The missing Pied Piper

Statistics and not social media shed light on Lahore's missing children puzzle

The missing Pied Piper
Lahore has been worrying about reports that well-connected gangs in every crevice of the city are ferretting away their children from the streets, only to carve them up to harvest their tiny organs. A little digging into the story reveals, however, that ill-informed and panic-stricken parents, rather than hardened criminals, are behind much of the ‘missing children’ phenomenon.

Social media puts the number of kidnapping victims in Lahore between 500 and 800. Messages forwarded from one parent to another begin with proclamations of panic and emergency. A Whatsapp notification sent to a group of parents on August 8, for instance, read as follows:

“Around 700 kids have gone missing, with 300 from Lahore alone. They came to my neighbourhood as well and took away 2 children of my dishwashing lady’s sister-in-law. I just wanna tell everyone that the threat is VERY real. It can happen to anyone.”

This number went up to one thousand on social media groups for school moms discussing the supposed kidnappings of school-going children. On Facebook, photographs of girls no older than eight years, with their mouths gagged and organs cut up, have been making the rounds. Special prayers to protect children from evil kidnappers are being circulated.

One of the outcomes of this wave of worry has been more demand for security. Last week alone, a man who runs a security company, said that he had placed up to eight commandoes with different households for the protection of their children. “A wave of fear is gripping parents of young children who are eager to go to any extent to keep their offspring safe,” he said. He requested not to be named as he felt it would make his clients feel uncomfortable.
The organs of a child under 12 are of no benefit to an adult, says Dr Shehla Akram, the CEO of Akram Medical Complex

The uproar became a challenge for the police to deal with. “May Allah protect us from the evils of Facebook and poor reporting,” says Additional Inspector-General Police (Operations) Arif Nawaz. “There isn’t even an iota of truth in what the public is being told by Facebook and reporters. The number of kidnappings is much lower than what is being discussed.”

The fever rose to such a pitch that the Supreme Court of Pakistan decided to take suo motu action on the reports that gangs were picking up children and operating on them for their organs. The Punjab Police then presented statistics of every kidnapping FIR registered since 2011 to prove that actually only 139 children are still missing as of July 29, 2016.

“In a majority of these so-called kidnapping [cases], there is no kidnapping per se,” explains AIG Nawaz, who has been bemused by the fantastical statistics on social media. “In most cases, the children go to a relative or a friend’s house and resurface in a few days.” Take the case of Razzak Khan, whose son Muhammed, 7, went missing eight months ago. Khan spent two frantic days roaming the streets of his neighborhood in Anarkali and registering an FIR. Four days later his son was found at a relative’s house. Khan said Muhammed had run away after being harshly scolded by his mother for not studying hard.

In a little over one year (Jan 2015–July 2016), the total number of children kidnapped or missing was 549. This is the number of victims whose parents actually submitted an FIR. But at least 371 of these children have returned on their own and 121 children have been rescued from the people accused in the FIR. Only 57 are still missing.

If one were to go by social media news, the gangs creep up on their innocent and unsuspecting victims, drug them and then pack them away into sacks before dragging them to an underground network of operation theatres where their organs are extracted. Their bodies are then dumped.

Crime reporter Omar Yaqub, who has been covering this issue for Express News, laughs when asked about these scalpel-wielding, underground surgeons. “Not even a single body of a child with missing organs has been recovered so far,” he says. “Even in areas such as Badami Bagh or Shadbagh where the numbers of kidnapping victims are relatively higher, no mutilated bodies have come to notice.”

Simple science debunks the rumour. Dr Shehla Akram, the chief executive officer of Akram Medical Complex, explains with a smile why underground surgeons may not be interested in the kidneys of five year olds. “A transplant requires extremely sterile conditions and a method of preservation that keeps the organ viable,” she says. “Killing a thousand children for organs and harvesting them in sheds won’t leave the kidneys and lungs usable for anyone.” More importantly, the organs of a child under 12 are of no benefit to an adult.

The youngest kidnapping or missing victim so far is a two-year-old child who was picked up from Badami Bagh last month. And it is in this old neighbourhood that fear as understandably unfolded. The area, which lies close to Minar-e-Pakistan, consists of narrow lanes, open drains and cramped two-storey houses. Muhammed Shafiq, a wholesaler of shoes and father of four, lives on the ground floor of a brick house painted green with tiny windows. His youngest son Omair Shafiq, 7, left the house on Friday, July 8, to get something to eat. “It was pretty usual for our children to walk to the closest neighbouring kiosk to buy candies or a packet of chips or juice,” he says. “We never thought twice about it till he didn’t return home for hours.”

A week later, Omair Shafiq’s body was found tied up in a sack and dumped next to an open sewer. “His hair was gone. His nails had disintegrated into nothing. His skin had become whitish and foul smelling. The corpse did not resemble my beautiful son at all,” he says.

Shafiq has become increasingly involved in the kidnapping episodes. He says there have been a minimum of five cases from Badami Bagh, with the oldest victim missing since 2010 and the most recent being his own son. The youngest victim, the two-year-old, is also from Badami Bagh.

Shafiq, who was born in Badami Bagh and has spent the better part of his life here, says he is amazed by what is happening. “We used to roam the streets all the time. We would walk into our neighbors houses, visit the shops close by or play cricket in our street. The idea that Badami Bagh would become a haven for kidnappers is very strange for me.”

The Punjab police disagree with any generalisations and maintain that Lahore is still largely safe. “There are no kidnapping gangs operating in the city and our streets and neighbourhoods are still safe. Most of the victims end up having just strayed to a friend or relative’s home and are found within days.”

The Edhi Centre in Main Market has been requested by the Punjab Police to put together a list of kidnapped and missing children. An official working at the centre said that on an average they get one to two children per week, sometimes as many as 10 to 12, who have run away from home, or escaped under-age employment or ran away from a madrassah.

“I think most of these children who are being called kidnapping victims are just runaways,” said the official, who added that when the children found at their centre were returned to the police, it was discovered that their parents had filed FIRs for them. “The parents fear the children have been kidnapped but often they have run away,” he said, citing the case of a runaway girl Rani who disguised herself as a boy, called herself Ahmed and stayed at the center for two months.

AIG Monitoring Ghazi Sallahuddin says that the police have analysed the data from the last five years and have come to the conclusion that 95 percent of the children disappeared due to family fights. “The vast majority was runway children who left their homes due to issues with their family,” he says. “Despite our best efforts we have been unable to identify any gang or organised outfit that is behind these kidnappings. Most of the kidnapping victims were picked up for sexual reasons or for family enmities.”

Ayesha Nasir is a Lahore-based journalist who is working on her first book