfamiliar and frightening. She refused to speak to him.
Her meetings with her mother were more frequent. They would meet every month or two. During the meetings, Beenish would not talk in front of the prison guards and her mother often took her to the toilet to coax a word or two out of her.
The mother would remind Beenish of her aunts and uncles back home. Beenish, however, only knew the prison guards at Dhahban and the police officers who visited the facility where she lived. She knew them by their uniforms. She knew that her teacher would cover her face when they arrived.
Around six months ago, Beenish's maternal aunt, whose husband worked in Saudi Arabia, looked into the possibility of bringing Beenish back to Pakistan. Her husband used his contacts and was told Beenish could return to Pakistan given that they produce valid documents to prove their close relation.
The aunt then collected the relevant paperwork and flew to Saudi Arabia to bring her niece back. They contacted the Pakistani embassy which facilitated a meeting with Beenish, who only spoke Arabic and had to be interpreted by a translator.
Her last meeting with her mother was mostly mute. The two elder women wept while Beenish braced for yet another upheaval. After spending over two years in detention in a foreign country, away from her family, she would be going back to her hometown leaving her parents behind.
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These past six months have been tough for Beenish and her guardians in Pakistan. They find it difficult to communicate with her. Her uncle, who already has several mouths to feed, tries to please her when he can. He says she likes to eat rice and meat and her favourite fruit are strawberries.
Last weekend, Beenish’s grandfather’s house was teeming with visitors. They had come to condole the death of her parents, beheaded by the Saudi government. Her mother was the first Pakistani female prisoner to be executed in five years.
She sits quietly with her younger brother, who did not accompany them to Saudi Arabia, in a corner.
Visitors stream in and out — some curious, others crying, all sympathetic. They inquire about the bodies. The family has no answer. They contacted the Pakistani embassy in Saudi Arabia, but the mission claimed to have no information about the executions.
The family has been pleading to anyone who cares to listen to bring the bodies back — for closure, a final goodbye.
One of the visitors asks Beenish about her parents: “They’ve gone to heaven,” she replies.
She has already been to hell with them.
Names have been changed to ensure anonymity
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