It was 2008. The Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, sat on a pristine white sofa alone.
Around him, sparkling lights shine on him. In front of him plays a brass band, each instrument gleaming to perfection, each note enveloping him like velvet. It is the launch of a brand new channel, another feather in his cap brimming with achievements. Behind him is the glitterati of Lahore. This is a man who has it all – power, politics, money, family, fame, fortune.
It was 2011. Salmaan Taseer is assassinated.
The music has died, the instrument forever associated with him is the gun that pierced every part of his body except his heart. The heart that immortalised bravery.
It was still 2011. Salmaan Taseer’s son Shahbaz Taseer is abducted.
The same son who spoke about the giant shoes his father had left behind and could not possibly be filled. It will be another four and half years till Shahbaz returns home.
I am seeing Shahbaz after years and for a second I brace myself for the same loud greeting that I’d once heard in our twenties, waiting to be affected by the joie di vivre with which he grabbed life.
But this is not the same Shahbaz. This time I hear a soft greeting and a calmness that comes with the burden of knowledge.
I’d seen Shahbaz at a point in his life when he was living a life rich with success, legacy, wealth and power.
“But it was never mine. It was my father’s. He didn’t believe in handing over anything and if I was being handed something… I had to do more than justice by it. When I started working in the family business I started from the bottom. When I returned, people junior to me were seniors and I found myself at the bottom of the rung again,” he said.
On the surface, Shahbaz and Salmaan Taseer may only have a name in common but delving deeper it is so apparent on how eerily similar their stories are as different as they may appear. Salmaan Taseer was a man who made, lost and remade his fortune. Surely Shahbaz could see he worked, lost and re-established himself?
But while the world spins, times change and lives end in moments.
“I left for work and when I was stopped I thought it was a carjacking. When I had left I did not have a care in the world. My world ended when they put handcuffs on me,” recalled Shahbaz. Offering his wallet and watch, he knew something was wrong when his kidnapper Muhammad Ali spoke in his ear. ‘We don’t want your things, we just want you… Shahbaz.’
“This guy knew my name, he knew my routine. I woke up in a stinking goat’s shed.”
Confused and lost, hands and feet tied, lying on a filthy floor, helpless and powerless, abandoned in a goat’s shed, Shahbaz spent two weeks, alone with his mind. He was officially a prisoner, and very soon he would learn he was the enemy.
“The mind is a dark place, there is a very thin line between going into that dark place or choosing not to. It comes down to what you choose. You know when they say you see your entire life before you die? I spent two weeks reliving my entire life and all I could think was how empty it was.
I was no Asma Jahangir, I was not Salmaan Taseer or Benazir Bhutto.
My father and mother Aamna Taseer were made of resilience. When my father was held and tortured during Zia’s regime, my mother who was pregnant with me, would go to find and see him.
I was filled with bitterness as I was none of these people. Where was my conviction going to come from?
But I remember what my father used to say, ‘trials mould people’, and I felt such an overwhelming pride for him. I stopped asking ‘why me’ because I felt I was losing my grip on sanity. The pain of remembering this life and the why’s and ‘what if I had a different route’ all came to an end.”
Grappling with all these feelings of bewilderment, fear, loss and pride compounded with grogginess from the ketamine injections his abductor keep injecting, Shahbaz was told to clean the floor. “I picked up the jharoo and started sweeing piles of goat droppings, dung and my kidnapper looked at me and then he beat me. He was filled with hatred for me. He beat me because he wanted to break me as he wanted to question me ‘who do you think you are’. “
At that point Shahbaz Taseer as the world had known him died. And what he learned about his abductor led to the birth of Shahbaz Taseer The Prisoner who would be moulded by his trial as a qaidee.
Shahbaz Taseer’s kidnapper was a member of the Uzbek Taliban called Mohammad Ali. “These guys do not consider Pakistanis as Muslims, my abductor used to mock Pakistan and Pakistanis saying our Piri-Fakiri, Darbars and all were elements of Hinduism, kuffar, kaafir. They hate Pakistan. All they want is Shariah but not the Salafi Shariah, they want Hanafi Shariah,” said Shahbaz.
This then begs the question – what could possibly be the reason to abduct Shahbaz? Here he was, a businessman, secular, democratic, progressive… just like any other person in Lahore, although most certainly a minority. But why him?
“I was the son of the Governor of Punjab, they thought I was a prince. I tried to explain to them that all that security, position, power belonged to him. I did not inherit it. And it was not my privilege,” explained Shahbaz.
But it didn’t matter. This ‘prince’ was the jewel for them, he epitomised what Shahbaz learnt constituted ‘the enemy’ and that meant one thing alone – kafir.
“The Uzbek militants are from Uzbekistan and Central Asia. They are part of the IMU and they are not Afghans. They see Afghanistan and Pakistan as their kingdom. They say the Mughals, the empire, the palaces all began from them. When I’d try to explain that we believe in the same Islam, read the same Quran, the same one which they’d read and where I’d found nothing but mercy and love, Mohammad Ali would respond with hatred calling everything ‘kuffar’,” remembered Shahbaz.
“For them, we, I stand for everything that is wrong. They don’t want equality, they want to raze everything to the ground. They want one Khalifah, one caliph and that’s it. The only equality is it could have been anyone else in my situation and they’d treat him the same. Rich, poor, liberal, conservative if you’re not with them, you are the enemy and they will break you. Everything that is not them is ‘kuffar’, your money means nothing, your women are ‘halal’ for them.
The Uzbeks are mercenaries. They are born in pain and anger, they know nothing but pain and violence. They were the ones who gave the fatwas for beheadings. They break your mind and break all attachments to our way of living across all socio-economic backgrounds. That is their form of equal treatment – torture.”
And torture they did so well.
Shahbaz found himself be beaten viciously simply for not sweeping the floor, for carving lines as tally marks on rocks as a means of counting time, for questioning why the same ayat he read spoke of mercy to him but and his abductor interpreted as a Another Reason to torture him and at times for just being there. “I never found anger, resentment or extremism… I found mercy and healing in the Quran.
He was whipped mercilessly, his back was carved into, his mouth was stitched and his nails pulled out. “I still have the scars on my back and my shoulders are slumped due to my hands being handcuffed. The Quran became a rope of survival. I read the Quran, Hadith, Seerat, Qirrat and Sahaba’s writings all in English, Urdu and Arabic.”
Soon he began to lose sense of time and layers of his being began to be stripped away with each humiliating act of torture. “I could not recognise myself, I saw emptiness and death.” Stranded in a dark room in isolation for six months where the only form of life he knew was a tiny hole through which a ray of sunlight poured in indicating the planet was still spinning.
“The hardest time was when I felt defeated and nobody else knew this. I had no hope. Initially I tried to stay sane by singing songs. I even ‘spoke’ to my friends and tried to do stand up comedy because in those moment humour gave me a moment of hope. I’d pretend I was wearing a rolex but the clink of the handcuff would jolt me back to reality,” he said.
To cope he realised he had to let go. “I needed to detach myself, I had to escape my mind. In fact during the first phonecall with my mother after six months in captivity, I couldn’t recognise her voice. But if I went back into memories, I would not have survived.”
And in an alien way, his relationship with his abductor was morphing into what he terms as ‘Batman and the Joker’. “He began to speak to me about his marital life as he had two wives. One was the Amir’s daughter and held great privilege and power. The other was a Burmese muslim who resented the Amir’s daughter. I thought to myself how dare you discuss your marital problems when you’ve put me in such a position, so I told him this is why two marriages are not allowed unless you can do justice by both wives. He just looked at me with disgust,” recalled Shahbaz.
But something else was happening too. While the old Shahbaz had long gone, and Shahbaz the Prisoner was being moulded, he began to notice things around him especially when he found himself in Afghanistan which made him realise that he truly was in a different world.
Shahbaz had forcibly been pushed into a world where children learned about bombs, violence and death since their first cries; where men buried their children as drone strikes rained upon them and with each dead child, their humanity was eaten away by hatred for the ‘enemy’ who upheld systems of oppression; where women were not seen but their silent wails over death hung in the air as suffocating silence.
“The Uzbeks were the Afghan Taliban’s right hand. These guys were able to read and write and the Afghan Taliban held them in high regard. When we reached Afghanistan, my kidnappers fell to the ground in sajda, grateful that we had escaped Pakistan where Zarb e Azb was taking place only to find out that not even a dog could sleep on the ground because of the dangers of being killed by air strikes.”
For the Uzbeks, and Afghans now, they knew nothing but death, pain, hatred. Their mission in life was to avenge history. He realised now more than ever he had to survive and that too by remaining human and accepting his fate. “I just accepted this is Allah’s will, Allah’s test and that was it.”
“During a jet strike, Mohammed Ali’s two children froze. It happened sometimes, during a strike even I froze once. His brother-in-law shouted at me to save them and I ran towards them and saved their lives.”
But even this meant nothing. Shahbaz found himself being tortured mentally when they’d flash laptops showing photos of his smiling family, images of his brother and sister’s weddings. But again reminding himself of the need to stay alive, he felt nothing but happiness. “I had carried this guilt for so long that because of me their lives had also come to an end. But seeing them live on and carry on were the happiest moments for me.”
When the realisation hit the Taliban that he had still not been broken by all the physical and mental torture they pulled out the dirtiest card. “What broke me was they said they were going to release Qadri and that I’d cross him as he was freed. At that point I said Allah don’t let me cross him at such a moment, please let me die but not see that.” They taunted him Qadri would live a life of freedom over and over again.
Yet nothing shocked him more when his abductors told him they didn’t even consider Mumtaz Qadri a Muslim. “He wasn’t considered a Muslim because he was a Barelvi.”
And so even with the Afghan Taliban he faced further degradation, humiliation although he says they did not beat him as mercilessly as the Uzbeks had. “They have a pakhtun code and a religious code,” he explained. Not that it mattered.
This was a people who had seen nothing but bloodshed, death, violence and bombs since the Soviet-Afghan war. “I remember Fatima, a little five year old girl. I was in and Afghan Taliban jail. The family I was with was Muhammad Ali’s, a man called Muhammad Tariq Farooq. The matriarch had said that no one was to hit me. I taught their children to draw and one day Fatima asked me to make a ‘duxun’ which is what they called a Hilux. So I drew one for her and on the vehicle I made some flowers. She immediately got upset and was so disappointed. I asked her what happened to which she explained she wanted the vehicle so she could drive it to do fida-e-hamla. That was her imagination.”
That incident traumatised him. How could a five year old girl, or any five year old harbour such a dream? These were children whose innocence never existed, their childhoods stripped due to history and their bodied hardened by harshness of Nature and Time.
“I simply had to cope on a daily basis. My father gave up his life for justice. I had to live. Yet I understood these people as well. Just as they had buried children, I had buried my father,” said Shahbaz.
And then came another blow. Yusuf Raza Gillani’s son Haider Gillani was abducted. “At one point Haider, myself and the American humanitarian aid worker Warren Weinstein were in different locations on the same mountain. And then Weinstein was killed in a strike. At that point when on a call to my mother I screamed don’t trust anyone, the security and agencies who are there [in Pakistan] don’t trust them.”
An unlikely friendship with an Afghan Commander is where the story of his escape begins. “I told him I was the Shahbaz Taseer after I figured I could tell him my identity. He indicated to all other prisoners and said they too were Shahbaz Taseer.”
The Taliban had kept Shahbaz alive for four and half years in the hope of securing USD 40 million. The Pakistani deep state kept negotiating a lower price. For years, deal after deal broke and the negotiators did not even know where he was. The world has known of three men, Mullah Omar, Mullah Abdullah Ghani and Mohammed Tahir Farooq who were the masterminds of the terrorist networks. But they had not been the kidnappers as they had died long before Shahbaz’s abduction.
“I had no clue till I heard Haqqani’s name who was negotiating my release and when I told the Afghan Commander the name was Haji Khalil Ur Rehman Haqqani, he realised I was the real Shahbaz ” he said.
One night he found himself, PKR 15,000 shoved into his hand, hand and face covered in a cloth on the back of a motorbike speeding down the Kuchlak highway. “I’d told the guy, this big burly guy I was a British Taliban member and he just drove for miles. Till he asked me for my ‘muhajir card’ which obviously I didn’t have.”
Upon this he found himself stranded in the middle of nowhere. Walking for miles he came to dhaba where he ate a proper meal in years and asked for a phone where he called his mother. He was free.
It is now 2022. Shahbaz Taseer, son of the slain Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, sits on a pristine white sofa alone.
Around him, beautiful sunlight pours gently onto him. In front of him, stretches a lawn dotted with rows of marigolds, silence enveloping him in the warmth of home. Behind him are photos of beautiful family moments capturing joy, indicators of time passing by. This is a man who came home to a shattered family scarred, bruised and abandoned by all who once basked in their glamour.
Today, he is Shahbaz the Free Man, appreciative and just grateful.
He’s just written a book about his ordeal which he hopes to close this chapter of his life. “I don’t have PTSD, I do have tinnitus. I healed myself. My mother held my hand throughout. I found it difficult to pick up from where everything ended. I couldn’t adjust to a routine again.”
Slowly though, at one point where he may have wanted to make up for ‘lost time’ he credits his business training through his father as being able to make peace for those years. “In business when you make an investment or make a loss, you move on,” said Shahbaz.
“It is a privilege to be alive and I am just so grateful. I see value in life. Divine justice was delivered the day Mumtaz Qadri died. Gratitude is greater than bitterness and anger,” he said.
The most marvellous aspect is how he is able to look back and laugh at it all. He fought a war to stay alive, to stay sane and to stay human and it is clear he won the battle. Salmaan Taseer was silenced but in his name, carrying his legacy, Shahbaz has risen.
Today, Shahbaz has it all.