My plan was to cross into India at Wagah that unfortunate Punjabi village designated by the British in 1947 as the frontier between India and Pakistan. From there I intended to move steadily eastward to Bengal and Orissa. I had three weeks of holidays and was eager to get out of the Land of the Pure.
A week before I left, my boss, a soft-spoken Swiss lawyer, instructed me to book a ticket to Karachi.
“What’s up?” I asked.
He muttered a bit and shuffled the papers on his desk. He started speaking then stopped. He let go a sigh before telling me that we had two ‘security cases’ that needed extraction.
“You’re the lucky volunteer who accompanies them.” His front teeth had a slight gap that made his smile hard to resist.
He filled me in on the details.
They were officials in the Chinese Embassy. One was Head of Protocol, the other a Second Secretary. They had defected three months earlier.
“Are these the ‘two missing diplomats’ the papers are on about?”
My boss nodded. “Given how close Pak-China relations are its not a good look for the government. A bit embarrassing that they can’t be located.”
For weeks, Deputy Secretaries and spokesmen of all varieties, even a couple of Ministers, had been making bold statements that the pair would be ferreted out. They will be handed over immediately to the Chinese Embassy.
As for the Chinese, they were exceedingly anxious. Premier Li Peng, was due for an important State visit in a few weeks–one of his first since the disaster in Ti’anamen Square the previous summer.
“They sought asylum with the Americans. But your people thought they were too hot to handle, so we were called in. We’ve been moving them around for the past couple of months.”
My boss’s frequent absences and closed-door meetings of late took on fresh meaning.
“Who knows about this,” I asked.
“Just the Rep, me and Tony. And you.”
He told me I would be driven to Peshawar where Tony would meet me. I’d be given three boarding passes only one of which—mine—would have a genuine name on it.
“He’ll also give you two Swiss travel documents for your two companions. You pick them up, take them to the airport, get on the plane with them, fly to Karachi, put them another plane and then go on holidays.” He cracked his smile again but this time it didn’t seem so charming.
I picked them up from a house in a back street in Peshawar. They looked nervous, though they did manage to acknowledge me with a smile. I introduced myself. They did the same.
“I am Nurgul. He is Baba.” We shook hands but didn’t say much more.
We shook hands but didn’t say much more.
The airport was packed with travellers, mostly men embarking for the Gulf. The January sky was deep grey. It was raining and I could feel a cold shiver rattle my spine as we waited for our flight to be called.
If my boss had given me instructions on what to do if our cover was blown I couldn’t recall it. I was travelling on my UN Laissez Passer and if asked, I had a story that I was simply accompanying two refugees to Karachi for resettlement. Routine work.
I studied the names on the boarding passes. If anyone asked me who they were I needed to know how to address them, and which one was which.
They stared straight ahead. My peripheral vision was alert for approaching police or intelligence officers.
At last the flight number was called and we headed for the Gate. My heart was thumping. I handed over the boarding passes. But we were waved through and found our seats. When the ancient Jumbo lifted off we each breathed a sigh of relief and smiled at each other.
Nurgul spoke good English.
“In July the Ambassador called a meeting of all the staff in the Embassy. He asked us to be sincere and honest in expressing our views about what happened with the students in Tianamen Square. You must speak boldly and truthfully. The Party wants to know how to improve if it has done something wrong.
“We are Uyghurs and Muslims. That is why we are posted here in Pakistan, a Muslim-friendly country. We studied at Urumqi University. Our people have suffered a lot but also benefited immensely from the Chinese. So when the Ambassador asked for our views we were not afraid of him. We had no reason to suspect anything. We are strong supporters of our government and country.
“Both Baba and me said that what had happened to the students was excessive. We said there had been no need to kill people.”
Baba didn’t say much. He mostly just nodded along as Nurgul, the Head of Protocol, spoke.
One thing I had learned about refugees: most are desperate to tell their story. Nurgul was no different. He spoke almost without stopping the entire flight.
“We are so happy to be free. For months the UN has moved us from this place to that. We have changed names so many times. Sometimes we are dressed as Turkomen. Sometimes as Pakistanis. Sometimes as Afghanis. Do you know, sir, that one time we slept in a sugar cane field for two nights. It was raining and the jackals were howling all around us. But every other place was too dangerous for us. Our country and Pakistan are very close friends, so it was not safe to go into any town.
“For many months after the meeting nothing happened. Then one day I received a telex telling me I should return home at once, because my family was sick. This struck me as odd because even if my father would have been on his deathbed I would have had to get all sorts of permissions and filled so many forms to go visit him. And now they wanted me to go home within two days.
“I called one of my relatives and he told me no one is sick. That is when I told Baba and we decided to seek help from the American Embassy. But they were uncomfortable with us so we were handed over to the UN.”
The conversation meandered from topic to topic. I wondered what life was like in China before and after Deng. Baba laughed. He told me that he had been so ‘brainwashed’ as a child that he publicly denounced his father. “He was executed some time after that.”
Nurgul’s father had been condemned as a Soviet spy. “We are so happy with Deng and how he changed things after Mao. But there is a lot of corruption and stagnation these days.”
Our office had arranged asylum for the men in Switzerland. They were anxious about what life was like in the West.
“What are black people like? We have heard they are very lazy, right?”
Baba blurted out, “How does your country execute people?” The question caught me off guard. I started to explain about death row and electric chairs. They were wide-eyed.
In Karachi I accompanied them to the international terminal where we waited yet again for a flight to be announced. The conversation had dried up. Both men were keeping their thoughts to themselves. I felt tense again.
A local staff member from our Karachi office joined us. Her job was to escort Nurgul and Baba from the lounge to the plane. I bid them farewell and bon chance in Switzerland. They thanked me and walked nervously toward the Gate.
It was well after midnight when my colleague phoned to tell me that Nurgul and Baba had been detained. Their papers had not been accepted by immigration. “There is a big racket here with Iranians making forged documents for sale,” she said.
I panicked. “Where are they now?”
“On the plane. I was able to sort it out. Tomorrow they will start a new life. Good night, sir.”
Another thing I’ve learned since taking up this job. Local staff are bloody superstars.