Rawalpindi/Peshawar, Pakistan – As lightning cuts across the darkened Peshawar sky, Manzoor Pashteen implores thousands of demonstrators to no longer be afraid.
The rain lashes down upon them, as they stand in rapt attention, listening to the leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), a civil rights movement that has quickly risen to national prominence across Pakistan.
Among the crowd, dozens of people clutch posters, photocopied legal documents or passport-sized photographs of their loved ones, holding them aloft.
The pictures are of Pakistan’s disappeared, the detritus of the security forces’ more-than-a-decade-long war against the Pakistan Taliban armed group and its allies. Since 2011, a government commission investigating the enforced disappearances has dealt with more than 4,929 cases of Pakistan’s “missing people”. Rights groups say the figure is vastly under-reported.
“I am not against any institution, but if they are being oppressive, then we are against them!” thunders Pashteen. “Every oppressor, whether it is a member of the Taliban … or it is the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s most powerful intelligence agency), or the MI (Military Intelligence) or the army, we are against anyone who is committing cruelty!”
In Pakistan, ruled for roughly half of its 70-year history by its powerful military, people have been disappeared for less.
Indeed, often they have disappeared for no apparent reason at all.
Ikram Behram, 26, was a tailor working in the city of Peshawar, the capital of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where much of Pakistan’s war against the Pakistan Taliban has taken place.
On August 10, 2013, his family says, a group of armed security forces personnel abducted him from his shop. He has not been seen or heard from since.
“Elite anti-terrorist force police came into the shop and asked for him by name,” says Sarfaraz Ahmed, 23, Behram’s cousin. “When he identified himself, they abducted him and took him away.”
It has been five years, Ahmed says, but Behram’s family “has been told nothing” by the authorities.
“If he is guilty of a crime, then charge him in court,” says Ahmed. “At least then, we will know what has happened.”
Al Jazeera reviewed 22 cases of “disappeared” citizens for this report. The oldest case dates back to 2005, and the most recent abduction allegedly occurred on December 3, 2017. Those allegedly taken include students, scholars, IT consultants, shopkeepers, daily wage labourers, a policeman, a tailor and a hotel waiter.
Pakistan’s military was provided details of each of the cases, but did not offer comment.
Often, those who disappear are traced to being in security forces custody in a network of internment centres operated across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, says Farid Khan, who works for the government’s Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances.
In an ongoing Supreme Court case on the issue, however, the government has so far refused to share a list of those being held in captivity, often under vague charges or under a 2011 “anti-terrorism” law that allows indefinite detention for “terrorism” suspects.
Not all who enter the internment centres come out alive. According to the Defence of Human Rights (DHR) rights group, at least 153 people have died while in custody at the centres.
Yaqoob Khan, 32, a shopkeeper originally from the tribal district of Bajaur, was abducted while sitting in an Islamabad park with his son Ilyas in December 2015, his father says.
“On February 12 [this year], I got a letter saying I should pick up the dead body of my son from [the eastern city of] Lahore.”
Many of those held in the internment centres have been tried in Pakistan’s secretive military courts for civilian “terrorism suspects“. Since 2015, when those courts were formed, they have sentenced at least 375 people, with a conviction rate of 88 percent, according to data gathered by Al Jazeera.
Legal advocacy groups have alleged rampant rights abuses in the courts.
Sohail Ahmed, 28, was one of those to be tried. Ahmed went missing from his home in the northern Swat Valley in 2010, his father Usman Ali told Al Jazeera, after military personnel raided their home.
Ahmed was missing for four years before a court petition traced him to being in military custody at an internment centre in Paitam.
“I met him four times, but they never told me his crime,” says Ali.
On January 19, a military press release declared that Ahmed had been tried and sentenced to death by a military court, having allegedly confessed to being a member of an armed group and killing four people.
“My son never mentioned anything about a military court and insisted he was innocent,” says Ali, of the last time he met Ahmed, roughly a month before the military court verdict was announced.
Sometimes, the missing do come back.
On January 4, 2017, Ahmed Waqass Goraya, an IT developer who was also the administrator of a Facebook page critical of the military, went missing while out house-hunting in Lahore. Roughly three weeks later, he was released outside a nearby hospital with a warning to never speak of what he endured while in custody.
“At first, I was beaten, with slaps and punches. My eardrum was torn by the force of one blow,” Goraya told Al Jazeera. “Then, they laid me down and started beating me with wooden sticks. I was tied up and my hands were in handcuffs.”
During the course of his detention, Goraya chronicles hours of interrogation and alleged torture, saying his captors repeatedly accused of him criticising the Pakistani military at the behest of foreign intelligence services.
“They had a special stand to hang me off and beat me on my legs, back and hands. I had realised at that point that this is not the police. This is the ISI.”
Goraya says he was not alone in the detention centre where he was being held. At least four other social media activists were detained within days of his abduction. One of them told Al Jazeera he was being held at the same site as Goraya, and corroborated his account of alleged abuse.
“They were continuously beating me in the first eight days. It was 24 hours of torture. And I could hear the screams of others being tortured as well,” said Goraya.
The case of the five missing activists gained widespread media attention, and four of them were released on January 28, 2017. Goraya said he was blindfolded and hooded while being driven around Lahore, and thought he might be killed.
Eventually, they stopped by the side of the road and forced him out of the vehicle.
“They removed the blindfold, but I was told not to open my eyes. I sat on my own motorbike and opened my eyes two minutes later.”
For others, the ordeal can last more than a decade.
Amna Janjua, the chairperson of the DHR rights group, has been fighting to locate her husband, Masood Janjua, a Rawalpindi-based businessman, since July 2005, when he suddenly went missing on his way to Peshawar for a business trip.
It is Janjua’s case that first gained the attention of Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2006, and led to the formation of the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances.
The commission, however, is “toothless”, says Janjua, and no one in the judiciary or security services is serious about offering clarity regarding the fate of Pakistan’s disappeared.
“They always promised that we will help, but that promise was never fulfilled,” she says.
Even in the case of releases, she says, the security forces act with impunity, with no one held responsible for the years the men may have been missing. DHR has traced at least 311 people to security forces custody.
“The impunity is so extreme that not a single person has ever been charged in connection with a missing persons case,” she says.
Pashteen’s PTM is clear about their demands: when it comes to the disappeared, they are not asking for releases, only due process.
“You have to treat [alleged] ‘terrorists’ according to the law as well,” says Mohsin Dawar, a PTM leader. “Let’s suppose for the sake of an argument that if we accept that so-and-so is a terrorist – does that mean that you can keep them disappeared for 10 years? Just because you have labelled someone a ‘terrorist’, that does not necessarily make them a ‘terrorist’.”
Back at the rally in Peshawar, Pashteen is adamant that the era of fear for those caught in the crossfire of Pakistan’s war against armed groups is over.
“What were you thinking, that you could scare us with murders? No one could even take their names! This, taking the names of the MI and ISI, was treated like a capital offence by them,” he roared.
“Here I am, taking your names openly. I am taking your names with my head held high!”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s Web Correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim