The street market was a bustling, lively place with children running down the street and the loud sound of bartering going on all around. As was the custom in this area of Pakistan, it was mainly the men whop ere talking and shouting, while the women walked around and quietly did their business. The noise was quickly hushed when the party started to come down the main street.
No-one argued with the armed men who were escorting the group – their rifles and demeanour marked them out as members of the militia, and their word was law, as was their insistence on strict adherence to the religious wars. It was no surprise to the villagers to see them escorting a group of women clad in black burkhas, covered from head to foot and with veils over the eye openings. They turned to the side and avoided the glare of the armed group, wishing only to be left alone. The last thing they wanted to do was to call attention to themselves – which was unfortunate for the veiled group, who would have screamed for help if they possibly could….
Twenty four hours earlier
The old bus was travelling down the main road from Islamabad, the group of tourists inside looking out of the window onto the arid and rocky landscape. The tour guide had promised them a day of adventure as they explored the foothills, but the heat was beginning to tell on them.
“Here,” Gemma said as she handed her mother a bottle of water. It had taken her two years to persuade Debbie to come with her, but she had finally relented when she told them the reputation the firm had. Debbie took a gulp and wiped her head with a cloth, the brightly coloured headscarf she was wearing covering her greying hair.
“I don’t understand why we can’t wear shorts?” She said as she crossed her legs under her long skirt, and Gemma smiled.
“You know why, mum – first, you get sun burned, and second it is offensive to some of the people here.” She looked own at her own tan slacks, and hoped the fact she was wearing trousers was not upsetting the locals too much. There were twelve of them in the party – five men and seven women. Although they got on well enough for this trip, Gemma wasn’t sure about how her mother felt about some of the younger people.
Taking a drink of water herself, she looked out of the window. It was a beautiful area, but the high rocks in the distance filled her with a feeling of foreboding. The tour guide, Jane, stood up at the front of the bus and called out.
“We should be at our destination in a few minutes. Remember we only have…..”
The bus came to a sudden halt, throwing Jane forward so violently she landed in the lap of two men sitting a few seats in front of Gemma and Debbie. The driver was staring out of the window in the front of the bus, and the party wondered what was happening. A loud crack and the splintering of glass were heard, and the driver fell back into his seat.
“What the hell…” Debbie shouted as six armed and masked men stormed onto the bus, screaming and firing their guns into the air. Gemma screamed and threw herself over her mother, but to her astonishment they didn’t fire at any of the passengers. Instead, they were grabbed by the arms and forced to leave the bus. As they were pushed off, Gemma saw the small trickle of blood that was coming down the face of the bus driver, his lifeless eyes staring forward.
“Now, nobody panic,” Jane called out, “I don’t know what’s happening, but….” The butt of a rifle was brought sharply down on the back of her head, and she fell to the ground. Gemma, Debbie and the others were forced to face the side of the bus.
“Mum, I think they’re bandits?” Gemma said as she was roughly searched.
“You don’t say?” Her mother replied. “They killed the driver – what are they going to do to us?”
As if in response, one of the men went down the line. Gemma glanced to her side and saw the woman next to her have her wrists pulled behind her back, and a length of plastic used to secure her wrists together. As her own wrists were pulled back and secured, she looked to Debbie, who was staring straight ahead and saying nothing.
“Back on the bus,” one of the mean shouted in English, and the passengers were forced to re-board the bus and take their seats. While two bandits stood guard, each of the passengers was forced to have their mouths stuffed with what looked like rags, before brown packing tape was wrapped around their mouths and jaws.
“Please, you don’t have to do this,” Gemma pleaded as they came to her mother, but Debbie looked over at her daughter. “We have to let them, or else we end up like that poor man at the front,” she said with a quiver in her voice. Gemma nodded as she watched her mother being gagged, and then felt the pull of the tape around her own head as they wrapped it over her long brown hair.
Jane was carried back onto the bus, her wrists secured and her mouth gagged, but that was the last thing Gemma saw for a while as a burlap sack was pulled over her head and tightened. She reached over with her bound hands and touched her mother’s side, who grunted to show she was all right. The bus started up, and they felt the road getting rougher under them as they headed into the countryside.
The two women had no idea what was going on, or how long they remained on the bus, but eventually it came to a halt and Gemma could hear her mother being taken somewhere, followed by a hand grabbing her arm and pulling her arm. She tripped several times as she was taken from the bus, and could feel the stifling heat of the sun through the canvas, but eventually she was taken into somewhere cool and made to sit down. From the sounds of muffled cries around her, she knew the other passengers were there with her, but had no idea where her mother was.
The hood was pulled from over Debbie’s head, and as she blinked she could see four armed guards in the room with the group and Gemma against a wall on the other side. She tried to stand up to go over, but a gun was pushed into her back and she sat back down, watching as one by one the hoods were removed from the other hostages. There were two married couples in the group, and both were separated by the length of the room. They tried to shout to each other, but no legible sounds were coming out.
She also noticed that their handbags and other items were not with them. “Maybe they just want our money,” she thought to herself as the time passed. Eventually, two armed and masked guards came in and dragged one of the couples away. Although muffled by the walls, Debbie could hear screaming and crying.
Gemma also noticed what was happening, and was beginning to fear the worst, when the armed men returned. One of them grabbed her by the arm and forced her to her feet, while the other took Debbie and pulled her up in the same way. They looked at each other as they were marched out of the room and taken down a corridor, before being pushed into a room and made to sit on two old wooden chairs.
The two women glanced at each other until a shout brought their heads round. Behind a desk was sat a young bearded man in a military uniform, and scattered on the table were the contents of both their handbags. The man looked silently at them then motioned to someone behind the women. Gemma winced as the tape was roughly pulled away from her head and the rag pulled out of her mouth. He picked up a passport and looked at Gemma as he read the contents.
“You are Gemma Baines?” He said with a strong accent.
“Yes, what’s going on?”
A guard came over and slapped Gemma hard across the cheek, as Debbie looked on. “You will only speak when spoken to and answer my questions. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Gemma whispered as a tear rolled down her face.
“You are Gemma Baines?”
“This is your mother, Debbie Gould?”
“Where are your husbands?”
“My father is dead, and my husband – well, he left me?”
“Were you an adulterer?”
“No – it was the other way around,” she shouted, but another slap silenced her.
“I said you must only answer the questions.” The man looked through her purse and drew out Gemma’s credit cards. “How do you support yourself?”
“I teach.” Debbie was starting to cry, and Gemma was starting to get worried about her mother.
“Please, my mother is old; can you let her breath properly?”
The man rubbed his chain, and then nodded. The tape was pulled away from Debbie’s mouth, and she took great gulps of air as the cloth was pulled out of her mouth.
“Now, Mrs Baines, I want you to tell me the numbers that will allow us to use your cards. Do you understand?”
Gemma swallowed. “Yes, but I don’t have too much money – why would you….”
A guard pushed the barrel of his automatic rifle into Debbie’s mouth. “My patience is wearing thin,” the man said, “the numbers, now.”
“Gma, pls,” Debbie called out as a small damp patch started to spread across the front of her skirt. Gulping, Gemma recited the PIN numbers for her credit and debit cards, which were written down on a pad by the man.
The gun was removed from Debbie’s mouth. “Mrs Gould,” the man said as he looked through her purse, “give me the same for your cards, and this time I will not take any dissidence from you.”
“All right, but please don’t hurt us,” Debbie said as she gave the requested information. Nodding, the man grunted as the two women were pulled out of the chairs and led to another room, where the first couple had been bound back to back on the floor.
“Are you two all right,” the man asked as they were pushed down onto the floor, and a long length of rope used to bind their upper bodies together. His wife had her head bowed, and was softly crying, the tears staining the front of her ethnic blouse.
“We will be,” Debbie said as the knots were tightened. “Did they ask you for your numbers as well?”
“Yeah – what do you think is going to happen to us?”
“With luck, they’ll take our money and let us go. I just hope…..”
“Mum, we are going to get through this, aren’t we?”
“Yes Gemma we are, if we stay together,” Debbie said as she gave her daughter’s hand a squeeze.
Time passed as the other passengers were brought in, two at a time and bound as they sat on the floor. The sun was setting through the high windows as the last pair were brought in. Four guards came in and stood at the four corners of the room, watching everyone.
The night passed fitfully. Both women tried to get some sleep, but the cold floor and the lack of movement kept them both awake for long periods. Nobody dared to move or even speak above a soft whisper, but one couple could be heard offering prayers, while another talked about their youth and the times they had spent together. One thought, however, filled all their minds - what was going to happen to them?
Gemma awoke with a start as the shouting grew and grew. The party were being untied, and with a sense of relief she felt the plastic that had been cutting into her wrists being cut away from her wrists. The bearded man was in the room, watching as the party slowly stood up.
“Stand against the wall, hands on your heads,” the man shouted, and the guards herded the dozen people against the wall. Gemma looked over her shoulder as a trolley was wheeled in, the try on top covered in lengths of coarse rope.
“We are going to move you to a new location while we await the results of your interrogation yesterday. Do not resist, or else you will be shot without compunction.”
Debbie was looking the other way, where she saw for the first time Jane, their tour guide. She had her wrists behind her back, and one of the guards was lashing them together with a coarse rope. A further length was passed around her arms above her elbows, pulled tight and then wrapped around her chest and arms to secure them into place.
The shout of a guard made both women turn and face the wall. Debbie listened as the woman next to her grunted, and then felt her own wrists being pulled behind her back and lashed together with rough coarse rope that dug into her wrists. She felt her arms being pulled tightly together, and watched the rope pas around her arms and chest as they were secured to her side.
Debbie was pulled round, and she looked to one side as Gemma’s wrists were secured. She felt a tightening around her legs, and glancing down she saw that her legs were being tied together over her skirt above her knees, drawing them together. Looking down the line, she saw that all the others had been bound in the same way.
“We’re walking, aren’t we?” she whispered to the man to her side, and he silently nodded in reply while Gemma was pulled round and her legs bound.
As the last woman had her legs bound, the tray was removed from the top of the trolley and a pile of black clothes taken out from underneath. Gemma and Debbie looked at each other, and then turned as they heard a muffled scream coming from where Jane was standing.
Jane’s mouth and lower jaw had been covered with a length of brown material, but that was not the reason for the scream. Two guards were holding her as she struggled, while a third was pulling a black robe over her head and covering her tour uniform. With a sense of shock, the women realised that Jane was being dressed in a full length burkha, and as the hood went over her head she looked at the party with tear filled eyes which were covered with the opaque veil.
One by one the party were pulled forward. Each was turned with their back to the main party, but when they turned back again their mouths were covered with the same brown material as a burkha was pulled over them. When one of the men tried to get away, Gemma saw with shock that his lips had a clear shiny substance over them, and he was trying desperately to open his mouth.
“Shit,” Gemma whispered, “they’re using glue. No please, not my mother!” she screamed as Debbie was pulled forward.
“Please, don’t do this,” Debbie cried as the bearded man approached her. “Please,
Mrs Gould, we are not doing this to the women,” he said as he held a balled up cloth in his hand. “Open wide.”
The cloth was pushed deep into Debbie’s open mouth, and then her lower face covered with what turned out to be brown medical plaster. She was turned round, and nodded at Gemma as the black cloth was pulled over her body and the veil placed over her eyes.
Eventually, the thirteen people were stood in the room, looking through their veils as the guards herded them into two lines. They marched them out of the building, and down to the market place of the local town. Gemma could see the local townspeople, turning from the parade as they passed by and wishing that she could call out for help, but the armed guards kept looking at the captives in a way that made it clear what would happen if they tried anything.
Eventually they left the village and made their way to a ruined building outside the town. The group were herded into what must have been the main room of the house at one time, and made to sit down on the floor. The guards watched them as they sat there, the only sound outside that of the birds that flew overhead and the laboured breathing of some of the party as they struggled to breath with the heavy gags.
Gemma wasn’t sure who it was she was sat next to, but she gently moved her wrists around as much as she could and touched the body of the person next to her. In response, she felt a gentle touch against her body, and started to relax a little. The day passed slowly, and eventually Gemma felt her eyes closing under the heat of the sun.
She awoke with a start to a darkened sky. A number of the party were slumped over, but a few were looking around as if they had just awoken as well. Gemma looked around, and then realised what was missing.
The guards – there were no guards.
She looked around and nudged the person next to her, who grunted in response and raised their veiled head. They looked around, and a muffled squeal told Gemma they had realised the same thing. Other members of the party were also coming to the same conclusion, but another thing suddenly occurred to Gemma -the fact she could clearly see her mother sat at the other side of the room, fast asleep. At some point, the outer burkhas had been removed without them realising it has happened, but their arms and legs were still bound.
Unsteadily, Gemma stood up and hobbled over to where her mother was sat, dropping to her knees in front of her.
Debbie opened her eyes to see Gemma looking at her in the dim light, her mouth covered but free of the clothing that had covered her. She looked down and saw her stained blouse and skirt, with the stain where she had let go yesterday, and let out what sounded like a yelp of joy.
The others were starting to stagger to their feet as well, looking round and trying to see what was happening. One of the husbands was kneeling beside his wife, trying to pull the tape away from his wife’s mouth with little success. Mainly, however, there was a lot of crying while everyone realised they were at least still alive.
Eventually, Jane motioned to everyone to come together, and the group slowly made their way in the twilight back towards the village. Eventually, the group came to a farmhouse, and one of the men banged with his back against the door.
“You spent some time in hospital then?”
The interviewer was speaking to Gemma and Debbie a week after their return from their trip.
“Yes – by the time we persuaded the farmer to contact the authorities for help, another few hours had passed.”
“Gemma, how did it feel when you were finally able to talk to your mother?”
“Relief – both at the fact they did not do to us what happened to some of the mean, and also that we made it through reasonably unscathed. Yes, we lost our money, our passports and our belongings, but we made it out alive.”
“Debbie, what do you say to people who say you should not have gone at all?”
“If we do that,” Debbie said as she dabbed her eyes, “then they have won.”
“Thank you both very much.” The interviewer nodded as the light on the camera went off. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Yes,” Gemma said quietly.
“Did you ever think you would die?”
“Truthfully – I thought we were going to die when the driver was shot.”
Debbie bowed her head as the reporter silently left the room.