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.