2011, an ordinary day. I was driving to work on the same road in Lahore that I
took every day, and my mind was busy with the mundane. A car blocked the road,
but I didn’t give it much thought. Then five masked men put a gun to my head,
pulled me out of the car and my world spun horribly out of control.
I can’t tell all of the details of my capture or my release for security
reasons. Someday I hope to be able to recount the full story. But I can say for
sure that mine was no ordinary kidnapping.
months earlier, my father, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province, had
been shot dead by his guard for criticizing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, after a
Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death for allegedly committing
blasphemy. With my kidnapping, there was more at stake than just money. My
captors wanted the release of their “Muslim brothers” being held in jails
across Pakistan. I knew that was going to be difficult, and that because of
their ludicrous demands, my release would take time. In such dark moments it is
easy to sink into despair. But I clung to my faith and the Quran, the memory of
my courageous father, and the love of my family.
started in my fourth month of captivity. The people who kidnapped me were from
the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or I.M.U. — one of Pakistan’s most feared
militant groups. They found perverse pleasure in torturing me. I found solace
in prayer. I prayed for the fortitude to bear as much pain as my torturers
could inflict until they broke from inflicting it. I often thought of my
father, who had suffered political persecution in the 1980s under the
dictatorship of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. He would say physical pain touches
only the surface; you must never let it break your spirit.
difficult to say which was worse, the physical torture or the excruciating
tricks my captors played on my mind. They showed me printouts of Twitter posts
to convince me that I had been forgotten. They shared agonizing details of how
easy it would be to target my mother, how vulnerable my family was. They showed
me a picture of my wife on a pilgrimage in Mecca and claimed she was a
hypocrite feigning piety. They showed me my sister’s tweet on Nelson Mandela’s
death and said it represented fealty to an infidel. My brother’s photograph at
a social event was proof of my family’s errant ways. But this “evidence” gave
me strength. I knew that my family was well, and that they, and many others
around the world, were thinking of me and praying for my safety and release.
confinement, loneliness, doubt and anxiety can do strange things to your mind.
You start questioning your sanity. The faces that you have loved so much recede
into darkness; voices that you heard so often fade into obscurity. But memory
has its own magic. I could not go home, but I could bring my home to me. In my
mind I visited familiar places. I conjured up my boisterous friends, one by
one, and imagined myself to be a stand-up comedian and developed comedy
routines for each friend. These practiced routines are now coming in handy as I
see my friends again.
some 30-odd months when I had brief, unmonitored, almost surreal contact with
the outside world. One of my guards, like myself, was a Manchester United fan,
and every other week he would sneak a radio into my cell and we would listen to
soccer games. For him, this was an illicit pleasure. He believed that playing
or even listening to soccer was a sin. For me, it was a window to the outside
world. Getting soccer news kept me sane. “You must surely be the only United
fan in this position,” I would tell myself. “They are playing and winning for
back, I can see that I was always free. No one can imprison you except
yourself. My abductors could make my life intolerable, but as long as I held on
to my sanity, I was liberated. I was in God’s hands, not theirs, and I knew
that He would protect me and take me home. He did. He worked miracles: I survived
drone strikes and war, I lived through multiple illnesses without treatment, I
was shot, mentally and physically tortured, I lived in abysmal living
conditions, and survived the rout of the I.M.U. by the Afghan Taliban in
spend a lifetime being bitter and asking why this happened to me. Surely some
of the bad that befalls us is not our fault, but is merely the function of
someone else’s greed, malice or cruelty. But there is a higher purpose, a
cosmic design. I know that how you react to what happens to you, with what
grace you handle misfortune, and the strength and bravery with which you tackle
hardship are the things that matter. This is what God sees and judges.
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something divine in what happened on Feb. 29, 2016. At the crack of dawn that
day, at perhaps the exact moment that a Taliban elder was opening my prison
door to set me free, hundreds of miles away, a cell door in Rawalpindi was
opening and the executioner was readying the gallows to hang my father’s
8, 2016, an extraordinary day. It had taken me eight days and several stories
to hitchhike my way from Oruzgan, Afghanistan, to Pakistan’s Balochistan
Province through rain, hail and sun. The motorbike I was riding hit a highway,
and I knew this one led to freedom. As I turned onto the road taking me home, I
thought of the moment I had spoken to my mother and my wife after my first six
months in captivity. I had been told that I was going to be shot after the
phone call and that I should say farewell to my family. I told them with
finality in my voice, the same words my father once wrote to my mother from
jail: that I was not made from a wood that burns easily. Having said this to
them gave me peace, and this peace was my strength for four and a half years.
It had taken a long time, but here I was, coming back to change that goodbye
into a hello.
Shahbaz Taseer is a Pakistani businessman.