After 20 years, Dr Aafia Siddiqui ‘was a living corpse, she looked drained and scalded, and in so much pain’

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In this photograph taken on November 12, 2014, Fowzia Siddiqui, sister of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist who is currently serving a prison term in the US [ASIF HASSAN/AFP via Getty Images]

Pakistani neuroscientist and mother of three, Aafia Siddiqui, was abducted from Pakistan in 2003; activists believe she was held by the US in the notorious Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan and tortured because of her alleged links to Al-Qaeda, links her family says she does not have and claims which she says she can prove are false. 

Dr Aafia Siddiqui’s journey into darkness began over a decade ago when she was mysteriously abducted from her homeland in Pakistan. Her family’s search for answers led them down a rabbit hole of government secrecy, covert operations and the chilling practice of extreme rendition.

What followed was a story that reads like a dystopian nightmare – a narrative of torture, isolation and a relentless battle against the erasure of her very existence. 

“The slumbering humanity today needs to wake up and realise that Aafia’s case puts the world’s conscience on trial,” said her sister, Dr Fowzia Siddiqui.

“My sister went missing in 2003, with her children, and we knew nothing about their whereabouts for four years. Baby Sulayman was only 6 months old, Maryam was only 3 and Ahmad was just 5 years old. But we were told nothing about any of them. It didn’t make sense. We were helpless.”

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The disappearance of her sister left her family grappling with unanswered questions for five agonising years. Equipped with emails and letters, she embarked on a mission to unravel the mystery surrounding Dr Aafia’s disappearance, reaching out to human rights organisations and pleading for assistance in a pre-social media era.

With skills dedicated to healing neurological disorders, Dr Fowzia found herself thrust into an unexpected role, one that demanded her to take action in solidarity with those unjustly detained, starting with her sister, Dr Aafia.

“My parents gave me an education that would enable me to help the suffering, but life put me on another test and gave me a different hat to wear to help relieve the suffering of another kind,” said Dr Fowzia, her voice carrying the weight of experience. 

It was not until 2005 that Dr Fowzia and her family started to connect the dots, prompted by the words of ex-Guantanamo detainee, Moazzem Begg. 

In his memoir, Enemy Combatant, recounting his time at Afghanistan’s Bagram prison, he referred to the sole female detainee as the “grey lady” or “Prisoner 650”, whose agonising screams echoed across the prison walls day and night, accompanied by relentless weeping.

He had written: “I began to hear the chilling screams of a woman next door.”

“For two days and nights, I heard the sound of the screaming. I felt my mind collapsing. They told me there was no woman. But I was unconvinced. Those screams echoed through my worst nightmares for a long time. And I later learned in Guantanamo, from other prisoners, that they had heard the screams, too.”

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Moreover, Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who broke the story in mid-2008 about a woman held and tortured at the airbase, said, “I am convinced she is the Grey Lady of Bagram. I’ve shown her photographs to various ex-Bagram detainees and half a dozen have confirmed she is the woman they saw locked up there.”

She added, “I have spoken to Binyam Mohammed, a former Bagram, Guantanamo and ghost detainee who told me he saw several US soldiers gang rape Aafia Siddiqui while she was in Bagram. 

Following the revelation and with the support of journalist, Yvonne Ridley, and former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, Dr Fowzia held press conferences and engaged in international advocacy efforts to bring Dr Aafia’s case to public attention.

“By 2008, enough international pressure had built up and Yvonne Ridley raised the question on Aafia when she interviewed some people in Guantanamo Bay and, with the help of Moazzam Begg and Binyam Mohammed, she had enough evidence to identify Aafia and her whereabouts.”

“In two years time, we managed to get two of her children back but, till this day, we aren’t able to locate where our baby Sulayman is. My Mum also started getting threats about me for reaching out to human rights organisations and Yvonne Ridley. They threatened saying ‘you already lost one daughter and if you don’t stop your other daughter from talking, you will lose her, too’. 

The press conferences, the threats and the sleepless nights – have all become part of Dr Fowzia’s life, but she remains resolute as she tirelessly fights every day for her sister’s release. 

Aafia was convicted by a US court in 2010 on charges of shooting at US army and FBI officers while in custody in Afghanistan. According to prosecutors, she managed to grab an M-4 assault rifle and opened fire. She missed, but was cut down by two bullets from a 9mm pistol fired by one of the soldiers she allegedly targeted. 

However, after Yvonne Ridley conducted an inquiry into exclusive footage revealing the cell’s interior, she noted that the bullets she allegedly discharged could not be found, nor could the original firearm which did not carry any of her palm or fingerprints.

Furthermore, Dr Fowzia questions the rationale behind Dr Aafia’s unjust treatment, emphasising that Aafia, a Pakistani citizen, should be tried in the appropriate jurisdiction, rather than being subjected to unlawful detention and torture.

“The US has signed the Geneva Conventions but is always breaching it. Aafia has not killed anyone or hurt anyone. How can she have shot anyone while shackled in chains? Where is the justification for holding someone without trial for 5 years? Where is the justification for raping her day in and day out, stripping her naked and destroying her holy book? What is the justification for any of that?”

 As the years passed, Dr Fowzia’s relentless efforts bore some fruit. After two long decades, the US administration finally granted permission for the arrangement of a meeting in May between her and Dr Aafia, who is currently detained at the infamous FMC Carswell prison, but under strict surveillance and limitations.

 However, her haunting descriptions of meeting Dr Aafia paint a chilling picture: a sister peering through the partition glass, seeing a living corpse drained of vitality, a victim of prolonged and unspeakable suffering. 

 Dr Fowzia’s eyes welled with tears as the memories of the brief reunion flooded back, “It’s been two months but, till this day, I have nightmares of the prison, the room, the rattling of the keys and the door slams. It was like a scene from Dracula’s movie, where you’re sitting in an iron chair and  Dracula comes out and sucks on your blood, bit by bit, every day. That’s how I felt sitting and waiting in that room for Aafia. It’s horrible and even more horrifying knowing her jail condition is even worse.”

 “The whole process felt like they were mocking us, it was a mockery of humanity and justice. They’re making it seem like they’re very kind and humane for letting me visit her, yet it’s been 20 years and the circumstances, included thick glass and talking through a phone. All I saw was a living corpse, she looked drained and scalded, and in so much pain.”

 Moreover, Dr Fowzia was forbidden to share with Aafia the photograph of her son and daughter, both now in their 20s.

 She was accompanied by Pakistan’s Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, who noted that Aafia’s front row of teeth was knocked out due to an attack in prison and was also suffering from lack of hearing following a severe head injury.

 Her voice, a mixture of grief and anguish, Dr Fowzia added, “I’m not the same. I wake up screaming at night just thinking of that scene and my sister. I didn’t want to see her like that and I didn’t want to leave her.”

 Her heartache was palpable as she continued, “I told the court if I see her once, I can’t just leave her and come back and get along with my life. It’s torture. It’s not humanly possible. I need her back.”

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 The frustration grew as she questioned the actions of the US administration who denied her a chance to see her sister again. “And then, not letting me see her again? I mean, what kind of human rights champions do this?” she asked, her words echoing the sentiments of countless others who had followed Aafia’s case.

She added, “This isn’t just Aafia. Aafia is the poster child; there are thousands who are suffering the same and even worse because no one knows about them. And all of the problem lies within Pakistan – because this is where it started from, so bringing her home must be initiated from here. She’s a Pakistani citizen; she doesn’t have a green card or any legal status in the US.”

As the conversation concluded, it was clear that Dr. Fowzia’s determination was unwavering. Dr Aafia’s case had become a symbol of a much larger battle – a fight for justice, for the rights of the wrongfully imprisoned, for the very essence of humanity. 

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Disclaimer: After 20 years, Dr Aafia Siddiqui 'was a living corpse, she looked drained and scalded, and in so much pain' - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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