By Auranzaib Khan (dawn.com)
He saw the two kids every morning, shepherding goats and sheep. They went past the house in the valley where he was detained. One day, he asked the children why they didn’t go to school.
“We used to,” answered one of the boys. “But the schools have been closed since the fighting.”
“Do you still have your books?” he asked them. The kids nodded. “Why don’t you come over with your books and I will teach you.”
They turned up the next day but wanted to leave after ten minutes. “What?” he exclaimed. “You aren’t even finished with your first subject yet.”
Soon, others joined in. The number of children swelled to 32 over the next 10 months. And then it was time to leave, to be moved to another location.
They used to call him Ustad Jee, a title not far off the mark for Ajmal Khan, the academic who spent years in captivity in the mountains of Waziristan, only just to have returned.
Prof Ajmal Khan, vice chancellor of the Islamia College University, was kidnapped by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2010. This August, he returned home after four years.
“When I’d say it is chhutti, they would hop up and run,” he says. “They were like kids in any government school. Except that they had no facilities.”
Lost and found
The house in the Professors’ Colony behind the University of Peshawar had an air of quiet despondency when I visited it four years ago. That was September 2010, the month Ajmal Khan was kidnapped. I had turned up without an appointment; my phone calls had gone unanswered.
His family had been through the worst with negotiations, the captors using the media to cause fear and try and force the government into meeting their demands. The security guards at the gate stopped me. When I asked to see Khan’s family, no one wanted to speak to me.
Down the street lived Lutfullah Kakakhel, vice chancellor of the Kohat University of Science and Technology. Kidnapped in November 2009, he had just been released after six months in captivity. There were rumours of the authorities having paid ransom.
But Khan’s case was complicated. He was a cousin of the Awami National Party’s president Asfandyar Wali Khan, whose party was in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at the time. The party’s resistance to the Pakistani Taliban made it the TTP’s bête noire, its activists and politicians regularly threatened and targeted.
“My meeting with Hakeemullah Mehsud was actually pleasant,” says Khan, taking a moment away from the guests pouring in to congratulate the family on his return. “He said, ‘We have nothing against you. But we are running an organisation here. We don’t want your money, it is haram for us. We will be asking the government for ransom.’”
Whether the government paid the ransom or swapped TTP prisoners for Prof Khan is not clear. TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah claimed Prof Khan was swapped for three Taliban commanders. An ISPR release said the security forces ‘safely recovered’ Prof Khan.
A life on hold
The Ajmal Khan kidnapped by the TTP was clean-shaven and heavyset. The one that has returned sports a beard and is lean, fit enough to scale a wall at 65. How have the years in the wilderness changed his outlook?
“I don’t feel any change except, maybe, that I have grown a beard,” he says. “But then I have always wanted to. When they took me to Waziristan, they brought me a big pack of razors. I said I don’t need them. I was no longer required to follow the demands of an urban existence, nor were there any facilities for upkeep. So I just gave in to that life.”
His family speaks of the time without him in terms of days, not years — 1,451 days as opposed to four years — to underscore the anguish of their long wait, of their lives on hold. To him, it was all a long dream, snatches of which keep coming back.
Somewhere along the way, through the routine of waking up early for prayers, listening to the radio and cooking for himself because the TTP members ate greasy food that was bad for his weak heart, through the unchanging landscape and the daily trudge down the mountains to be with the villagers at the shop, their gossip spot, he forgot that he was a man from another place.
“There was a time when I felt that I had been there all my life,” he says now. “It felt like I had been there born there, had grown up among those mountains.”
What kept him connected to his former life was the phone calls to home. And the radio broadcasts he regularly listened to. When the family kept from him the news of losing three family members — his two brothers-in-law and a cousin — in a suicide bombing at a funeral gathering in Mardan, he found out through the radio.
When he had finally grown used to life in captivity, knowing the TTP wouldn’t hurt him, there were other threats to grapple with. He remembers being afraid of drones, the army shelling TTP positions, and the constant lurking fear of whether he would survive or not.
“I missed my family but made friends in the village where we would get together at a local shop in the evening,” he recalls. “They would take me out for lunch or dinner. I would sometimes stay the night with them. They would be my guarantors, convincing the TTP that I wouldn’t escape. In time they grew to trust me. They would let me go around unaccompanied.”
Now that he’s back home safe, how does it feel? “It is a time of joy to be back with my children, brothers and sisters,” says Prof Khan. And then he goes quiet, fighting back tears. “I have no words for it. They never tortured me. They were good to me. But then, it was life in captivity. I wasn’t free. I had to live by their rules. They would tell me, ‘Look at us: when we get caught, we are thrown in cells. We don’t see sunlight for years.’ I told them, ‘Yes, I am not restrained. But where is my family?’”
By Auranzaib Khan (dawn.com)