Imran was on his way to work when it happened. Two motorcyclists pulled up on either side of his car. The man next to his window showed him a gun, a standard technique by thieves on Karachi’s hectic streets. Assuming he was being mugged, Imran held his hands up to show he was unarmed and handed over his phone and wallet. It was not enough. The gunmen forced Imran and his driver out onto the street. They held a gun to his head, blindfolded him, and bundled him into a nearby car.
“It happened very quickly,” he tells me over dinner at a popular seaside restaurant in the port city. “They tied up my hands and covered my eyes. That was when I knew I was being kidnapped.”
Imran, who was abducted in 2011, is a 48 year old father of three who runs his own company. For security reasons, his name and other identifying details have been changed: he still lives in Karachi and fears reprisal if his captors realise he has talked.
Karachi, with a population of around 20 million, is the economic hub of Pakistan. It is a vibrant, bustling city, full of restaurants and businesses. It is also beset by ethnic and political violence, and home to a huge gap between rich and poor. Against this chaotic backdrop, kidnapping is big business. According to the Citizens Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), 118 kidnaps were reported in 2012 – a record high, with a similarly high rate of around 100 in the two previous years. Those are just the cases that have been registered.
Abductions typically have a purely financial motivation – criminal gangs have snatched prominent or wealthy people to raise funds for years. More recently, militant extremists such as the Taliban and other associated groups have entered the game, seeing that there is big money to be made. The lack of proper law enforcement or hostage recovery systems mean that in most cases, desperate families end up paying the ransom, which in turn encourages more kidnaps. The police force and groups such as the CPLC help families with negotiations, but an under-resourced and under-trained law enforcement establishment struggles to attack the root of the problem and disband the gangs carrying out abductions.
After being seized, Imran was driven to Gadap, a lawless part of Karachi that is home to around a million people. Still blindfolded, he had no idea where he was as he was roughly bundled out of the car and into a building. As he was grilled by the head of the gang, it became apparent that his kidnappers had done their research. “They knew details about my parents, about the house I grew up in, where my daughter worked, where my son was studying,” he says. “That frightened me.”
Typically, kidnaps are highly organised. In most cases, the perpetrators have been watching the chosen victim for some time and will know the routes they take regularly, their financial situation, and details about their family and background that can be used to intimidate them. Gangs will also have scouted out the best location and time to strike, in quiet stretches of road, while the police are not on duty. This is why Imran’s kidnappers were able to take him in broad daylight, confident they would not be caught.
They demanded a ransom of $100,000 and told him that he could either co-operate or be shot then and there. “I said I would co-operate, even though I knew that there was no way my family would be able to find that much money.” With a gun to his head, Imran wrote out a note for his family setting out the kidnappers’ demand.
It didn’t take long for Imran to realise he was being held captive by Islamic extremists. “They berated me for being a bad Muslim because I drank alcohol and my wife did not wear a hijab,” he says. “I was so terrified when they made reference to my family that I did not argue with them.”
He was kept in a cramped room on a single mattress for several weeks while his family tried to gather the ransom money. He had nothing to read, nothing to watch, and nothing to entertain him except for his own thoughts. His daily routine was dictated by the prayer times of his guards. He was awoken at 5am as his captors prepared for their morning prayers, and by 7pm had eaten dinner and was ready for bed. “I looked forward to mealtimes as they broke up the day and provided some basic human contact, although my guards did not converse with me,” he says.
Meanwhile, in the outside world, his family were being tormented with threatening phone calls as they tried to negotiate the ransom sum. An agreement was eventually reached after three weeks. It fell through after the local gangster negotiating on behalf of the militants demanded a greater cut. “I was in captivity, unaware of all that was going on. But when they told my family it was not enough after all, they were convinced that I was dead,” says Imran, his face clouding over.
One day, with no explanation, his guards came into his room and blindfolded him. He was frogmarched outside and put in a car. “I did not know if they were taking me home or if they were taking me somewhere to finish me off,” he says. The drive went on for more than 24 hours. When he got out of the car, he was in Waziristan, the province that borders Afghanistan. This lawless tribal area is federally administered, meaning that the jurisdiction of the Pakistan government does not apply. “I was still blindfolded, but when I heard my captors talking to someone at a checkpoint and saying we were approaching Bannu [a town in Waziristan], I gave up hope that I would ever see my wife and children again,” says Imran.
The gang who had kidnapped him had heard rumours that the police were planning to raid Gadap, so decided to transfer Imran to their Taliban colleagues in the north. This may have been lucky: on 30 May 2012, Dr Aftab Qureshi, a neurosurgeon who had been kidnapped, was killed during a police raid that had aimed to rescue him. Negotiators note that while kidnaps by criminal gangs tend to be resolved within six weeks, those carried out by militants often stretch on for months. Lucrative targets are sometimes sold on to different gangs, who demand ever higher ransoms. The uncertainty and shifting parameters compounds an already incredibly stressful situation for the family waiting outside.
On arrival to Bannu, Imran was beaten by his new guards, and taken to a windowless room, even smaller than his cell in Gadap. The timetable was similar to that in Karachi, and his guards compelled him to join them in prayers. These guards were more forthcoming, and Imran had several conversations with them about their ideology and how they ended up there. “I started to feel a bond with some of these guards, as the only human contact I had for months. They showed me kindness. Occasionally, they would bring a laptop and show me the suicide videos they used at their training camps as a treat since they knew I had no other stimulation.” Conditions in Waziristan were stressful. The buzzing of US drones was the constant background noise, and Imran was terrified that even if he survived captivity, he would be killed in a strike.
One day, his guards put him in a burqa and took him to a payphone where he was able to speak to his family. After he was moved from Karachi, the phone calls had temporarily stopped, and his wife and children were convinced he had been murdered. “They were very tearful to hear that I was alive and they promised me that they were doing all they could. It was very painful for me to hear them in that way and know there was nothing I could do to protect them.”
It took another four weeks of negotiations before Imran was freed. It happened suddenly and without explanation. After three months, with tireless efforts by his family and a team of negotiators, a ransom sum had been agreed. “My guards came into the room and told me to shower. They trimmed my hair and beard and gave me back the clothes I had been wearing when I was kidnapped.” His clothes hung off him.
At the restaurant where he is telling me this story, Imran pauses from his meal. “It is not easy for me to talk about that time.” For several months after his release, he found it very difficult to leave the house. He has since returned to work, making sure to vary his daily routine.
The kidnapping epidemic shows no signs of stopping: it is just one symptom of increasing lawlessness in Karachi. The private security business is booming, as wealthy citizens invest in armed guards to stave off the threat. For kidnap victims like Imran, the only option is to try and get on with life as best they can. “I have borne a heavy price,” he says. “But at the end of the day, this is my home.”