'My door was forced open and I was grabbed'
Sunday Telegraph (Filed: 11/11/2001)
Christina Lamb was in Quetta investigating a story that agents of the ISI - Pakistan's feared intelligence agency - were sending arms to the Taliban when a group of men and two women burst into her room in the dead of night. It was the ISI: this is the story of what happened next...
THE hammering on the door started at 2.30 on Friday morning. I awoke with a jolt and stumbled out of bed clad only in a T-shirt. Before I could get to the door, the hammering started again, heavier this time.
Through the spyhole I could see a group of men, none of whom I recognised. I phoned my colleague, the Telegraph photographer Justin Sutcliffe who was staying in a room in the next corridor of the Serena hotel in Quetta. As I was talking the men at the door shouted: "Open up!"
"Can't you come back in the morning?" I asked.
"No, it's an emergency!" came the shout.
I grabbed a pair of trousers but before I could put them on, the door had been opened and the chain forced off. Five men and two women bundled into the room, seized my mobile phone and ordered me to collect my stuff.
In England, I would be horrified by five unknown men in my bedroom while scantily clad, but in Islamic Pakistan it was unthinkable. "At least let me put my clothes on," I begged.
"Shut up and come with us," said one of the men pushing me towards the door while his colleagues began throwing my belongings into my suitcase.
They were not in uniform but had the typical slicked-back hair and gold-rimmed sunglasses of the ISI, Pakistan's notorious military intelligence agency which grew fat - and out of control - acting as the funnel for CIA money and aid to the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s then went on to support the Taliban until an abrupt reversal in policy last month.
My demands to know who these people were and on what orders they were acting went unheeded. When I refused to budge, however, they showed me an order in a cardboard file. A fax from the Ministry of Interior signed by Shah Rukh Nusrat, the deputy secretary to the government of Pakistan, it stated that both I and Justin Sutcliffe had been "acting in a manner prejudicial to the external affairs and national security of Pakistan" and that it was "necessary" we be "externed from Pakistan". There was no explanation and when I demanded to know what it meant, the women grabbed at me.
I was still in my nightwear but they let me go into the bathroom to put on a shirt, accompanied by the two policewomen. As I lifted my T-shirt the younger of the two, whose name I later learnt was Shahbhar, began touching my body. I shouted at her to get away and tried to grab the bathroom phone, which she yanked off the wall and pushed me out.
In the next corridor Justin was undergoing a similar ordeal. We met up in the hotel lobby where more security men were milling around, he looking as dazed as I felt. As we paid our bills I slipped a message for a colleague with some money to the hotel cashier. Our mobile phones which they had promised to return were nowhere to be seen.
A tall man in a tan leather jacket and aviator glasses called Amir Ahmed, the head of airport security special branch, led us to some four-wheel-drive vehicles. We were told to get into separate vehicles but refused. As we drove off into the dark, I wondered if anyone would hear of us again.
It was frighteningly reminiscent of an incident 11 years ago when I was the Pakistan correspondent for the Financial Times and I was taken off in the evening by ISI officers and questioned all night in a safehouse in Rawalpindi. The officers accused me of being a spy involved in a British-Soviet plot to bring back king Zahir Shah.
At that time I had written a series of articles exposing the ISI's involvement on the ground in Afghanistan, directing the ill-fated battle for Jalalabad in which thousands died, in addition to the selling off of arms, particularly Stinger missiles destined for the mujahideen.
The ISI does not forget and after my night of detention my flat was ransacked, my phones cut off and I was followed everywhere I went. When I still refused to leave they deported me.
Was the same thing now happening all over again? For five weeks in Pakistan after the World Trade Centre attack, then again arriving back last week after a break with our families, we had been investigating reports of the ISI still sending arms to the Taliban. Much of our time had been spent shaking off the police guards who accompany journalists everywhere in Quetta, and talking to Afghan commanders who blame the ISI above anyone for all their country's woes.
Our police convoy drew up at a small one-storey building near the railway station. We were pushed out of the vehicle and into the last room followed by two of the men and two women. There was no electricity but an old gas fire was filling the room with fumes that made it hard to breathe but fortunately also difficult to see quite how grim our surroundings were.
My mouth was like sandpaper from all the stress, and I asked for a drink but was refused. Scared at what was going to happen to us, we again pleaded for our telephones to at least call our families. Both of us have young sons to whom we talk every night - what would our families think when they phoned and were told we had checked out of this remote desert town at 2.30am?
Long arguments followed as they refused our request then refused to leave the room so that we could sleep. The two policewomen kept sitting on the bed and when we finally got them off around 5am they sat in front of the fire, blocking the heat, and chattered incessantly. We lay on the dingy mattress - only next morning would we see how filthy the mattress and pillows were - and scratched at flea bites. There was no hope of sleep and when light came we again asked for a drink but to no avail.
There was one piece of good news however. Justin whispered to me that he had managed to keep the spare mobile phone he uses for filing photographs so we took turns to go into the foul-smelling bathroom, whispering messages to people as we crouched over the hole in the ground in case one of our guards came in.
It was not easy. The reception was poor but we could not talk loudly, and worse still, it turned out to be Iqbal Day, a national holiday on which all offices are closed and also the day of a nationwide strike called by the largest religious party against Pakistan's support of the coalition against terror. We could hear the words "Taliban", "Afghanistan" and "jihad" booming from Friday prayers at a nearby mosque.
I tried to go outside for some air but found that in addition to all the guards in our room we were locked in with a guard on the door. Gradually everyone moved to the veranda and we tried again to find out what we were supposed to have done and what our fate was to be. It was hopeless. "Why have you been arrested?" one of the policemen who had appeared during the night asked me.
The only thing we learnt was that the plan was to move us to Karachi and from there deport us. Everyone insisted that they were just following orders, no one knew who was in charge or where our phones had gone, and our demands to talk to the commander went unheeded. Instead they wanted to chat and get our views on the war and whether the bombing would stop for Ramadan.
Exhausted and terribly thirsty, we went back inside. A car drew up outside and one of the guards came in. "Divisional Superintendent railways, Quetta Division, here to see you," he announced importantly.
A short middle-aged man in a blue suit came in, looking embarrassed and said "welcome to Railway Resthouse" which was how we discovered where we were. Telling us he was "honoured" to have us as "guests", he told me he was a great fan of the book I wrote on Pakistan in 1990 and asked for my autograph, invited us on to his train along the Bolan pass "probably on your next trip", then entered on a long discourse on the problems of Railtrack.
It was becoming more and more unreal. But at least he ordered us Cokes and samosas - our first drink in 12 hours. Suddenly there was a big rush and we were bundled back into the vehicles, ours apparently codenamed Eagle 1. As they radioed back and forth to the other vans of armed police, we discovered we were now going to Islamabad, on the flight we had already been booked on.
At the airport, instead of heading for the terminal we pulled up on some wasteland by a sign marked Bomb Disposal Unit. I counted 13 guards surrounding our car. Mr Ahmed pointed to a desolate spot. "That's where one of my men committed suicide last week," he said. The airport manager who had driven up alongside, his bored wife sat in the car obviously annoyed at interrupting their holiday, shook his head. "They are just trying to cover up," he told us. "It was a murder."
When we asked Mr Ahmed how the man had committed suicide he said: "With 12 rounds of an MP3 in the chest." Seeing our disbelief he said: "The thing is, it is too hard to convict anyone so better to say suicide." This is policing Pakistan-style, and we were in their hands.
There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of police in Pakistan and just before the flight was due to take off another bunch appeared pointing their weapons at us as they marched us to the aircraft like common criminals.
To our relief, waiting for us at the top of the steps was a familiar face, Paul Marsden, the controversial Labour MP for Shrewsbury, who was at the end of a fact-finding tour visiting Afghan refugee camps. I had breakfasted with him in Quetta two days earlier as we talked about his criticism of the bombing.
Through snatched conversation over the head of the angry intelligence officer accompanying us, he told us that he had heard in the hotel that morning of our arrest so had telephoned the provincial home secretary and local police chief to ask of our whereabouts.
Both denied we had been arrested yet the hotel confirmed that we had checked out at 2.30am - rather an odd time in a town in the middle of the desert, two days' drive from anywhere and with no flights until the afternoon, particularly as no journalist is allowed out of the gates with out a police escort. Eventually one of the many spies-cum-fixers who hang around the lobby tipped him off about the Railway Resthouse so he had gone there but the police refused to let him in or confirm our presence and tried to manhandle him out of the area.
In the end he drove to police headquarters to see the commander who had conveniently gone out, and was left in a room. He was manhandled again when he tried to leave and blocked the door. Fortunately for us he was persistent and returned to the Railway Resthouse where finally one of the many police officers, although still refusing to let him in, admitted that we were there and said we were alive and well.
On our arrival in Islamabad, Paul stuck to us like glue, flashing his MP's pass at everyone and refusing to let the authorities simply march us off into the night. With his presence our treatment changed. We were taken to the immigration director's office, allowed to meet someone from the British consulate and given numerous cups of tea - although we were still not given back our phones. When Paul called my office on his mobile and I tried to speak, I was surrounded by police who seized the telephone.
Sardar Abdul Azim Khan, the assistant director of immigration, whose office telephone can only receive incoming calls because his agency has not paid the bill, was initially angry and shouted at us. However, he was shocked when he heard of our treatment in Quetta. It later transpired that he had no idea what to do with us and had simply received the same deportation order we had seen with no communication from anyone of why, of how this was to be done, and where we were to be put. He kept insisting that we were still under the jurisdiction of the Special Branch man from Quetta who had accompanied us, but he did not want us either.
Unable to make outgoing calls and turning down offers to use ours which had now been turned over to his custody, the deeply embarrassed Mr Sardar was at a loss. Eventually around 10pm it was clear that no information was forthcoming and we had to sleep somewhere. The cubicles for detainees had been knocked down and we were apparently too dangerous to be allowed to use a hotel, even with all our numerous police and agency hangers-on, so there was no alternative but the departure lounge.
The next two hours were hilarious. Islamabad airport is small but different parts are under different jurisdiction so a series of turf battles began between different agencies and airport police. We along with our luggage were shuttled back and forth through X-ray machines and searches into various parts of the airport as no one would take responsibility for allowing us to stay in their area.
Around midnight we were finally left in the international lounge. Our 19 guards were reduced to six and Mr Sardar, who was the only person in this sorry saga to treat us at all humanely gave us a blanket each.
Pakistan's version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire was blaring out from the television with questions that seemed to be mostly about weights of cricket balls. We managed to unplug this to get some peace and when everyone was asleep, snoring loudly, sneaked the laptop out of our bags.
We tried to cheer ourselves up by comparing the Taliban's and the Pakistanis' treatment of prisoners. At least the Taliban had allowed the foreign journalists they imprisoned to sleep and wash, and even to fax their families.
Mr Sardar informed us that we were to be marched on to the morning flight to London. Despite all his entreaties no one had told him what we were supposed to have done and no one had agreed to come and explain our treatment to us.
All we could speculate was that we were being deported on the basis of a scurrilous lie printed in Pakistan newspapers that we had bought an airline ticket for Osama bin Laden in an attempt to prove that he was in Pakistan.
In fact what we had done was go to a travel agent in the Serena Hotel the day after the bombing started on October 8, and buy tickets for ourselves. There was tremendous anti-Western feeling in Quetta that day, with banks and cinemas being set on fire and fatwas issued in the mosques to "kill all Americans and Britishers".
When we asked about flights out, we were told angrily: "There are no flights because you in the West are destroying Afghanistan." We should have gone elsewhere at that point but we were all locked in the hotel by the Baluchistan police so had no alternative.
When the travel agent, Mr Baig, eventually stopped ranting about the Jews being behind the attack on the World Trade Centre and gave us our tickets, our names were completely wrong, issued under Miss Sarina and Mr Jostin with no surnames.
We asked him to change them, saying we would not be allowed on the flight, particularly with all the security in the wake of the events of September 11. He laughed. "In Pakistan, everyone travels under false names all the time," he insisted over and over again.
We should have left then. Instead we said: "If that's true, give us a ticket in the name of O B Laden," picking the name on everyone's lips. Had the incident happened a month earlier we would probably have said Mickey Mouse or George Bush.
Mr Baig did not blink. Instead he wrote down the booking and we left thinking nothing more of it. Later when he called Justin's room asking to see Mr O B Laden's passport, Justin told him it was a joke to make a point that you can't just book a flight in any name.
Mr Baig must have called the newspapers, for two weeks later a story appeared in a Pakistani paper under the headline "Christina Lamb conspires to malign Pakistan" claiming that we had actually bought a ticket and that we had only gone to Quetta and "hired rooms at the Serena" to carry out this so-called "plot" then left "smelling the danger".
The fact we had been in Quetta for three weeks reporting, often at considerable personal risk, on refugees, Taliban defectors and even an Irish woman living in the tribal areas, was completely ignored.
We thought about sending the newspaper a letter from the Telegraph's lawyers but we were leaving that night, finally seeing our families, after five weeks away and it didn't seem worth making the fuss. I have had many wrong things printed about me before in the Pakistani press and correction is an unknown word there. In retrospect this was one mistake that should have been corrected for, after we left, the Pakistani papers went on to print that we had "fled" Pakistan.
As I write this the police have arrived to march us on to a plane to London. We have had neither sleep nor a wash for two days. No Pakistani official has had the decency to explain to us what we are supposed to have done.
Justin showed me the book he had brought to read. It was Franz Kafka's The Trial. The first line is: "Somebody must have made a false account against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong."
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