To lose and find a child in Afghanistan …

Mar 14, 2011   //   by peretz   //   culture, long  //  4 Comments

Rawed’s father Gulzada brought him to Jalal­abad city to be seen by a doc­tor.  Seven year old Rawed was show­ing symp­toms of jaun­dice.  They drove into the city from a small vil­lage in the dis­trict of Sherzad.  As is com­mon prac­tice, dad tem­porar­ily left Rawed with a shop­keeper from the same vil­lage and went to park the car.  “I’ll be back in a few min­utes, and then we’ll walk to the hos­pi­tal.”  When he returned the child was gone.

Gulzada is our friend Haji Najib’s ma’ma’, which means mater­nal uncle.  A pater­nal uncle is called ka’ka’.

The shop­keeper insisted, “he was just here.” When thirty min­utes passed and the boy was still miss­ing, dad called Najib.

Ma’ma: “What would you do if you lost a child in Jalalabad?”

Haji: “I’d make sure not to lose the child, and if I did …”

Ma’ma’: “I lost my son.”

Haji: “I’m on my way.”

Haji, which is how every­one calls Najib, always seems to be deal­ing with emer­gen­cies and he’s good at it.  We call him in like a storm trooper and he comes through. After he got this call, we lost him for two days.

So what do you do if you lose a child in Afghanistan?

Haji, Ma’ma’ and Ka’Ka’s son rented a loud­speaker, mounted it on the car, and started cruis­ing an increas­ing perime­ter around the site the boy was last seen.  They brought Ka’ka’s son along because he has a mem­o­rable cell­phone num­ber.  They fig­ured this was impor­tant if you were going to be shout­ing it out in passing.

“Dear fel­low Mus­lims, we have lost a 7 year old child around 9am.  He was wear­ing grey cloth­ing and white shoes.  If you have any infor­ma­tion, please call 077 77 20 900.”

They kept repeat­ing this fruit­lessly until 3pm.  And then a 15 year old boy who sells phone cards in a road side shack ran up to the car.

I’ve seen your son.  He was with me until 11:30am.  He was cry­ing and I tried to calm him.  I bought him an orange.  He refused.  I bought an apple.  He refused.  He kept say­ing my home is there and pointed at the hori­son.  ‘I want to go back home to Sherzad.’”

The 15 year old found a 10 year old who was from the same dis­trict.  As it later turned out, that was a for­tu­itous move.  The 10 year old was a rel­a­tive.  But nei­ther the 10 year old or Rawed knew their relation.

The 10 year old was instructed to bring Rawed home.  Surely, some­one from Sherzad should take care of a miss­ing child from Sherzad. Unfor­tu­nately, Rawed did not coop­er­ate.  He kept cry­ing and just min­utes later refused to go any fur­ther.  “I want my dad.”

As it hap­pens in fairy tales, three tweleve year old boys chanced upon Rawed and his 10 year old com­pan­ion.  They inquired, delib­er­ated, and decided that they should take Rawed.

They did the sen­si­ble thing.  They first took him to the near­est Mosque and hav­ing announced the case and con­sulted with the Mul­lah, they decided to start scan­ning their own perim­iter, on foot, announcing:

“Dear Mus­lims, we have a lost child.  Here he is.  Look at him. He is from the vil­lage of Shirzad.  Help us find his parents.”

And they walked like this for many hours.  Even Haji Najib heard about them from peo­ple who walked up to his car with the loud­speaker.  The twelve year old boys tried dili­gently.  After many hours, when the
sun was near to set­ting, at 5pm, they met a 25 year old man in a car.  He was also from the same vil­lage and offered to help the boys out.  He would take Rawed and help him find his father.

By this point, the loud­speaker broke twice and Haji Najib and crew had both times replaced it.  They also requested an announce­ment to be broad­cast on three radio sta­tions at 11 am.   They wore our their voices, tak­ing turns, until 10pm.

At this point, activ­ity stopped on the street, and Haji, Rawed’s dad, and all of the male mem­bers of the fam­ily present in Jalal­abad gath­ered around the din­ner table and made their plans for the fol­low­ing day.

They decided to break up into teams.  At this point, they heard about the 12 year old boys and the fact that they con­nected with a local Mosque.  They fig­ured, one team will can­vas the schools and one the Mosques.  Surely, they would find him.  A third team, lead by Haji, would con­tine enlag­ing the perime­ter with the loud­speaker.  If nei­ther party found the boy by 4pm, they would make an announce­ment on television.

After a sleep­less night, they set out at 6am.  They had no suc­cess.  Haji started to get phone calls from a man claim­ing to have found the child.

Con­sider as if he is with his mother and father.  If you pay money, you have noth­ing to worry about.”

The phone calls per­sisted.  The sums requested were small, maybe 10$ worth of phone credit, but the caller refused to allow con­tact with the child.

It is not uncom­mon (in Afghanistan as else­where) for peo­ple to oppor­tunis­ti­cally prey on other people’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. Haji’s phone num­ber had been announced on the radio, so the caller could just be a prank. Nev­er­the­less, it was the one active lead, so Haji started tap­ing his con­ver­sa­tions, drag­ging them out and try­ing to extract as much infor­ma­tion as possible.

At 4:30pm they deliv­ered a photo from Gulzada’s phone cam­era to a local tele­vi­sion sta­tion, RTA (Radio Tele­vi­sion Afghanistan).  Then they resumed dri­ving around with the loudspeaker.

Hameed joined the crew at 5pm and took over the announce­ments with a fresh voice.  At 7pm of the sec­ond day, the loud­speaker broke for the third and final time.  It was too late for repairs or a replace­ment.  And they were worn out.

They returned home for sus­tainance and an all hands meet­ing.  After din­ner and tea, the search party, which by then had grown to 10 peo­ple, crashed out in Haji’s family’s liv­ing room.

At 9pm, the elder of the house (a law pro­fes­sor at Ari­ana Uni­ver­sity who had stud­ied in Bul­garia) roused them with news that Rawed’s face had just been shown on RTA tele­vi­sion.  And at 9:45pm Haji got a call from another num­ber, say­ing that they had the kid.

It turns out, that the 25 year old brought Rawed home as promised. His father, a big merchent in town, handed the boy to one of his employ­ees for care.  This way Rawed spent the sec­ond day in the vil­lage of Baze ik Malati (where Baze refers to its prox­im­ity to the Amer­i­can base at JAF, Jalal­abad Air­force Base).

On the phone they agreed to meet at a pub­lic square called Chowk Muh­brat.  The mer­chant and his 25 year old son came alone. When they con­firmed the iden­tity of the child with a photo, they agreed to exchange Rawed at the police station.

The mer­chant drove with Haji, while his 25 year old son went to fetch Rawed.

At the sta­tion, Haji ran up to hug Rawed, but Rawed looked star­tled as if he hadn’t rec­og­nized his cousin, and started to cry for his father. I’m not sure why they didn’t bring his father in the first place, but at this point, they sent a car for him.

In his fathers arms, Rawed cried and laughed.  The iden­ti­fi­ca­tion was com­plete and the cel­e­bra­tion started. One of Haji’s uncles gave 2000 Afs to the mer­chant as a finder’s fee and another 500 to his 25 year old son. Another uncle gave 2000 Pak­istani Rupees to the 25 year old.  The police asked for some too, say­ing they also wanted to cel­e­brate.  So they gave 500 Rupees to one offi­cer and another 500 to the clerk who filled out the paperwork.

They also picked up oranges and apples and handed them out to every­one. The fol­low­ing day Rawed and Gulzada went back to their vil­lage car­ry­ing a load of fruits, tea and sugar from the big city, expect­ing to host lots of rel­a­tives in the vil­lage who were aware of the sit­u­a­tion and under­stand­ably con­cerned. They did not stop to visit the doc­tor in Jalal­abad.  Another one of Haji’s uncles is a Tajik­istan edu­cated doc­tor that lives in Sherzad and runs a phar­macy, so they decided to bring the boy to him.

In the final tally, Rawed had changed hands from his father, the shop­keeper, the 15 year old, the tweleve year olds, checked in at a local Mosque, the 25 year old, his mer­chant father, spent the night at the merchant’s employee’s house and was finally reunited with fam­ily at the police station.

The search party (which grew to ten peo­ple and involved many oth­ers) lasted for two days and spent a few hun­dred dol­lars on loud­speaker rental, repairs and replace­ments, gas, photo repro­duc­tions, food and fruits.

In the end, they found Rawed.

Najib called the orig­i­nal caller back another time.  He asked whether he still had the child.  The guy claimed he had.  How did you get him?  Najib asked.  “An Army com­man­der gave him to me.”  Najib cursed him out.  Either this was all a ploy, or another child is still out there, kidnapped.

  • Ed Myers

    This brings tears to my eyes for I would be pan­icked and I am happy it was a happy ending..

  • Mike K

    It’s a notable dif­fer­ence from how such a search might have pro­ceeded in the US that the police only entered the pic­ture at the final exchange. The DIY search and PR cam­paign so resource­fully car­ried out are very impressive.

  • Anna V

    How did the child come to be lost in the first place?

  • Geoff Schmidt

    This is an amaz­ing story, not least in how it jux­ta­poses kind­ness and con­cern for strangers (in the many peo­ple that helped with the search, even those that were not fam­ily or vil­lage mem­bers) with exploita­tion of strangers (false ran­som requests, demands of bribes from the police.)

    Do you think every­one in Afghanistan is so resource­ful? Is it because they are left to their own resources?