Abduction fears take heavy toll on Afghan society

March 12th, 2009 - 9:29 am ICT by IANS  

By Can Merey
Kabul, March 12 (DPA) It was around 6 p.m. when hospital director Muhammed Hashim Wahaaj left his office in downtown Kabul to go home. A car followed his vehicle. Wahaaj stopped to let the car pass. As the car pulled up, a shot rang out, and the bullet hit the 47-year-old in his upper arm.

Three or four men, Wahaaj said, emerged from the car, blindfolded him and tied him up, forced him into the vehicle and had him crouch on the floor. Thus began a painful ordeal of torture and the fear of death for the doctor.

Wahaaj had become one of the uncounted victims of abductions in Afghanistan, and while official numbers are hard to come by, internal statistics by the Afghan Interior Ministry puts the number at more than 175 for the first six months of 2008.

The real figures are believed to be much higher, but many cases go unreported as relatives fear for the lives of the victims - and also often mistrust the police.

The country in the shade of the Hindu Kush mountain range has developed into the centre of a human abduction industry.

Amrullah Saleh, chief of Afghanistan’s secret service NDS, warned last October that kidnapping had matured into “a sort of business for some elements” of society.

Saleh’s comments remained among the few emanating from the government about the crimes.

Unlike in abduction cases perpetrated by the radical Islamist Taliban militants, the criminal gangs involved usually do not want to achieve political goals but instead demand money.

They push their demands by forcing abductees to pose before video cameras and have them plead for their lives in exchange for ransoms.

The victims are usually wealthy or even just supposedly wealthy Afghan nationals.

Because foreigners are rarely targeted, the international community barely recognises the scope of this growing problem.

Even hospital chief Wahaaj could not count on high-level support although he has contacts in the highest government and police circles.

The families of numerous other abduction victims are reluctant to report the cases because they mistrust the authorities and even suspect that the criminals are in cahoots with corrupt government officials.

Wahaaj’s abductors locked him in a dark cellar, and he treated his gunshot wound himself as well as he could.

His abductors demanded $5 million, the father of seven children said. “If I had that much money, I wouldn’t live in Afghanistan,” he admitted.

One evening, the abductors chained his hands behind his back to the cellar’s ceiling. The contraption forced him to stand upright all night long if he didn’t want to risk dislocating his shoulders.

“How was your night?” asked the kidnappers laconically the next morning. “Tell us where the money is.”

The doctor answered he couldn’t possibly come up with that much cash.

Then the abductors forced him to call one of his siblings. His brother had to listen over the open phone line as Wahaaj was beaten with electrical cables and sticks.

The abductors told his brother that if he didn’t produce the ransom money he would find Wahaaj’s corpse in a ditch the next day.

However, the kidnappers didn’t contact his brother for the next three days, leaving his family in uncertainty whether Wahaaj was alive or dead.

Meanwhile, his brothers sold off all their possessions to try to gather enough money to save his life.

After 21 days in captivity, Wahaaj was finally released in the autumn of 2007 with the kidnappers settling for a ransom of about $200,000. “We are still repaying our debts,” Wahaaj said.

The abductors told him the government was not going to help him. “Just go back to work and pretend nothing has happened,” they said.

Wahaaj and his family claimed the authorities never launched an investigation.

“I am still waking up at night shouting,” he said.

His abduction at the hands of rogue criminals left deep scars, and the lack of action and inabilities of the Afghan authorities has disillusioned him and left him angry, he said.

“Nobody is safe,” he said. “Nobody.”

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