By Sonya Fatah
After Amina Masood Janjua’s husband went missing, she took her case to the steps of the Supreme Court with nothing more than some handmade placards and a few folding chairs. Her protest over Pakistan’s “disappeared” has grown into a national movement and become an integral storyline in the country’s continuing constitutional crisis.
On the morning of July 30, 2005, Amina Janjua sat down for breakfast as usual with her husband, Masood Ahmed Janjua, and their three children. After their meal, the children waved goodbye as their father headed off with a friend for three days in the northwestern city of Peshawar, a little over a hundred miles from their home in Rawalpindi. Amina watched Masood walk away from the house and turn the corner. It was the last time she saw
It was the last time she saw him. Although the details of what happened to her husband and his friend, Faisal Faraz, are sketchy, Amina has learned that they may not have boarded the bus that was to take them to Peshawar. They were picked up by intelligence agents and bundled off into illegal detention in unknown places.
For nights before his departure, Amina had had strange nightmares. "My dreams were wild," she says. "I dreamt that I kept falling, and I dreamt of being buried alive. In retrospect I realized that these must have been premonitions or some sort of intuition. That day, as I saw him disappear around the corner, I desperately wanted to run after him, stop him and tell him not to go that weekend. But I knew he would think I was being silly, so I just let him go."
After Masood went missing, family and friends worked tirelessly for months to obtain information about his whereabouts. When they learned he had “disappeared” into Pakistan’s large and secretive intelligence netherworld, they called upon their contacts within the country’s powerful military and its affiliated intelligence agencies. Masood's father, a retired colonel who knew then- President Gen. Pervez Musharraf from his days in the army, asked the most powerful man in the country to secure his son’s release. "At first, all our contacts in the army—and we had many— said they would find out and help us. Even President Musharraf promised to help. I met everyone I could access," says Amina, who initially fell into a deep depression before throwing herself into the search. But her entreaties went nowhere. "I felt I was facing a wall. There was no relief from anyone—the police, the courts—and we had tried all our military contacts. After promising to help, they began to avoid me."
In September 2006, Amina joined with relatives of Faraz and another man who had “disappeared,” Atiq-ur-Rehman, to stage a protest outside the steps of the Supreme Court with handcrafted posters and placards. Her daughter, Ayesha, then 10 years old, made her own sign: uncle president, please find my loving abbo [father]. That tiny protest launched a national movement that, within a year, swelled with the families of 575 missing Pakistanis and was joined by lawyers, judges, students and concerned citizens. It has made Amina Janjua a household name and given voice to the frustrations of ordinary Pakistanis at their government’s heavy-handed tactics in the war on terror that spurred deadly attacks at home but did nothing to diminish domestic terrorism. Amina grew increasingly politicized as she realized, she says, that "they have kept men like my husband, who are innocent, in secret prisons for years, and the real criminals are roaming our streets with aplomb."
To see Amina Masood Janjua in action today on the steps of the Supreme Court, or outside the gates of the Awane- Saddar (office of the president), or addressing a human rights delegation at the United Nations in Geneva, as she did earlier this year, is to witness the remarkable transformation of a devoted wife who once contented herself with fussing over her husband and children, painting and writing love poems in her spare time. Amina is now head of the Defense of Human Rights, the group launched by that first protest in 2006, and she has proven herself to be a dynamic activist who understands the utility of harnessing public opinion to support her mission: to win the release of hundreds of men who remain in illegal detention in and around Pakistan— or at least to obtain legal access and representation for them. “We do whatever we can to raise awareness at different levels,” she says. “We stage protests, press conferences, hold seminars and have awareness campaigns.” Recently, in an effort to reach out further, the Defense of Human Rights hosted a painting competition for children to express their views on wrongful arrests, illegal detentions and the poor condition of Pakistani jails.
In Amina, the Defense of Human Rights has the perfect ambassador. Her voice is soft yet persuasive. Her round and slightly cherubic face, framed by her sometimes plain, sometimes patterned hijabs, can turn fierce with determination. By her own admission, the trauma of Masood’s “disappearance” has given her both perspective and purpose in life. “I had no idea about cruelty and injustice in the world. I was living in such happiness, even in childhood. I was a family favorite, and everyone treated me like a princess. Masood was so loving and caring as a husband,” she says. “After experiencing this pain, I’ve changed a lot. I spend most of my hours thinking about injustice in our modern age of technology and advancement, and yet"—Amina’s voice breaks—"at the time we were so desperate, we would just take a few chairs, some snacks for the children and park ourselves outside the parliament, hoping to get some attention. I had no idea that this would mushroom into a national movement when we started."
Early on in Amina’s quest, her story attracted the attention of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. He took deep interest in the issue of the “disappeared” and directed intelligence agencies to produce the men they had abducted before court to afford them the legal protections they were due under the justice system. His efforts won the enmity of then-President Musharraf, who sacked him in November 2007. The general's roughshod treatment of the country's top judge, and the sub-sequent suspension of Chaudhry’s allies in the judiciary, set off a protracted constitutional struggle that resulted in violent street clashes between police and lawyers outraged by Chaudhry's ouster. Pakistan's new national government has reinstated some of the judges, but Chaudhry—who has become a potent symbol of democracy in a fractious political climate—remains suspended, along with several other judges.
Amina's fight has been closely intertwined with the so-called "Lawyers' Movement," a fact that is reflected by the high regard many members of the judiciary have for her. Says Fakhruddin Ibrahim, a retired Supreme Court justice who has supported Amina's cause from the start, "I think half the battle was fought because of her. The lawyers were there to fight the case on legal grounds, but she would assert herself on emotional grounds. Her role was very important in this process, which I believe has been the most important litigation to come before the Supreme Court of Pakistan."
The issue of "disappearances" has been an extremely volatile one in Pakistan, for hundreds of the missing are from Balochistan, the province that has been at odds with the national government for decades over institutionalized ethnic discrimination, including the aggressive extraction of its natural resources—coal, minerals and natural gas—and poor representation in Islamabad. Several individuals have also gone missing in Sindh Province, where people have similar grievances. Before Amina and her family challenged the country’s seat of power, these families had kept silent, afraid that public demonstrations of their anxiety would result in persecution from various branches of Pakistani intelligence. After her public protest movement began, she says, "All sorts of families started coming to us. I realized we had something in common: We were all merely asking for our rights. So I said, sure, join us."
"Her leadership in Pakistan, during a time of crisis when hundreds of Pakistanis were 'disappearing,' was essential," says T. Kumar, Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific. "It's very rare to come across someone who is willing to go so far, even when it affects her own family."
Amina’s vigorous activism, however, has attracted the unwanted attention of the authorities. During a December 2006 rally in Rawalpindi, police officials beat her two sons and partially stripped one of them in public. "My daughter and I were screaming at them to leave them alone. Then my daughter fainted, and I didn't know what to do—to help her or my sons." Widespread news coverage resulted in the sacking of junior police officers involved. But Amina insists they were sacrificial lambs for the high-level officers who gave the orders. "I gave an affidavit spelling out their names and ranks. In the end they sacked the wrong guys."
In September, en route to the United States, her visa was cancelled suddenly— a result, Amina believes, of her growing prominence on the international stage; the cancellation occurred just as she was departing Switzerland after addressing a series of high-level European meetings. "I was at the airport in Geneva, ready to board my plane," Amina says, "whenI received a phone call from Islamabad. The caller identified himself as Chris Richard from [the] visa section of the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan. He told me, 'We will deport you if you try to board this plane. We have simply been told to communicate this order to you, and we don’t know why.'"
In many ways the story of Amina’s life with Masood had the trappings of a Pakistani romance novel. She was born in Mardan, in Pakistan’s now-restive northwestern frontier province, in 1964 and spent the afternoons of her childhood scampering across conveyer belts carrying bags of colored sugar in the factory where her father was chief engineer. As a young woman she hoped to become an army medical officer; when she failed to make the cut, she went into the arts, earning her bachelor’s degree in English literature and a master’s degree in fine arts from Punjab University’s Government College for Women.
Art introduced her to Masood. After university Amina participated in a number of exhibitions hosted by some of the country’s most renowned artists and kept a lookout for a gallery that would exhibit her work. Although Masood earned most of his income at the time from his travel agency, he also owned the Originals Art Gallery in Islamabad. Amina recalls, "When I showed him my art work, he told me he didn't like it! It was too realistic. He encouraged me to try and use more abstract influences in my paintings, to be more creative with my work." Later, he bought some of her paintings, and a romance developed. They were married in 1989, after their families met, settled into a three-story house in Westridge—a prominent neighborhood in Rawalpindi, a city of 3 million people— with Masood's parents, and had three children: Mohammad, Ali and Ayesha. Amina still shares the house with Masood’s father and his mother, both of whom have been her A-team since their son disappeared. They live on the ground floor; Amina shares the middle floor with her daughter, Ayesha; and her sons, Mohammad, 18, and Ali, 17, live on the top floor.
Amina says she has no idea why the authorities would have been interested in Masood, though she says he became religious, began "sporting a beard" and devoted more time to social service after the couple performed the Muslim pilgrimage Hajj in 2000. "These days, just having a beard and wearing shalwar kameez makes us marked people in our own country," she says.
She is, however, keenly aware that her family has been riven by political forces larger—and more ominous— than even she imagines. “Many of my well-wishers and family members made me realize that what I'm doing is not only unusual but also historic, and it could be very dangerous too—God forbid." Yet she is driven by the hope that Masood will return.
Last year she wrote, in Urdu:
That you’re not here
The sun rises,
The moon shines, and the stars
…I am amazed
That you are not here
And that lamps of hope are still lit
From my beloved heart
The feeling is still strong
The love of my life,
That you are!
O love of my life,
That you are!
During the last couple of years, Amina has witnessed the return of perhaps 150 “disappeared” individuals. Some of them, after spending years in subterranean and subhuman conditions, were mentally and physically destroyed. She is prepared for a changed Masood once he comes home, though she hopes he is not as incapacitated as one man she knows who—two years after his release—stammers and cannot cross the road for fear. ai