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Young Women In Pakistan Now Lead The Fight Against Secret Abductions

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Pakistan, people who annoy the government often disappear. Thousands have vanished in recent years. One group of people in Pakistan has taken advantage of their special status to demand their release. NPR's Diaa Hadid has the story from Islamabad.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Talia Khattak is 20. She was raised by her father after her parents divorced.

TALIA KHATTAK: He was doing almost everything - the cooking, the cleaning, everything. He's a very protective parent.

HADID: In November, Khattak was traveling by train across Pakistan for a conference. Her father had promised to check in on her every few hours, but he didn't. And he didn't answer her calls for days. Then a friend texted her.

KHATTAK: The first sentence was, I'm sorry your father was abducted. I thought it was a joke.

HADID: It wasn't. While she was traveling, men in civilian clothes grabbed Idris Khattak near his village and took him away. Khattak's father belonged to a left-wing party. And years ago, he'd done research for Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. She couldn't understand if that's why he was taken. Omar Waraich is head of South Asia at Amnesty. He says enforced disappearances are becoming more widespread.

OMAR WARAICH: This is something that has reached deep into Pakistan's heartlands.

HADID: He says Pakistan's most powerful institution - the army - is behind some of these cases. After her father was taken, Khattak stayed quiet, afraid he'd be harmed if she spoke out. Then the pandemic hit. Her college shut down, and she returned to her childhood home. It was empty.

KHATTAK: That's when I actually realized that there was no home to come back to.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

KHATTAK: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She realized she'd have to speak up if she wanted her father back. So in May, she shared a video on social media explaining what happened to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

KHATTAK: (Non-English language spoken) - loving, kind, selfless and (non-English language spoken).

HADID: Amnesty helped her make a video in English for Father's Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

KHATTAK: This Father's Day, I can't be with my father. This Father's Day, I don't know if my father is alive. I don't know if he has had any food today.

HADID: Other young women are also speaking out against enforced disappearances. Sammi Baloch (ph) is 22.

SAMMI BALOCH: When my father was kidnapped, I was 10 years old.

HADID: Her father was a doctor and an activist in Balochistan. It's a province where there's a violent separatist movement. Baloch has led hunger strikes and marches, like this one a few weeks ago. She shouts, "break this wall of fear."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALOCH: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Pakistanis have long protested against these disappearances. But young women leading this fight, that's new. This is Waraich again.

WARAICH: What's new is to see young women doing this - playing a political role that's almost been forced upon them. They feel that unless they speak out on behalf of their fathers or their brothers, no one else will.

HADID: Baloch points to another reason for their activism - security agencies are less likely to harm them.

BALOCH: Our men cannot come in front. So when they come in front, they'll also be kidnapped by the state.

HADID: And it seems the women are making a difference. In June, one political party pulled out of the ruling coalition, saying the government hadn't done enough to free disappeared people. But Baloch says the real impact will be seeing her father again or knowing his fate. It's been over a decade since he went missing. Was he killed?

BALOCH: If you had killed my father, then tell me where he is buried so we will go there and we will satisfy ourselves that our father is no more.

HADID: Khattak's had more luck. A few weeks ago, military intelligence officials admitted they had her father and accused him of exposing state secrets. That doesn't mean he'll be released soon - or at all. But Khattak can't help but hope.

KHATTAK: Whenever there is a knock on the gate or there's - the bell rings, I think that maybe it will be my father coming back home.

HADID: Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "OFFSET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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