conflict reportage Conflict

The Girl from Karak

A Pakistani woman’s frustrated quest for justice

By RAFIA ZAKARIA | 1 February 2015

IT WAS MID MORNING on an ordinary day in October 2010. No one in the family kept time by hours and minutes, but she remembers because she was making bread for the second meal of the day, patting balls of dough between her palms, waiting for the stove to get hotter. As always, she hummed songs in her head, wedding songs she had heard at her cousin’s recent nuptials, when the women had been allowed a stereo.

The men came in suddenly. And they were everywhere. Uzma’s first instinct was to cover herself. The sixteen-year-old felt instantly exposed; no men, other than her brother and father and uncles, were permitted into the sleeping and eating spaces of the house. Where was her mother? Where were her brothers? What did the men want?

By the time she realised they were policemen, dressed in khaki and black, they were already swarming through the four rooms in which her family lived. As they kicked the tin trunks and scattered clothes, they shouted that they were looking for a cell phone. One of them snatched the half-rolled ball of dough she was still clutching in her hand. She remembers yelling that there was no cell phone. Instead, the men unwrapped a laptop that was kept swaddled inside a trunk. It was the family’s most treasured possession, bought used by her eldest brother so they could all huddle together and watch the Bollywood movies she loved. “That is ours!” she screamed to the man who had grabbed it. “Give it back to us!” The man laughed at her, and yanked her by the hair to drag her away from the stove. He did not put the laptop back.

The men had been sent by Naseebullah, who worked for the Pakistan Army and was a strongman in Karak, the district in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where Uzma Ayub lives. The previous night, Uzma’s brother had been invited to Naseebullah’s hujra, where he held court, to sit with the important men of the village of Shanawa Guddi Khel. It had been an unexpected invitation for Alam Zeb, for he was the son of an insignificant man—only a lowly orderly in the army. At sunset, Alam Zeb, beaming and excited, had bathed, dressed in fresh clothes and oiled his hair. Uzma had seen him walking out toward Naseebullah’s house through the dusk-dimmed village lanes.

Now, the men ravaging the family’s belongings pushed aside her baby brother and sister, who began to cry. “Your brother is a thief,” one of the policemen said to her. His eyes glided over her body. “He has stolen a cell phone from the hujra and we are here to find it,” another added. Then, in the midst of turning over their beds and pulling things out of their single cupboard, one of the men grabbed Uzma. Just as suddenly as they had come, they dragged her away, screaming and punching, from the hearth, from the stove now smoky with burning bread. She felt a policeman’s iron grasp on her arm. His baton hit her on the back of the head and she was pushed out of the house. Uzma was shoved into the back of a police van, crying for her mother and brothers. Her nightmare had begun.

 

DRY MOUNTAIN ecosystems are supposed to be some of the most fragile in the world. This is the sole distinction of Karak’s low hills and surrounding rangelands. Deforestation and the resulting desertification have eviscerated the region’s agriculture, most of which were barani, or rain dependent. The rains don’t come anymore, not often enough anyway, and over-grazing has further dried up the earth. The wiry grass is clipped close by the goats, sheep and cattle that the farmers cling to. On Wednesdays and Fridays, animals are forbidden from pasture—an attempt to protect what little farming remains. Decades ago, women roamed the hills of Karak for hours at a time, gathering grasses and berries and medicinal herbs. The girls who live in Karak today sing some of the same songs those women did, but neither they, nor their mothers, remember wandering freely in the hills.

Under its arid earth, Karak has two important commodities. The district houses Pakistan’s largest uranium mine, in an area under the jurisdiction of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. Gypsum mines, too, dot the landscape; the mineral is processed in the local cement mills. Inside the mines, hundreds of men—Karak’s poorest—toil without safety equipment amid the white mineral dust, which settles into their lungs, killing them sooner or later. Their families receive no compensation for their deaths, and sons show up to replace their fathers before long. On bad days, dust from the mines blows into nearby villages, getting into clothes and eyes and hair. In Uzma’s home, even the food tastes of gypsum, the main ingredient in the cement that paves the sidewalks of Pakistan’s towns.

With so much of the land not arable, Karak’s men have had to look for jobs in faraway cities, or with the Pakistan Army. Others go farther, scrounging together thousands of rupees to pay middlemen who can secure them employment in Malaysia, or one of the Gulf countries, or the oil rigs off the coasts of Iraq—any place at all that will have them. They return thin, wan and laden with gifts every year, during Ramzan or on Eid, and depart fattened, shiny and puffed with the importance their money buys them here. They leave behind pregnant wives, who stay in touch with them over cell phones until the next year’s visit.

The women of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have borne more upheavals than perhaps any others in the country. Their visibility, and invisibility, is at the centre of Pakistan’s war with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan—a militant group that has demonstrated, through attacks on girls in schools and markets, just how far it will go to realise its vision of an entirely male public sphere. The country’s leaders have done little to oppose them strongly on this count. After Pakistan’s last general election, in 2013, evidence surfaced of several agreements in which politicians had assured extremist factions that women would not be voting.

At the same time, the oppressions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and other extremist groups are better known than the other burdensome changes that have affected Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the lives of its women. Urban migration, the dissipation of agricultural livelihoods, and the increasing presence of Pakistan’s security agencies have upended the tribal power dynamics that used to prevail here, and therefore decimated the family structures that once safeguarded against violence and abuse.

Families like Uzma’s no longer conform to older patriarchal mores or strict segregation. The men are often far away, struggling to exert their authority via text messages and phone calls. Uzma’s fight for justice plays out within this changing private landscape, in which brothers support sisters and mothers champion daughters against a bureaucratic and legal system mired in inaction. Over the six months I spent interviewing her last year, Uzma revealed herself to be a generally cheerful young woman, even as the hope that she would receive justice for the crimes committed against her, or find an acceptable place in her tribe, evaporated. Sometimes she laughed, and said “Baji, maybe I will go abroad and leave this place.” But more often she told me, again and again, how much she wanted other women and girls to hear her story. This, above all, compelled me to tell it.

 

NASEEBULLAH, a middle-aged man with a wife and children, was just a havildar in the Pakistan Army. But he had had his eye on Uzma for a long time. Earlier in 2010, before he sent in the policemen, he had sent some distant relatives with a marriage proposal. As they drank the tea Uzma’s mother served them, they told her Naseebullah wanted the girl, then just fifteen, to be his second wife.

Uzma’s father was away, posted in Karachi. Her mother tried to hedge. She knew Naseebullah was an important man, much higher than her family in the social hierarchy of the Khattak tribe, which he and they belonged to. She could not simply refuse. She said her daughter was too young; she had not really even reached puberty, and was too childish to be a wife. It was a tense moment. She sensed that the guests felt slighted.

Eventually, a few months later, Naseebullah sent in the police. Immediately after Uzma was taken, she was injected repeatedly with a drug that made her drowsy and unable to remember exact details. Later, she could recall only a room with pieces of metal patched together to make walls, and thin slivers of light coming through the cracks between them. There was no bathroom; she had to use a bucket in the corner. Somewhere far away, she thought, she could hear children crying and women talking to them. She remembered men, several of their faces familiar: Naseebullah, one or two of the policemen, and others whose names she did not know. Each of them raped her repeatedly. She did not know the time, if it was night or day, or whether days or weeks or months were passing by.

Uzma was a captive for almost a year, until September 2011. Some days were less awful than others. On those days, she would be blindfolded and taken to another house. When the blindfold was removed, she would find herself in a bedroom with actual walls and furniture. Some clean clothes would be laid out for her on a bed, and there would be a bathroom where she could bathe and dress herself. She could hear clearly the voices of women talking about this or that outside the door, and sometimes faint strains of music from a distant radio or television. On those days, she would be fed warm food, rice and curry and dahi, instead of the crusty pieces of roti that were her usual fare.

The time in the good room was short; she was nearly always taken quickly back to the other room, where she would descend into despair again. Sometimes the drug would wear off and she would scream for her mother, her father, her family. Then the men would come in—they would hold her down and drug her once more. She was grateful, she told me: it was better not to know how many men, how many times. It was better to forget that she had once had another life, or ever been happy.

 

A FEW YEARS BEFORE UZMA AYUB was kidnapped, in 2006, Pakistan’s national assembly passed a historic law under the auspices of the general turned president Pervez Musharraf. The Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act sought to set right a legal wrong, perpetrated under the dictatorship of Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, that had long threatened the basic rights of Pakistan’s women. In 1979, seeking popular legitimacy via a religious extremist position, Zia ul-Haq promulgated the Zina and Hudood Ordinance, which made the sexual control of women a political issue under the jurisdiction of the state. A loophole in the already galling provisions of the statute made it particularly bad for women who had been raped.

Under the ordinance, any sexual relations between a man and woman outside of wedlock were immediately culpable. If a woman alleged that the sexual relations had taken place without her consent, she was required to produce four male witnesses to the crime. If only women had been present as witnesses, under the provisions of the Qanun-e-Shahadat act also passed by Zia ul-Haq, two women could count as a single male witness. These conditions made it practically impossible to prove rape. Furthermore, if a woman who alleged rape was unable to produce the requisite witnesses, her complaint was automatically construed as a confession of fornication or adultery. The rape victim was thus transformed into a criminal.

When Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first female prime minister, was elected in 1986, she granted amnesty to the many hundreds of women languishing in Pakistani jails as a result of these laws. But she did nothing to change the legislation. Many of the women, dishonoured by the charges and rejected by their families and communities, had nowhere to go. Some begged the prison authorities to allow them to stay.

The 2006 Protection of Women Act did not, as many women’s activists would have liked, do away with the Zina and Hudood Ordinance. However, it introduced amendments that would prevent the prosecution of rape victims as fornicators or adulterers if they failed to produce four male witnesses. Though the burden of proof was still almost insurmountable, this meant that Uzma, were she to bring a rape complaint against her assailants, could not be punished for adultery or fornication if the men she accused were found not guilty.

When Uzma’s captivity ended, it happened as suddenly and inexplicably as it had begun. One day, she was taken into the nicer room and instructed to get ready to “go somewhere.” The hope that she was being taken home welled up from deep within her. With it rose dread at the thought that she had been spoiled by the men who had abused her. These emotions mixed with disgust and fear as she washed herself and groggily put on the black shalwar, kameez and chador laid out for her on the bed.

Uzma had not seen the sun for nearly six months; outside, her eyes smarted in the daylight. Two men pushed her into the back seat of a car, as roughly as ever. As the dusty air blew in through the vehicle’s cracked windows, she realised it was hot—a very long time had passed since she had last been in a car, when she was kidnapped. The car turned onto a paved road. They had left the village.

The men took little notice of Uzma. About an hour into the ride, she managed to ask them where they were taking her, first softly, then more loudly. One of the men turned around, but they said nothing. Two hours later, the car entered what seemed to be a city. On either side were trucks, painted with bright flowers and geometric shapes obscured by layers of dust. Uzma heard men shouting in Pashto as they loaded goods onto their trucks or their pallets. The car stopped, and the two men spoke to each other, too softly for her to hear. Then they got out and walked away.

Uzma waited a long time for them to return.

Eventually she pushed herself against a window. She saw the surrounding area clearly but could not spot either of the men. Nearby was a cluster of shops. One sold plastic goods—buckets, pans and pitchers arranged in piles. Another seemed to be a restaurant, in which little boys milled about with chipped blue cups and saucers balanced on trays. A man in an undershirt sat next to a tandoor, putting in fresh circles of dough, lifting out puffy naans with a metal rod. She squinted as her eyes filled with tears, remembering the dough in her hands when she was taken, the bread she had been making for her family. Suddenly, she was full of rage and courage. She pulled the door handle, not expecting it to budge. It opened easily.

It would never become clear if the men had meant to let her go. When Uzma recollected leaving the car, she said she could not believe that she was able to get away. She wandered the bazaar, expecting to encounter one of her many assailants and be dragged back. Eventually, a shopkeeper who noticed her, a lone woman without a male escort, asked if she was looking for someone. This single act of kindness helped Uzma find her way home. She was in Bannu, not far from Karak and her village. She called her family from a shopkeeper’s cell phone. Alam Zeb, who had been accused of stealing a cell phone from Naseebullah’s hujra, answered. Uzma screamed and cried into the phone when she heard his voice, crumpling at the prospect of being reunited. Before hanging up to come meet her, he told Uzma, “I love you, my sister. What has happened to you is wrong. I will get your revenge. I will not let these men go unpunished.”

 

UZMA’S REUNION WITH HER FAMILY was so emotional—wet cheeks pressed against each other, shoulders clasped, prayers of thanks—that at first, there was no time to see. But when Uzma’s mother finally looked at her, a scream escaped her lips. “What happened to you? What happened to your face?” she asked, clasping her daughter’s head in her hands. Uzma had not looked into a mirror for months; she rushed into the room where they slept, to the small glass she had used to comb her hair in front of since she was a small child and had to stand up on a chair to do it.

The image that stared back at her was nothing like the slim, girlish face she remembered. Her eyes, once sparkling and almond-shaped, were now heavy-lidded, with cups of gray beneath them; on the sides of her bloated, puffy face were fading purple bruises where she had been slapped or hit or pushed. Later, while changing her clothes, she discovered more marks and bruises. While her memory failed her, her body reminded her that her life had been altered forever.

Her family held her as she sobbed. Through her tears, she began to name the men who had raped her. The name Naseebullah escaped her lips repeatedly. In the following days, she recalled others, thirteen in total. Her brothers, especially Alam Zeb, listened closely, hugging her again and again. Possibly he felt responsible for what had befallen her.

Perhaps the family’s poverty and low social status made them less inclined to follow the community’s stricter social mores. Instead of silencing Uzma, lamenting her dishonour or encouraging her to kill herself, Uzma’s brother stayed true to his vow to avenge her. Alam Zeb became her most ardent supporter, showering her with attention, bringing her small things—treats to eat, hair clips, a new chador.

The family was faced with a confusing decision. Uzma’s kidnappers and several of her assailants were policemen. Her case became a test of the power of the community against the power of the police and the army men in the area. The Khattak clan elders were supportive, roundly condemning Naseebullah for believing he could take the women of any family in the area. Encouraged by their support, in the last days of September 2011, Uzma, Alam Zeb and another of her brothers travelled twenty kilometres to file a First Information Report in Takht-e-Nasrati, the district headquarters. It was the first time Uzma left her house after her ordeal. Her brothers gathered a crowd of local elders to descend on the police station to ensure that the officers registered her report. In the FIR, Uzma named Naseebullah Khan and several policemen—Sub-Inspector Hakeem Khan, Sub-Inspector Ameer Khan, Station House Officer Pir Mohsin Shah and a man named Qamar Ali—among her alleged abductors and rapists.

 

AS THE AIR GREW COLDER IN KARAK, and the women took out their thicker clothes, Uzma noticed changes in her body. In the first days after returning from captivity, she could not bear to look at herself in the mirror or while washing. She had endured the abuse by disconnecting from the torture being inflicted on her physical self. Now, at home, she did the same, not acknowledging her bloated body or her swelling belly. She told herself that these were the results of the drug, and the abuse.

Her mother noticed, however, and one day took Uzma to a health office two towns away. They learned that Uzma was pregnant. The knowledge that she was to be the only unwed mother ever known in her family, her tribe, her whole village, made Uzma want to die. She had imagined that perhaps one day justice would heal her wounds, but now she would be haunted by a child, a living reminder of what she had endured.

The quest for justice, too, would be fraught with complications. The same winter, a group of Khattak elders descended upon the family’s tiny house. The men named in the FIR, notably Naseebullah, had been pleading with them to intervene. The accused men were surprised at having been named. Never in their experience had a teenage rape victim had the audacity to report the crime. Never had a family stood by a girl who was no longer a virgin. Never before had the community supported the registration of a case against the perpetrators.

The men were further shocked by the actions of the Peshawar High Court, which, after the efforts of Alam Zeb and Uzma’s father, and in light of the FIR, decided to take suo moto notice of the case, taking matters into its own hands. On 3 December 2011, it instructed an Additional Sessions court in Takht-e-Nasrati to order the arrest of those named. Five of the accused, the police officials, were taken into custody and denied bail. A hearing was set for 9 December.

On 5 December, the forty elders from Guddi Khel, the village of three of the accused, arrived at Uzma’s house. They told her father and Alam Zeb that Hakeem Khan, Ameer Khan and Pir Mohsin Shah had confessed to raping Uzma. While she listened to the exchange from another room, the men said that the accused were willing to offer compensation, or badl, in exchange for the withdrawal of Uzma’s case. “These courts are not our tribal ways,” they said. “The men are sorry for this tragedy. You should forgive them and accept the compensation.”

Uzma thought of what she had endured, she told me, and  resolved that she would not allow the men to save face. Alam Zeb had only to glance at her to know her decision. He and his father told the forty men that they were not interested. The group left with a threat: the family would pay for such obstinacy.

On 9 December, Uzma rose before dawn, shivering in the dark as much from the cold as from the fear that seized her every time she had to leave the house. She was dogged by the thought that she would be taken again, that a policeman—there were so many around the court—would grab her. She was afraid of the court itself, its rows of chairs, its lofty ceilings and the judge, who sat way up high, the lawyers who spoke loudly, using difficult words she could not understand. She had never spoken to any men other than her father, her brothers, and her rapists. She could not bear to recount her story in a room full of people, in the court. Yet her lawyer had explained that she would have to speak, to point out the perpetrators. Just the thought made her throat constrict, and her face sting with the memory of the slaps they had used to silence her. The thought that she would not be alone, that Alam Zeb would be with her, gave her courage. She would speak, she told herself. She was doing the right thing and she was not alone.

Zafranullah, Uzma’s younger brother, went with the family to the courthouse. He told me that, after the hearing, Alam Zeb instructed him to take Uzma and their mother back home; he would follow on his motorbike. As Alam Zeb descended the courthouse steps and walked towards his bike, Zafranullah said, a car drove up and struck him down. Alam Zeb tried to run away, but the car’s driver, who Zafranullah identified as Pir Waheed, held him. Another man gunned him down.

Alam Zeb died on the spot. It was the middle of the day; hundreds of people were milling around the courthouse, and the young man’s bloodied body was photographed by many journalists and onlookers. Zafranullah alleged that the shooter was Ibrahim, a brother of Hakeem Khan and Ameer Khan. According to reports from the Asian Human Rights Commission, the bullets recovered from Alam Zeb’s body were from an official pistol, registered to the police.

 

DURING UZMA’S CAPTIVITY, in a courtroom far from Karak, in Islamabad, a momentous legal decision was taken that would fundamentally shape her struggle for justice. In June 2011, a three-member bench of Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court ruled on three identical petitions challenging certain provisions of the Women’s Protection Act of 2006. The justices announced that three of the bill’s provisions were unconstitutional, and intruded upon the jurisdiction of the Federal Shariat Court.

In its decision, the Federal Shariat Court listed ten offences, including Zina—adultery, fornication and rape—and Qisasa—the right to retaliation in offences against the human body—as being covered by the terms of Zia ul-Haq’s Zina and Hudood Ordinance, and ruled that the National Assembly’s 2006 amendments to this law were invalid. The national assembly, they argued, did not have the power to amend provisions of an act as they related to the provisions of the Quran. The legislature was given until 22 June to reformulate the Women’s Protection Act in a way that would not intrude upon the Shariat court’s jurisdiction. It never did so.

This reversal meant that women were again required to produce four male witnesses to prove a rape, failing which they could be tried for fornication or adultery. A pregnancy was prima facie proof of adultery or fornication, both of which were punishable by a hundred lashes or, in certain cases, death by stoning.

Uzma had already decided to have the baby. “I could get rid of this child by doing abortion but my conscience did not allow me to kill it as I know that it is a sin in Islam to take the life of a human being,” she said, as her pregnancy progressed and news of it was released to the media. Sometimes, in interviews, she added, “I am already stigmatised as a girl that was raped. It is not like I can just go on with my life; this child will give me a reason to live.”

For a time, it seemed that despite the social pressures and legal hurdles, justice was still possible. The case the family had registered in the murder of Alam Zeb named two of her alleged rapists—both policemen—and one of their brothers in the FIR. The Pakistani media, which had already picked up on Uzma’s case, swooped down on the brazen killing too, publishing and broadcasting regular updates between December 2011 and February 2012. The attention was welcome: Uzma’s side of the story, which she told journalists even while she kept her entire face covered, was made public. Her enemies—not just Naseebullah and his family, but also the two policemen who had allegedly raped her and then orchestrated her brother’s death—were forced to accept that any further killings would not be easily suppressed.

When she delivered a statement in her brother’s case before the Peshawar High Court in December 2011, Uzma told the presiding judge that she feared for her own life, and for the lives of her family. With her own kidnapping and her brother’s murder on record, and the fact that some of their alleged assailants belonged to law enforcement agencies and the military, the judge ordered that the family be given secure lodging in Peshawar, and be protected by a constant security cordon of Peshawar police. Following that, Uzma, two of her brothers, her mother and some other relatives moved to the city from Karak. There, in a small flat inside the police lines, Uzma told me, she slept peacefully for the first time since being kidnapped.

On 20 January 2012, Uzma went into labour and was admitted to the crowded maternity ward of Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital. As soon as her baby was born, court-ordered blood tests were conducted to determine which of the thirteen rapists that Uzma had named was the father. Uzma permitted the tests, but told me that she did not really want to know. She named the child, a daughter, Zeba, after Alam Zeb.

In the week after Zeba’s birth, there was some good news. The Pakistan Army had turned Naseebullah over to civilian law enforcement. Finally, the man accused of starting Uzma’s torment was behind bars, recognised as a suspect in her rape and kidnapping.

 

THE BRIEF RESPITE CAME, as it happens, thanks to the mercurial attentions of the media. Uzma was prepared neither for the glut of interest in the aftermath of Alam Zeb’s murder, nor for its fading away in a few months’ time. Despite the many stories written and broadcast about her, the finer legal details of the proceedings proved difficult to pin down—even for those directly involved. In the early months of the case and through the summer of 2012, Uzma agreed to give several interviews before at least two evidence-gathering commissions convened by the court. The records of these were not easily available and were rarely shared with her, since she could neither read nor write. In the records available from her lawyer, she reiterates the same story she had told many times before, detailing her kidnapping, repeated rape, her brother’s murder and daughter’s birth. There was no DNA evidence from the days immediately after she escaped. Around the time the family filed the FIR in Takht-e-Nasrati, they had been directed to a medical board for an examination. But they were given an incorrect address, and after hours of searching for the right office they gave up. Uzma related all this and more to the commissions.

Meanwhile, as summer began, the same elders who had come to offer compensation in exchange for her rape visited Uzma’s family in the village again, this time to offer money for the forgiveness of Alam Zeb’s murder. Her father and brother Zafranullah were there, and sent the men away immediately, this time without even offering them the customary hospitality that Pashtuns always did. The family was too scarred; none of the usual conventions applied anymore.

On 19 June 2012, after seven months of deliberations, and all the high-level inquiries, polygraph tests, interviews and DNA tests, the Peshawar High Court decided to simply remand the case back to a trial court. One of its reasons was the fact that the DNA test administered to Uzma’s daughter did not positively identify a father from the thirteen men Uzma had named as her rapists. The fact that she had been raped in the first place was left unaddressed. It was not clear whether the court had taken into consideration that the length and conditions of Uzma’s captivity, and the drugs administered to her, made it difficult for her to remember or name all her rapists.

Looking over the records, the court also seems to have overlooked the significance of the influence Uzma’s alleged rapists exercised over the area, and the fact that these men and their associates had been accused of killing her brother right in front of the courthouse. Another immediate consequence of the decision to remand the case was that thirty-five police officials, who had been suspended following the High Court’s suo moto cognisance of the case, were now reinstated. Hakeem Khan, the assistant sub-inspector Uzma had named, also had his suspension lifted following an apology to the court.

The bad news mounted over the next year. In February 2013, a month after Uzma celebrated Zeba’s first birthday, her case was heard by the Anti-Terrorism Court in Peshawar. On 1 February, the appointed judge ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove its accusation of rape against the thirteen men. All of them were acquitted. It turned out that most had already been released on bail months earlier.

In April 2013, the Peshawar High Court withdrew the provision of security for Uzma and her family. They were forced to move back to their village in Karak. That the Anti-Terrorism Court finally convicted Alam Zeb’s murderers in November 2013, sentencing them to twenty-five years imprisonment each, was cold comfort.

 

I LAST SPOKE TO UZMA AYUB in August 2014. By then, the appeals against the acquittal of her rapists had nearly all been exhausted, and she was getting despondent. Without housing support from the government, it was getting harder just to go on with the ordinary business of life. In the village, all the girls her age, her cousins and childhood friends, were married and had several children. Many of them were forbidden from seeing her, owing to the stigma she carried. She tried to play with Zeba, but to be honest, she said, Zeba was closer to her grandmother than to herself. She had been too depressed to nurse her daughter and now she sometimes felt like it was too late to bond with the child, whose plaintive cries seemed unending. Her only solace, Uzma said, was listening to songs on the cellphone Alam Zeb had bought her just before he was killed. She consoled herself with the thought that at least the men who had shot her brother—relatives of the men who had allegedly raped her—were in prison.

But just as I finished writing Uzma’s story, on 4 August 2014, the Peshawar High Court ruled on an appeal filed by the three men convicted of murdering Alam Zeb. Acquitting all of them, the court noted that witnesses in the original case had changed their statements, and now denied being present when the murder was committed. The verdict of the lower court could not be upheld. As of now, Uzma Ayub’s rapists and Alam Zeb’s killers are all free. Only one more appeal is pending in Uzma’s case; it is to be heard by the Peshawar High Court, and the date for the hearing has not yet been set.

One of the challenges of recording Uzma’s story was wading through the morass of filings and counter-filings, and keeping track of both the rape and murder cases. Only the men in Uzma’s family are literate; both they and the women have tried to make sense of the procedures whose outcome was supposed to equal justice. The confusion over the cases confusing (to  say nothing of the hierarchy of courts, from the High Court in Peshawar to the Anti-Terrorism Court and trial courts that also held initial hearings) their reaction mirrors that of millions of Pakistanis, who with little knowledge of the law themselves must nevertheless turn to it for justice, or whatever passes for it. Parallel jurisdictions between the High Courts and the Shariat and Anti-Terrorism Courts, unclear evidentiary rules in rape and murder cases, and ad hoc dismissals, all create formidable, if not insurmountable, obstacles; it is almost impossible for an ordinary litigant to discern whether the inaction, neglect and delay is down to a failure of the law, or of the people and institutions charged with upholding it. Even when the woman at the centre of a case is brave, with her male relatives not castigating her but being endlessly supportive, victory remains elusive.

Against all of this is the memory of tribal customs that were responsible for resolving disputes in the past. It is unclear whether clans or jirgas—tribal councils—decimated by both security agencies and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and scattered by the pressures of employment, still have the ability to do this. The Pakistani state, the tribes and the extremists are all caught in a contest for dominion over places like Karak, but no one seems to be winning. Perhaps by the time Zeba is a grown woman, there will be an answer for what happened to her mother.

IT WAS MID MORNING on an ordinary day in October 2010. No one in the family kept time by hours and minutes, but she remembers because she was making bread for the second meal of the day, patting balls of dough between her palms, waiting for the stove to get hotter. As always, she hummed songs in her head, wedding songs she had heard at her cousin’s recent nuptials, when the women had been allowed a stereo.

The men came in suddenly. And they were everywhere. Uzma’s first instinct was to cover herself. The sixteen-year-old felt instantly exposed; no men, other than her brother and father and uncles, were permitted into the sleeping and eating spaces of the house. Where was her mother? Where were her brothers? What did the men want?

By the time she realised they were policemen, dressed in khaki and black, they were already swarming through the four rooms in which her family lived. As they kicked the tin trunks and scattered clothes, they shouted that they were looking for a cell phone. One of them snatched the half-rolled ball of dough she was still clutching in her hand. She remembers yelling that there was no cell phone. Instead, the men unwrapped a laptop that was kept swaddled inside a trunk. It was the family’s most treasured possession, bought used by her eldest brother so they could all huddle together and watch the Bollywood movies she loved. “That is ours!” she screamed to the man who had grabbed it. “Give it back to us!” The man laughed at her, and yanked her by the hair to drag her away from the stove. He did not put the laptop back.

The men had been sent by Naseebullah, who worked for the Pakistan Army and was a strongman in Karak, the district in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where Uzma Ayub lives. The previous night, Uzma’s brother had been invited to Naseebullah’s hujra, where he held court, to sit with the important men of the village of Shanawa Guddi Khel. It had been an unexpected invitation for Alam Zeb, for he was the son of an insignificant man—only a lowly orderly in the army. At sunset, Alam Zeb, beaming and excited, had bathed, dressed in fresh clothes and oiled his hair. Uzma had seen him walking out toward Naseebullah’s house through the dusk-dimmed village lanes.

Now, the men ravaging the family’s belongings pushed aside her baby brother and sister, who began to cry. “Your brother is a thief,” one of the policemen said to her. His eyes glided over her body. “He has stolen a cell phone from the hujra and we are here to find it,” another added. Then, in the midst of turning over their beds and pulling things out of their single cupboard, one of the men grabbed Uzma. Just as suddenly as they had come, they dragged her away, screaming and punching, from the hearth, from the stove now smoky with burning bread. She felt a policeman’s iron grasp on her arm. His baton hit her on the back of the head and she was pushed out of the house. Uzma was shoved into the back of a police van, crying for her mother and brothers. Her nightmare had begun.

 

DRY MOUNTAIN ecosystems are supposed to be some of the most fragile in the world. This is the sole distinction of Karak’s low hills and surrounding rangelands. Deforestation and the resulting desertification have eviscerated the region’s agriculture, most of which were barani, or rain dependent. The rains don’t come anymore, not often enough anyway, and over-grazing has further dried up the earth. The wiry grass is clipped close by the goats, sheep and cattle that the farmers cling to. On Wednesdays and Fridays, animals are forbidden from pasture—an attempt to protect what little farming remains. Decades ago, women roamed the hills of Karak for hours at a time, gathering grasses and berries and medicinal herbs. The girls who live in Karak today sing some of the same songs those women did, but neither they, nor their mothers, remember wandering freely in the hills.

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READER'S COMMENTS

3 thoughts on “The Girl from Karak”

there are not words to say something about this story, everyone should stand against these odd laws , that can’t protect our sister. hates off to Rafia for her efforts to uphold these women and to share these stories

Exceedingly disturbing story. Tragic that such barbarity and cruelty exist in today’s world. It is fed by the culture
of impunity and corruption which exists in many countries. My heartfelt wishes to young Uzma that she finds a modicum
of peace and justice. Kudos to the courage of the author for highlighting this tragic case. The world needs more people like you.

So to whom we should trust? Military or Police? Both are the same ugly faces of cruelty here in my land of pure. Uzma is an example of bravery but it will just be ashes in history; and we will keep on praising the cruel Zia, the goof Musharraf, blind judiciary… I hope justice will be done; if not here then in the promised life.

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