While working as an expat journalist, a Pakistani newspaper stole my passport

Dear International Herald Tribune/ Global New York Times:

I know that your association with The Express Tribune is a business deal that essentially gets your papers printed and distributed on someone else’s tab, but do you really want to lend your name to this?

While on a journalistic fellowship sponsored by Express, I willingly handed over my passport to an Express editor who was to obtain a visa extension for me. But once the visa was settled, the company refused to return my passport. For at least five weeks after the extension was granted, Express withheld my documents and lied about their whereabouts, despite my requesting their return on the phone, in person and via email every single day.

It wasn’t until I contacted the US Consulate and threatened a police report that my documents were returned. And who got them back? Luckily, the web co-editor called security to have me removed for yelling in the newsroom, and security guy told the editor he wasn’t going to lie to me any longer, to hand over my passport.

The company had also been lying  about the validity of my visa to restrict my movement/plans for movement throughout Pakistan. Both an editor and the publisher told me in writing that my visa ended on July 31, so I needed to leave the country. When my passport was returned, I was able to see that my visa is valid till October 2011.

Turns out many, many people at Express knew about this. Faria Syed, web co-editor, was holding the passport in her desk drawer on publisher Bilal Lakani’s orders. Kamal Siddiqi, managing editor, knew about this and was complicit, as was Mahim Maher, the city editor, who told another newsroom employee that I am really “overreacting.”

Despite the fact that journalism is supposed to be a bastion of truth and free information, The Express Tribune lied to me  and illegally withheld my travel documents. Their plan, according to Kamal Siddiqi, was to “return her passport ten minutes before she got on the plane”–to go back to the US.

Now, why did they do this? Kamal explained that as well: my official fellowship ended a few months ago, but I wanted to stay in Pakistan. My obligation to Express was up. I went to Kamal and asked him if they wanted to keep me. Otherwise, I told him I was willing to explore other opportunities. He assured me that they wanted me to stay. But from that moment on, accomplishing anything at Express grew incredibly tough. I was denied translators, transportation, assignments and ultimately my stipend. I kept going through the proper channels, scheduling meetings with the editor and even the publisher to try and figure out what was happening. Kamal later admitted that Express didn’t want the liability of keeping me in Pakistan, but they also didn’t want me to work for a competing Pakistani publication. They were trying to sabotage my experience so that I would choose to go home. When I showed no signs of letting up, when I begin to use friends as translators and find my own transportation (since they led me to believe it was a resource issue), I was falsely notified by Express that my visa had expired and I needed to leave the country. They would handle the travel arrangements (at my expense, of course), but I couldn’t have my passport just yet because the travel agent needed it, etc.–they offered a variety of flimsy excuses.

I realized something was up, so I arranged my own travel and became increasingly insistent about my passport. That’s when my dealings with all power players at Express grew heated and nasty, and that’s when everything came out. Express didn’t want me to work for them. They just didn’t want me to work for anyone else, and to them this somehow this justified the unethical and criminal act of holding my documents without my consent. Rather than tell me that they would prefer me to leave the country and not take any other jobs in Karachi (and there were several offers), they lied and broke the law.

I was trying to work with Express out of some sense of loyalty, because they sponsored my original visa. I was naive enough to think that the difficulties I faced were merely the general woes of working at as an expat in a developing country at a very young newspaper and not reflective of a particularly unethical business m.o.

So I ask again, IHT, are you comfortable lending your masthead to a paper this immature and inexperienced, run by executives who are so blatantly petty and ego-driven? Because my naivete is my own, but your affiliation is part of what fueled my unwarranted trust in The Express Tribune and those that run it.

What the bullets know: the forensics of Karachi violence

photos and text by Cheree Franco

KARACHI: On July 17, Taj Muhammad stood in the doorway of a burnt house. Melted bits of a desktop computer and a sewing machine were visible in the rubble. A few days earlier, the house had looked like hundreds of others in Orangi town’s Aligarh Colony, where tiny alleys lead to a jumble of concrete walled, partially open-air squatter dwellings. A street vendor by profession, Muhammad held a pan of spent bullets at arms length, displaying remnants from the previous week’s riots. Over the course of four days, 100 Karachites were killed and countless more injured in street violence. Muhammad’s three brothers are among the dead. One of them had six children.

“ANP shoots from there,” Muhammad’s neighbor said, indicating flat rooftops and high windows. “MQM fights on the ground.” Nearby walls are pock-mocked from bullets, and although the situation seemed stable on a bright Sunday morning, echoes of occasional gunfire ruffled the truce.

The Sindh Police Department blames its inability to halt Karachi’s ethnic clashes on a lack of resources. But according to Munir Ahmed Sheikh, assistant inspector general of forensics, police are getting better at determining perpetrators through scientific means.

“We’ve identified six weapons used in target killings from their spent bullets,” said Sheikh. “This is important because you come to know which groups are operating in the city, or which groups have actually committed crimes. Particular groups use particular weapons because they get financing from the same source.”

Sheikh is not at liberty to reveal which weapons have been identified, nor who those groups may be. He is unable to say if confiscated weapons have been matched to shells plucked off the streets in the past six weeks of heightened Karachi violence.

“All I can tell you is the procedure,” Sheikh said. “Bullets are recovered from the field by investigation officers, who send them to us. The bullets are then photographed and grouped according to weapon, so that we know how many weapons we’re dealing with. Then we use a comparison microscope to obtain unique data on the bullets.”
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Thari family still waiting, six years in, for their son’s return

by Cheree Franco

THARPARKER, PAKISTAN

Jumun, a white-haired, leather-skinned farmer belonging to the Thar Desert’s Bhil tribe, described his youngest son, Pehjal Jumun, as mentally unstable.  “His mind would start spinning, and he would be angry for awhile. He would refuse to eat, cry for no reason. Then he would become alright again,” said Jumun.

On May 17, 2006, Pehlaj was a loving but moody 13-year-old, attending school and nursing Bollywood ambitions in his tiny hometown of Diplo. That evening, he quarreled with his parents and stormed out of the house. At the time, neither Jumun nor Mulah realized that it might be the last time they ever saw their son.

Jumun has seven children, ranging in age from 18 to 35. His daily life is an agglomeration of the hardships familiar to almost all who dwell in Tharparker District: resources are scarce, water is precious and healthcare is primitive. Pehlaj should most likely be medicated for the seizures he experiences, but a conventional doctor was beyond Jumun’s finances and his education.

“We took Pehlaj to a Sufi pir. He said to give him lots of love,” Jumun said. For the most part, Jumun and Mulah claimed their home life was peaceful and happy.

“Our son was fond of studying, and we all used to take care of each other,” said Mulah.

Initially she and Jumun didn’t worry. Pehlaj took no food or water—they were sure he’d be back soon. But when the night passed and he didn’t return, his family and neighbors began to search. Two days later, a khoji, or foot-tracker, discovered evidence suggesting that Pehlaj had crossed the Indian border, some 30 kilometers from his home.

Now Jumun worries about constantly. For five years and two months, his son has been languishing in an Indian prison. Authorities on both sides of the Indian/Pakistan border seem unable to predict when or if Pehlaj will return home.

“I have cried for so long that I have no tears left,” said Mulah, hiding her face behind her pink dupatta. One of her eyes is visibly murky, a congenital condition that she thinks has been aggravated by her incessant weeping.

The Pakistani Rangers contacted the Indian border police immediately, but they denied any knowledge of the missing teenager. They repeated this claim four times over the next 15 days, at subsequent white flag meetings. Continue reading