MarySmith’sPlace – Pregnant in Pakistan#02

I’m sorry I left you for so long wondering if Jon got out of his Afghan jail before our baby arrived in the world.

It was the shock when reading my diary at how very miserable I was stuck in Quetta waiting for news. Over the years I’ve succeeded in turning the story of Jon’s kidnap while I was pregnant into an amusing dinner party anecdote. If anyone had asked me how I felt being pregnant in Pakistan I’d have said it was absolutely fine – sailed through it.

In fact, I was an emotional, blubbering wreck who cried a lot and raged in my diary. I suspect it was writing my thoughts and fears every day which saved my sanity – and allowed me to put on a brave face in front of other people.

This was earlier in the year – loading supplies for the clinics in Afghanistan

I spent a lot of time in discussions with other aid agencies as the most powerful negotiating tool we had was if they let it be known they would stop supplies going in unless Jon was freed. I also had to carry on with my work although it wasn’t easy to focus on preparing budget applications when I was worrying about Jon.

One entry read: “His mother has sent his birthday card. Will he be back on time? I’m not going to tell her yet – she’d be worried sick and can do nothing. I just can’t imagine in what conditions he is living, how he is coping, how he is feeling – you’d think we’d be emotionally close enough for telepathy to work. Finding it too difficult now. I’m afraid I can’t cope for much longer and I’m becoming more and more afraid he will not come back.”

On November 22, I wrote: “Just heard on the BBC Thatcher has resigned. That stopped me thinking about Jon for all of 30 seconds.”

In competition to see who could carry the heaviest load

It was the day I received further news Jon was still in jail. I write: “Everyone is depressed.  Moosa [the office chowkidar] was so happy because he received a letter from his brother – first time he’s had news from home for ages. I wish I’d taken a photo of his happiness – such a smile. The family sent him almonds, which he brought to share with me. Lovely he wanted to share his gift and his joy but because we are all miserable because of Jon’s situation Moosa’s happiness is dimmed.”  

I was not alone – lots of people were around me providing support: Hamid Shah who was in charge of the Quetta leprosy programme would visit, sometimes sweeping me up to take me home for meals with him and his wife, Shanaz. Evelin, a German midwife who was working here was a good friend, frequent visitor and huge support and Linda, a health visitor who worked for a different NGO was always there at the end of the phone (when the damn things were working) keeping me calm. Nick and Debbie visited or invited me to their home. “It is good to know,” I wrote, “we have such good friends who really care. The only problem is – they weaken me – my stiff upper lip trembles at their kindness and I risk dissolving into tears.”

Office manager, Inayatullah hands a smiling Arif the key to his vehicle. Moosa third from the left.

And the baby? It seemed to be doing fine. I attended the ante-natal clinic regularly seeing Dr Shahnaz who assured me the baby was growing well. Although, one time she was concerned about my blood pressure being exceptionally high – at which point I burst into tears and explained the situation. She told me not to worry. “If your husband does not come back, I will be there for you. You will not be alone. I will even get into bed beside you when you are in labour.” I thought this a slightly over the top – as was the prescription she gave me for phenabarbitone. I threw it away. Usually used in the treatment of epilepsy, I knew it would cross the placental barrier. I played a lot of Eric Clapton instead.

Rahimy on the left and Jawad – on a picnic somewhere near Quetta.

One evening I received a message to go immediately to the French Bakery, a Hazara run bakery which was a bit of a Quetta institution. When I arrived the boss put a chair in the middle of the shop and handed me a sealed letter. I read it about three times before bursting into tears – of joy. Jon was free. I rushed round to Hamid Shah’s to tell him and Evelin so more hugs and tears all round.

My 2 am diary entry was full of waffle about the note, Jon’s possible arrival date and my gratitude for always having someone to keep me going through the nightmare. “Now, I feel really guilty about how little work I’ve achieved – I should get busy immediately.” Maybe not at two in the morning!

Jon arrived back on December 01 – fit and healthy and looking in much better condition than I felt. He’d been reasonably well treated, had patients brought to him and was allowed out to play football every day. The worst part had been when they’d originally arrested/kidnapped him and accused him of spying. Unfortunately, Jon didn’t recognise the word for spy so had no idea of what he was being accused. They were hauling him into position to hang upside down to be beaten when someone higher up came into the room and told them to cut him down. It soon transpired it was money they were after, not a conviction in court.

And that’s when my euphoria at having him back safely rather evaporated. “How did you manage to get free?” I asked.

“I paid the ransom. I sent a note to Hussain asking him to bring whatever he had left in his budget.”

I was furious! All the running about, the meetings with WHO and other NGOs to apply pressure by warning no further supplies would be sent to the area, had been for nothing. They would think this was a very nice little earner – no one would be safe if they thought the ransom demand would always be met.

Jon was unrepentant. “I was afraid I wouldn’t get back before our baby was born.”  

I calmed down – not good for the baby to get so worked up. And now, Dr Shahnaz wouldn’t have to get into bed with me when I went into labour and I could look relax and enjoy the last few months of my pregnancy.

I should have known better.

Jawad and Rahimy on a picnic at Hanna Lake, Quetta.

MarySmith’sPlace ~ Pregnant in Pakistan

I’ll have to do this story over a couple of instalments.

Despite my delight at returning to Quetta, it didn’t long for me to miss being in Afghanistan.

By Beluchistan – Baluchistan, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54411683

I wrote in my diary a week after our return: ‘I wish I was back in Afghanistan. I have mixed emotions about my role there and I remember my despair and desperation in Lal (though by the end I did feel I was beginning to be able to do something).

Unlike in Afghanistan, we have electricity here – which goes off frequently for hours at a time. Here, we have flush loos – which get blocked and stop working. Telephones – usually out of order. The bazaars are full of consumer goods which make me feel an urge to buy stuff I don’t need for the sake of spending money. The traffic, which is nightmarish, with noise assaulting my eardrums, induces fear and diminishes dignity as I scuttle across roads. I feel frustrated and irritated at having to bargain in shops for everything, knowing prices are increased because foreigners have more money and can afford to line the pockets of already rich businessmen. Despite the problems in Afghanistan, I felt alive there.’

Quetta was never my favourite place in Pakistan. It is the provincial capital and largest city of the Province of Baluchistan. In 1935 it was largely destroyed in an earthquake, which killed around 40,000 people. When we lived there frequent tremors gave new meaning to ‘Did the earth move for you, too, darling?’ It’s a frontier town, not particularly pretty although it has lots of orchards around it which we visited sometimes to see the blossom.

I had work to do – reports to write, statistics to compile, funding applications to prepare and submit and endless meetings with other agencies. We moved into a house next door to the office, which gave us some privacy. I settled down for the winter.

The following spring (1990) we returned to Afghanistan for a two-month tour of the clinics. I may write something about the difficulties of travelling when snowmelt flooded the roads as I have found some photos of the Toyota having to be loaded onto a truck to be taken across the flood.

Later, that year Jon and I went home on leave – the first for two years. We returned to Pakistan married and pregnant.

One event which really took the shine from our time visiting family and friends and getting married was receiving the news of the murder of Moh’d Ali, the office cook. He was a lovely guy and he and our dog, George, were very fond of each other. He took on responsibility for feeding the dog and at night took him back to our house to stay with him. We never found out what exactly happened but in the morning, he was found dead with George lying guard over him. The most likely thing was that it was a robbery, which went wrong. The only things missing were two ashtrays; a little onyx one from Sr. Jeanine and a pottery one with a Pendle witch on the bottom, a gift from the Clitheroe Oxfam group. The dog would certainly have tried to defend his friend and territory and apparently wouldn’t eat for five days afterwards.

The police decided to arrest poor Abdul Hamid as being, being a stranger, the most likely suspect but had to let him go. First he was caught in a bombing raid, then found cockroaches in his dinner and then was wrongfully arrested.

We were by now preparing for the tour in Afghanistan. Medicines and medical supplies had to be purchased and packed and the budget for the winter months prepared. I was just under three months pregnant, tired and crabby much of the time, and desperate to be back across the border to the fresh clean air of Afghanistan.

It was not to be – various ex-pat medical workers started making worried faces about the trip – the road conditions, my age (36 – considered old in those days to be having a first baby), the lack of medical facilities if anything went wrong. Finally, Dr Pfau advised against the trip. “Plenty of work for you to be doing in Quetta,” she said. And so, Jon went off without me on October 22.

The beached whale – look at that double chin! This was later in the pregnancy. George trying to hide under the desk

On November 08 I received a long, newsy letter from him, which he’d written on October 28, telling me everything was going well. A postal service didn’t exist – letters were handed to someone, hopefully trustworthy, travelling to Pakistan.

On November 15, I heard he had been arrested/kidnapped by Nasre, the day after he had written to me.

Diary entry November 17: ‘I’m exhausted. Easily become tearful, especially if someone is kind. I feel so superstitious. I had planned to make Jon a picture collage to welcome him back but now feel I shouldn’t – it would be tempting fate, like writing Christmas cards from us both.

So stupid. Unfortunately the crazy Party which has him in jail is even more stupid. We know the only sensible thing is to release him but these people don’t use reason. OK, what can they do? They can shoot him, they can hold him for months or years – as they did with the Egyptian doctors – or they can release him.’