Shahbaz Taseer was abducted in 2011
He was held by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan for nearly five years
In his first English interview, he tells CNN that his ordeal was a test of patience, faith
What is it like living nearly half a decade as a hostage, shuffled between warring militant groups along the notoriously restless Pakistan-Afghanistan border, withstanding gruesome acts of torture and then suddenly, one day, escaping back to one’s family and to home?
In his first English language interview since his release, Pakistan’s Shahbaz Taseer told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that it is a test of patience, the strength of one’s faith and random acts of kindness from the most unexpected of places that made him withstand his ordeal.
Militants abducted Shahbaz Taseer on August 26, 2011 in his hometown of Lahore. The abduction came only a few months after his father, Salman Taseer, the late swashbuckling Punjab governor, was assassinated for speaking out against a blasphemy law that makes insulting Islam a crime punishable by death.
Captured by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Shahbaz told CNN that the group was known in militant circles for being “ruthless, merciless and the best fighters.”
While he was in the IMU’s captivity he was tortured, with his tormenters making “extravagant Hollywood style videos” to send to his family and the government to pressure them into meeting their ransom demands.
“They pulled my fingernails out,” Shahbaz told Amanpour. “It started with them lashing me with rubber whips. First day was 100 then they would go up to 200. They would carve my back open with blades, and then throw salt into it. They sewed my mouth shut and starved me. They cut flesh off my back, I bled for seven days and they gave me no medication.”
’Some flicker of hope’
Yet there was always some flicker of hope and light even after experiencing such harrowing acts of cruelty. Shehrbano Taseer, Shahbaz’s sister, told CNN that their mother’s phone conversations with him would keep up his resolve.
“When the kidnappers would call my mother, it was not me speaking to her; it was them. I was just their vehicle. I knew she couldn’t speak freely either. But I learned to focus on her voice. I loved hearing her voice.”
In November 2015, a bloody clash between the Afghan Taliban and the IMU led to Shahbaz escaping in the melee. He was captured by the Afghan Taliban, which doesn’t believe in ransom and kidnapping.
Shahbaz had been sentenced and jailed for two years, but his fortunes took an unexpected turn when he was freed by a member of the Afghan Taliban, “It’s insane you can find humanity where there is none,” Shahbaz said.
Released on February 29, he trekked back to Pakistan, reaching the southwestern town of Kuchlak on March 8, where the first thing he did was try to call his mother. Sporting long hair and a straggly beard, Shahbaz was unrecognizable, suspected of being a member of the Afghan Taliban himself. He was refused help and then serendipitously was pitied by an actual Afghan Taliban who offered him his phone.
“It came out of the blue and with such urgency, I couldn’t believe it!” his mother Aamna Taseer tells CNN.
While the family set wheels in motion for a team to rescue him, the news broke on social media and on local channels.
’Walking back from the dead’
Just a few days before, March 2, Salman Taseer’s assassin had been buried with great pomp, his body festooned with petals. Thousands attended the funeral.
But now home and fearless, this kind of reaction to the man who killed his father does not faze Shahbaz Taseer. He told Amanpour that the crowds do not dishearten him.
“You can take the miracle how you want,” he says, and describes himself as “walking back from the dead to celebrate my father.”
“You forget the faces of the people you love,” Shahbaz tells CNN, “and then suddenly you have your life back. It’s such an amazing feeling. To see my wife, To have breakfast with my mother, drive with my brother or to watch a football game with friends,”
As evening descends and Shahbaz wraps up his interview. The women who love him linger around. His wife Maheen stands by the side, holding his notes while his sister stands behind the camera arranging lemonade for the TV crew. In the hallway, Oscar, the family husky, curls up on the cold marble floor.
It is a family reunited.
Aamna Taseer walks in and praises her brave son.
“When I was with my kids, I wept for the first time in four and a half years” she told CNN. “The wait was finally over.”