Looking for Uncle Ali

Aug 2013

Issue V

Photo: Matiullah Achakzai | Nasrullah Baloch speaks at protest for missing Baloch

Photo: Matiullah Achakzai | Nasrullah Baloch speaks at protest for missing Baloch

“There are many ways a man can die,” Nasrullah Bungalzai, a 29-year-old former student of Quetta Degree College told a certain Colonel Zafar of the Military Intelligence. Nasrullah had been campaigning for the release of his missing uncle, Ali Asghar Bungalzai. And, after five years of court appeals, protests and desperate lobbying he had been invited to a meeting with a group of MI officers in Quetta cantonment. There were seven or eight other officers in the meeting, all majors and captains. “If my uncle is alive I am not going to give up. Nobody can abandon their man like that. Maybe my uncle died of natural causes. Maybe you tortured him to death. All I want from you is that you take me to his grave. I’ll dig it up. I’ll identify him. I’ll offer my prayers and then never bother you guys again.”

Colonel Zafar had invited Nasrullah Bungalzai for a meeting because his relentless campaign and his permanent protest camp outside Quetta Press Club were becoming a bit of an embarrassment for the army establishment. “This is basically an ISI case, but our ISI colleagues have been asked not to keep contact with the families of the missing persons,” Colonel Zafar told Nasrullah referring to the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency. “And now we have been asked to sort out the issue. Why didn’t you guys come to us before?” Nasrullah tried to remind him that you can’t just walk into MI offices. He reminded him that his father and the brother of the missing uncle, Daad Khan, had been turned away many times from the cantonment gates.

“You have been meeting the governor?” Colonel Zafar asked him. Yes he had. At least 7 times. “And you have been telling him to summon the local ISI commander to the Governor House?” Yes he had. “He can’t even summon my junior most captain here. He knows that and you should, too.” The meeting lasted 3 hours. Nasrullah produced all the evidence he had gathered during five years of his futile search.

He carries with him a lot of paper: court orders, affidavits from formerly missing people, testimonies from members of the national assembly who had been assured by senior army officers that Uncle Ali Asghar would be released within days. At no point did Colonel Zafar acknowledge or deny that they had Ali Asghar in their custody.

“He was increasingly getting irritated with me,” says Nasrullah who was desperate to get a straight answer. “Maybe you killed him and buried him somewhere inaccessible. Maybe you can’t take me to his grave,” continued Nasrullah. “If that’s the case, then bring out a Qur’an, put your hand on it and tell me the truth. And I’ll leave you alone.” Colonel Zafar wasn’t impressed by Nasrullah’s emotional appeals. “It’s no use. We are a machine. We are an emotionless machine.”

Nasrullah wasn’t about to back down.. “But the very fact that you have called me here for a meeting shows that someone somewhere is concerned.” Visibly fed up, Colonel Zafar repeated his old stance that it was actually an ISI case, and he was only trying to help out. And, how was he trying to help out? By telling Nasrullah Bungalzai to shut up. The only piece of military-style optimism that Nasrullah got out of the 3-hour-long meeting was when Colonel Zafar told him, “We are not that bad. If we kill your uncle, you’ll find the body somewhere.”

That meeting happened six years ago. Ali Asghar’s family still haven’t got a body. They have been waiting for his return for eleven years now.  He is one of the 1800 Baloch citizens who have gone missing over the past few years. More than 150 have been killed and dumped, their bodies badly mutilated. There are thousands missing if you believe the Baloch Nationalists, hundreds according to the human rights organisations and none according to our intelligence agencies.  As the director of HRCP I.A. Rehman says: “Instead of offering the embittered Baloch redress and satisfaction the authorities have chosen to quibble over the number of missing persons or alleged exaggeration about women amongst them.”

Ali Asghar Bungalzai ran a tailoring shop called D’ French Tailors near Saryab Road in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. His nephew Nasrullah was at the shop in 2000, when they picked him up for the first time. Two police pickups arrived, and behind them, 3 jeeps full of men in plain clothes. They handcuffed Ali Asghar and shoved him into the back of a land cruiser. When the people in the market gathered around the scene, a forty year old man announced: “We are from the agencies. We are taking him for investigation. He’ll be back shortly.”

Ali Asghar did, indeed, return 14 days later. He had been tortured, electrocuted, blindfolded and hung upside down in what he thought was a well. His kidnappers wanted him to turn against his political party—or they would cut the rope from which he dangled.

Ali Asghar was a political activist and a member of Khair Baklsh Marri’s political party Haq Tawar, a small nationalist party which intelligence agencies accused of harboring separatists among its ranks. They blindfolded him and hung him upside down in what to the blindfolded man seemed like a well. “They stood up there and swore by Allah that if I didn’t agree to turn against Khair Baksh Marri they’ll cut the rope. He was in a strange shape when he came back from his ordeal,” says Nasrullah. “Sometimes he couldn’t hold a cigarette, his hands shook so much. Sometimes at nights he would wake up shivering, with his hands and feet swollen. We took him to a doctor, and the doctor said he has been injected with some chemical that has wrecked his nervous system.”

Ali Asghar started working at D’ French Tailors again, but all the while he suspected that they would come for him again. They didn’t disappoint him. He was returning after visiting a friend in the hostel at the Degree College, when they interrupted him, blindfolded him, put his friend, Iqbal, into another jeep and whisked them away.

“They put me in an underground cell,” says Iqbal. The torture started immediately. Four days later Iqbal heard voices. “Someone was saying, wake up Ali Asghar, it’s time for prayers.” Iqbal deduced that Ali Asghar was in the cell next door. “Then, one day, they told me that Ali Asghar has confessed that he is a foreign agent, you should confess, too.” Iqbal went on a hunger strike instead.

After a few days, he got severe kidney pains. “The pain was so intense that once I banged my head against the wall from morning till evening.” They took pity on him and called in a doctor. “The doctor told them that if I don’t get proper treatment, I’ll die. Or at least will be paralyzed for life.” They gave  him medicine and promised to release him. Twenty-four days after he was picked up, Iqbal was released.

He came home and brought news of Ali Asghar. He would be one of the three people who would bring some firsthand news about Ali Asghar. Nasrullah, meanwhile, did what everyone in Balochistan with an abducted family member does. He went to the local police station and tried to file a report, known as the “first information report” or FIR. He wanted to name the intelligence agencies as kidnappers. No FIR was registered. He went to the provincial high court. The court ordered that an FIR be registered. No FIR was registered.

Iqbal was traumatized. So, Nasrullah only produced him once in court and once at a press conference. He was bedridden. He wanted to help, but Nasrullah didn’t want to press him too much. He went back to the Balochistan High Court where a judge told him: What are you thinking? These are people in uniform. What can we do about them? But, the judge did pass a judgment saying that an FIR should be registered. No FIR was registered. The family would have to wait another nine years before an FIR would be registered.

In 2003, Nasrullah’s family managed to get a hearing with the Quetta Corps commander, who happened to be an ethnic Baloch. Abdul Qadir Zehri—who is now a politician in a major political party, the Muslim League—was helpful. After the meeting with Abdul Qadir, two army officers visited the family and said, yes we have your man. Wait for another 15 days. He’ll be with you. But, nothing happened.

Disappointed with the men in uniform, the family took the political route.“We asked Hafiz Hussain Ahmad for help. We told him, ‘you are our representative. If you don’t help us, who will?’ ” Hafiz Hussain Ahmed was moved. He picked up the phone and called a certain Brigadier Siddique who was the head of the ISI, in Quetta. The brigadier told them to come to his office. Nasrullah, his father Daad Khan and Hafiz Hussain were served tea in Brigadier Siddique’s office. The brigadier called in a Colonel Bangash, and asked him to bring Ali Asghar’s file. The colonel brought in a file. Brigadier Siddique studied it for a few minutes. Then he looked up and said something that Nasrullah would keep on quoting for the next 8 years. “Congratulations,” Brigadier Siddique said. “We have your man. He is alive and well. We arrested him as a suspect. Just for asking him some questions.”

The politician, Hafiz Hussain, spoke up. “If he has done anything against the state, if you suspect that he has done something, I’ll never say a word about him. Do your investigation, take your time.”

For the next year, Brigadier Siddique kept meeting the family every month. There was still an investigation. The family requested a meeting with Ali Asghar, some evidence of his existence. They were asked to bring some clothes for him. That was very reassuring for the family. If the local head of the ISI asks you to bring clothes for your missing uncle, it surely means that not only your uncle is alive, he is well enough to deserve a new set of clothes. In the bargain they were told to keep quiet, and given assurances that something will work out.

They were given a demonstration of the brigadier’s powers. One day, while Nasrullah sat in Brigadier Siddique’s office, his staff called to say that a minister was there to see him. Brigadier Siddique told the staff to tell the minister that he was busy and couldn’t see him. Then he turned to Nasrullah and said, “See you are sitting in my office, and a minister can’t come in. Now stop your protests and your court case.”

But, Nasrullah had only two questions. It has been a year since you told us about the investigation. How long does it take to complete an investigation? And, if the investigation is continuing, can there be any kind of contact with Ali Asghar? Maybe, a phone call? The good brigadier agreed. There would be a phone call. Nasrullah’s family didn’t have a phone at home. He gave their neighbor’s phone number.

That just proved to be another step in Bungalzai family’s continuing misfortune. The call came. The callers said they were calling from the army. They asked for Nasrullah’s father, Daad Khan. The person, who had picked up the phone, got scared at hearing the word “army,” and put the phone down. If you are neighbors with a family who has had a family member disappeared for 3 years, you can be forgiven for being scared of anonymous army callers. Brigadier Siddique retired in 2004 and abruptly disappeared from the scene.

The new brigadier met Nasrullah once, and said that he hadn’t taken proper charge. After that, he never took the family’s calls. Their hopes were fading in Quetta. They decided to go to the source of their miseries. Hafiz Husain promised to arrange a meeting with a general in Rawalpindi, the garrison town near the capital, Islamabad. Nasrullah’s father, Daad Khan, arranged money to buy 4 air tickets, and they arrived in Islamabad. They stayed at Hafiz Hussain’s parliament lodge. Hafiz took them to meet General Zaki. They repeated their demands. You have our man. How long do you need to investigate him? Bring him to a court, let us meet him.

General Zaki picked up the phone and called his man in Quetta. After the call, General Zaki’s message was clear: Yes, there is a problem. But that problem, is not here in Rawalpindi. It’s in Quetta. Go back, Brigadier Nisar will meet you. He will help you out.

The family came back to Quetta and met with Brigadier Nisar. He didn’t help them. Nasrullah gathered other families with missing persons and set up a protest camp outside the Quetta Press Club again. He also went back to the Balochistan High Court. The Court again ordered that the police should register an FIR. Nasrullah produced the earlier court order that had said exactly the same thing. Yet, 4 years after Ali Asghar’s abduction, there was still no FIR. “Are we not human beings?” Nasrullah pleaded in to the high court. “Why can’t you get the police to register a simple case?”

The chief minister of Balochistan, Jam Yusuf, found the protest  camp in Quetta very embarrassing for his government. He didn’t really find the issue of missing persons embarrassing, just their families camped in the middle of the provincial capital. He made an offer: stop the protests and your problem will be solved. Nasrullah refused the offer.

The local Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief tried to intervene. He had the same demand. “Pack up the protest camp, go home and we’ll try to help you,” he told Nasrullah. “Give it to me in writing, and I’ll call off the protest.” Nasrullah replied. The IB director said he’ll have to check with his ISI counterpart. He picked up the phone and made a call and then waited and waited. Nobody on the other side picked up the phone. The IB chief shouted. “These motherfuckers don’t even pick up my phone and then expect me to solve the problems they have created. They are giving us a bad name.”

After a few months, the Balochistan governor, Ovais Ghani, gave Nasrullah a patient hearing. “The governor told me that he had spoken to Brigadier Siddique who had told him categorically that they have never picked up anyone, that Ali Asghar wasn’t in their custody.

After years of admission this was the first time that a responsible man in the government was telling Nasrullah that they didn’t have his uncle. Ovais Ghani made the same demand that everybody else had made: stop the protests. Go home. Nasrullah countered. Call in Brigadier Siddique and Colonel Bangash. Let them say in our presence that they don’t have my uncle. Let them deny that they didn’t tell us that they had picked him up. Do it and you can solve this problem in half an hour.

Governor Ovais Ghani thought over it. “I can’t call in the corps commander,” Ghani said. “But I am sure I can call in a colonel or brigadier. I’ll arrange a meeting.” That meeting never took place. Instead Nasrullah got a call from the local military intelligence office. He told them nobody just abandons their man. “There are many ways a man can die,” he told them. If Ali Asghar was dead, then Nasrullah demanded that he should be led to a grave, or if he was alive, he should be produced in a court. The only concrete thing he took away from the 3-hour-long meeting was the colonel’s claim: If we had killed him, you would have found his body.

After his encounter with military intelligence, Nasrullah was called in again to meet Governor Ovais Ghani. Having probably realized the limitations of the powers of his office, the Governor was forthright. “If you continue your protests, I can’t guarantee your safety,” he said. Nasrullah was stunned. “I sat there and, for ten minutes, didn’t utter a single word,” he says.

The governor implored him to speak. “Son, say something.” For once, Nasrullah was bitter. “I told him, ‘I am a common citizen. You are the governor. We are sitting in your Governor House, and you are threatening me about my safety’.” All Governor Ghani had to say in his defense was that Nasrullah and his fellow protesters’ activities were becoming a problem for the reputation of the government. A high official from the interior ministry flew down to Quetta and met with Nasrullah. “He promised us that if we remove the protest camp, he’ll make sure that Ali Asghar would be released within two weeks. He told us that he’d be released somewhere near the border and we’ll just have to claim that he had spent all these years abroad.” Governor Ghani’s threat and the interior ministry official’s promise worked. Nasrullah consulted the other families and the protest camp was temporarily closed down.

Two months passed. Then 4 months. They took their protest to Islamabad and tried to contact the man from the interior ministry who had promised Ali Asghar’s release. It became quite obvious to them that the government official had lied to them.

The FIR for Ali Asghar’s abduction was registered 10 years after he had been picked up from Quetta. It happened after a Supreme Court ruling. Brigadier Siddique, Colonel Bangash, along with Corps Commander Abdul Qadir Zehri from Quetta were listed as the main accused. Three months ago Pakistan’s Supreme Court asked the inspector general of Balochistan to arrest Brigadier Siddique. The police submitted that it had written to the home secretary of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province where Brigadier Siddique currently lives. They are still waiting to hear from KPK’s home secretary.

If the accused Brigadier is indeed arrested and formally charged with the abduction of Ali Asghar, it’ll be a first. Nasrullah has seen enough of this in his decade long struggle with Pakistan’s judiciary. The Supreme Court can call in civilian bureaucrats and politicians in power, but when it comes to dealing with serving or even retired army officers, it gets cold feet. This is one line that all the powerful judiciary still can’t cross. “If an elected prime minster doesn’t obey the judiciary what happens to him? Judiciary sends him home. But they can’t force a retired brigadier to come and face charges.”

Nasrullah is quite convinced that the only way to get justice and stop more people from disappearing is to bring culprits before the courts. “You just can’t stop them without hauling the majors and colonels before the court. Okay, if you can’t punish them, if you can’t send them to jail, stop their promotions. Take away their benefits and then everyone will spill all their dirty secrets. And, others will learn.”

Ten years ago, when Ali Asghar was picked up, Nasrullah was a 23-year-old college student. He dropped out of college to look after Ali Asghar’s 8 children and to campaign for his release. When Ali Asghar was picked up, his oldest son was 12. His youngest 6 months old. In 10 years of struggle, he has only twice heard first hand news about his uncle, on both occasions from other political workers who were doing their time in the army’s dungeons. Gul Mohammed Bugti, who came back after seven-and-a-half years, had seen Ali Asghar in a lock-up in Quetta cantonment. Then, another prisoner who was arrested from Turbat and flown to Rawalpindi in a helicopter spent some time with Ali Asghar in a small jail-type place in a cantonment in Rawalpindi. “He was in good health. The torture had stopped but they were just keeping him. Ali Asghar wasn’t sure if they would let him go at some point or kill and dump him as they have done with the others.”

After spending eleven years in search of his uncle, Nasrullah is quite frank about his own state of mind. “The whole family has psychological problems. I think we are all mentally sick.” Despite Bungalzai family’s continuing ordeal, the business of living must go on. Ali Asghar’s oldest son, now a young man, got married a few years ago. “The whole family was together, and then someone mentioned Ali Asghar’ name and started to cry. Then everyone started to cry. We all cried for one whole week. Never in my life have I seen so many people crying so much.” Their house is full of Ali Asghar’s pictures. They use them at protest camps and rallies. In his absence, Ali Asghar has become a grandfather. “His grandson also calls him chacha because I refer to him as chacha. The kid looks at these pictures and asks me: when will chacha come home? Whenever I go to Islamabad, he tells me, you will bring chacha home this time.”

Nasrullah gives a pause as if trying not to get carried away by his emotions. “You know what his daughter said to me recently?”

“What?” I said.

Then he changed his mind. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s too much. I can’t tell you. I don’t want to start crying.”

Mohammed Hanif is a writer and journalist. He has written two novels A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. His pamphlet The Baloch who is Not Missing and Others Who Are is published by HRCP.

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6 Responses to Looking for Uncle Ali

  1. […] writer is the son of Ali Asghar Bungalzai who disappeared from Balochistan in year […]

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  3. […] as well as other Baloch activists, by Pakistan’s security establishment. Most remain missing while others are found dumped, their corpses bearing marks of severe torture. The practise is so […]

  4. […] as well as other Baloch activists, by Pakistan’s security establishment. Most remain missing while others are found dumped, their corpses bearing marks of severe torture. The practise is so […]

  5. […] as well as other Baloch activists, by Pakistan’s security establishment. Most remain missing while others are found dumped, their corpses bearing marks of severe torture. The practise is so […]

  6. […] as well as other Baloch activists, by Pakistan’s security establishment. Most remain missing while others are found dumped, their corpses bearing marks of severe torture. The practise is so […]

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