In Pakistan, a love story and the death of a family
Now she’s dead and he’s afraid he will be soon. So he told me his story one day in a lawyer’s office in Peshawar. In case they get him, at least someone will know what happened, he said.
Muhummed Ihtisham met Nargis Bibi in the northern Pakistani town of Mardan. He was doing regular stints of work as a driver for her conservative Pashtun family. He was 25. She was 18. Looks were exchanged in the rearview mirror. He couldn’t stop thinking about her. They were never alone. Nargis got her little sister to bring him a love letter. It was the first of many. He got her a secret SIM card. They spent hours talking: about their families, the Bollywood movies she loved, plans for the future.
Then her mother found a letter. Ihtisham was banished and Nargis beaten severely.
He said she was locked up in the house for three months. He sent relatives three times asking for her hand in marriage; they were refused. Once, in despair, she drank pesticide. The family didn’t take her to hospital, and Ihtisham was frantic she would die. But she recovered and one morning when the gate was unlocked, she ran away with some jewelry to trade for some transport. She flagged down a rickshaw and called Ihtisham.
“I asked her, how will we live?” Ihtisham recalled. “She said ‘I want to live with you. But I will also die with you.’”
Ihtisham met her in Rawalpindi, the garrison town where he was working, about four hours drive far from her home in Mardan. She looked alone and vulnerable at the bus stop. He swore to protect her. She told him she loved him. They were married. They had five years and two children together. Ihtisham’s favorite memories: the day his son was born; his baby daughter learning to walk; the time Nargis told him their own lives were her favorite love story. Photos show his chubby, smiling children and pale pretty wife, a girl with vulnerable eyes and a shy smile. She’d kiss his cuts, he said. She called him Shami.
One day when he was away, her family called. Her mother was dying, they said, she had to come quickly for a reconciliation. Ihtisham rushed home to stop them, but they’d gone so quickly she’d left her shawl behind.
Two days later, the bodies of Nargis, four-year-old son Shyam and baby Alisha were found dumped in a sugarcane field near her family’s house. Nargis had been stabbed, strangled and shot, after she had been beaten with a blunt object and had one breast cut off. She and the children had been taken to a half-built house, where the children had been thrown off the roof in front of her before she was tortured to death, her uncle told his lawyer.
He can’t stop imagining the moment she saw their children die.
Photos of the bodies appeared in the newspaper. Their faces were so mutilated that Ihtisham, frantic with worry over his missing family, saw them and did not recognize them. He kept calling her phone all night. No answer. A relative called. His family was dead.
“They used to run to me in the evenings when I came home from work. Now when I come home the house is empty. It’s not a home anymore,” said Ihtisham, tears rolling down his face.
Nargis’ family registered a complaint with the police, accusing her husband of kidnapping her five years before and saying he’d brought her back to Mardan, their hometown, to kill her. They hadn’t spoken to her in all that time, they said. They knew she had an unhappy marriage. They couldn’t explain how. Police arrested Ihtisham’s two brothers and tortured them for four months before a judge intervened and ordered a new investigation.
Phone records disproved the story given by Nargis’ family. Nargis’ mother, brother, brother-in-law, uncle and aunt are now on trial for her murder. Her politically-connected family deny the charges and say Ihtisham is lying about everything.
Now Ihtisham says he is getting death threats warning him to drop the case. There’s not much he can do and he doesn’t much care, he said. His world is destroyed. He takes sleeping pills.
“I can’t sleep. I can’t forget them,” he said. “I see them in my dreams and they are still alive.”
Sometimes he buys sweets for the neighborhood children. They remind him of Alisha and Shyam.
As the interview finishes, I ask him to read a sample of his wife’s love letters. There’s 74 of them, now bound up in a police file. The room is silent except for the whirr of the fan and Ihtisham’s voice reading his wife’s words.
“I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you and I miss you,” starts one letter.
“I pray that you will never suffer. I always want to see you happy. I pray that if you ever have any trouble, it will come to me.”
I wish this was a love story.