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The Storytellers

Housewife inspires families of Pakistan's 'disappeared'

A housewife's refusal to remain silent has given new hope to the families of Pakistan's 'disappeared.' Hundreds are thought to have become inadvertently swept up in the 'war on terror.'

Amina Masood Janjua sits in the small and sparsely furnished office of "Defense of Human Rights," the NGO she founded eight years ago in Rawalpindi. A confident woman who likes to wear brightly colored scarves, Amina has become a symbol of hope for hundreds of families searching for answers about the fate of their missing relatives. That's partly because she's intimately familiar with their anguish.

Her mission began on July 30, 2005, the worst day of her life, as she puts it.

"My husband and a friend needed to meet another friend in Peshawar," Amina explains. "They had their seats booked on the Daewoo Bus, a very good bus service. It was Saturday, 10 a.m. just like any other day."

Her husband, Masood Janjua, an educationalist and a businessman, was happy that morning, teasing her at breakfast. She told him to be careful, to take care, to call when he reached Peshawar.

"There was no call," she says, "and he never reached Peshawar."

As Amina, a housewife, began desperately piecing together information about his disappearance, she became convinced that he had become unwittingly caught up on the US "war on terror."

"When I started looking at the newspapers and I getting involved, I observed that there so many people were being picked up regarding the [July 7, 2005] bombing in England and anything happening in Pakistan or elsewhere in the world," she said. "The trend was that Pakistanis were responsible, and the Pakistanis should be punished. And people should be picked up from here."

Amina stands at a podium flanked by a poster of her husband

Amina said she knew little of the war on terror before her husband disappeared

In the aftermath of the terror attacks on New York and London, the US offered significant cash rewards to anyone in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan who could hand over a "suspected terrorist." As a result, hundreds - perhaps thousands - of people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time were captured and sold for ransom. Once detained, they had no recourse to justice and seemed simply to have disappeared without a trace.

In reality, many were being transferred to torture camps or detention centers, both inside and outside of the country, Amina says, "disappeared in the name of the 'war on terror.'"

Convinced that Pakistani security services were complicit in the disappearance of her husband, who Amina says had no ties to terrorism, she began a campaign for justice that pitted her against some of the most powerful people in her country.

At one point, the authorities told Amina that Masood and his travelling companion had been killed by al Qaeda. But after demanding to be told the location of the grave and for DNA tests to be carried out, she found that the story was false. A government source, claiming to have contacted her at the behest of Pakistan's president, later told her Masood was still alive, but refused to give her further information.

Close to home

Amina learned from several freed detainees and military contacts that Masood was indeed alive and had been held in various detention centers around Pakistan. Much of the time he appeared to have been held in facilities in or near Rawalpindi, including a year spent in a camp that was within walking distance of Amina's home.

"This is hardly walking distance from my house," she says. "I can smell him. I can feel he is around. But I can't listen to him. I can't talk to him. This is the worst torture on earth."

Every day, Amina's office fills up with the relatives of the missing, sons, daughters, wives, mothers and fathers. Her campaign has inspired hundreds of other families to come forward and register their cases.

Amir Bin Mehood has been searching for his son since he was taken away by five people who showed up at their house late one evening in 2009. One of them, he told DW, was a police officer.

Sadia Memood's husband, Khawar, was abducted from his office in late June of this year, she said. Her case suggests that disappearances are still taking place today.

Amina's group, Defense of Human Rights, helps people like Amir Bin Mehood and Sadia Memood file petitions in court demanding information about the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Banking on the courts

The Supreme Court of Pakistan is currently processing 749 cases pursued by Defense of Human Rights, Amina says.

A Pakistani man wearing white robes walks past through the park that surrounds the angular white building of the Supreme Court of Pakistan (Photo: Faisal Mahmood)

Amina and many others' are hopeful that the Supreme Court can offer relief

The government's Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearance recently issued a press release saying that 1,172 cases are still pending - up from 138 in 2011.

Amina is quick to defend her country, saying that it is not Pakistan, but the US and its allies, who should be blamed for these human rights violations. And she is cheered that the Supreme Court of Pakistan has now taken a keen interest in the plight of the missing.

But one essential question troubles her: If these detainees, like her husband, were picked up without any evidence of criminal activity will security agencies be ready to face the embarrassment of releasing them after so many years?

Amina and hundreds of families hope they are.

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