Robert Fisk: The mysterious case of the Grey Lady of Bagram

How does a neuroscientist and mother of three end up in jail as an al-Qa'ida agent?

Share
Related Topics

Dr Shams Hassan Faruqi sits amid his rocks and geological records, shakes his bearded head and stares at me. "I strongly doubt if the children are alive," he says. "Probably, they have expired." He says this in a strange way, mournful but resigned, yet somehow he seems oddly unmoved. As a witness, supposedly, to the mysterious 2008 re-appearance of Aafia Siddiqui – the "most wanted woman in the world", according to former US attorney general John Ashcroft – I guess this 73-year-old Pakistani geologist is used to the limelight. But the children, I ask him again. What happened to the children?

Dr Faruqi is Aafia Siddiqui's uncle and he produces a photograph of his niece at the age of 13, picnicking in the Margalla hills above Islamabad, a smiling girl in a yellow shalwar khameez, half-leaning against a tree. She does not look like the stuff of which al-Qa'ida operatives are made. Yet she is now a semi-icon in Pakistan, a country which may well have been involved in her original kidnapping and which now oh-so-desperately wants her back from an American prison. Her children, weirdly, disconcertingly, have been forgotten.

Aafia Siddiqui's story is now as famous in Pakistan as it is notorious in a New York City courtroom where her trial for trying to kill an American soldier in the Afghan city of Ghazni in 2008 – she was convicted this month and faces a minimum of 20 years in prison on just one of the charges against her – is regarded as a symbol of American injustice. "Shame on America," posters scream in all of Pakistan's major cities. She is known as the "grey lady of Bagram", supposedly tortured for five years in America's cruel Afghan prison. Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari has asked American envoy Richard Holbrooke to repatriate Siddiqui under the Pakistan-US prisoner exchange scheme, while the Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has dubbed her a "daughter of the nation". Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif promises to demand her release. But none of them mention the children. Ahmed, Sulieman and Maryam are their names.

Ahmed was returned to Pakistan from Afghanistan in 2008, but Dr Faruqi tells me he doesn't believe for a moment that it is Aafia Siddiqui's son. "He came here to stay with me, but he said he didn't know Aafia until he was taken to Ghazni. He said to me: 'I was in the big earthquake in Afghanistan and my brothers and sisters were killed in their home while I was out fetching water – that's what saved my life.' He told me that after the earthquake, he was put in an orphanage in Kabul. He was shown a photograph of my niece Aafia and said he did not know this lady, that he had never seen her before. Then he was taken to Ghazni and told to sit next to this woman – my niece. The boy is intelligent. He is simple. He is honest."

All such mysteries require a "story-so-far". It goes like this. Aafia Siddiqui, a 38-year-old neuroscientist, an MIT alumna and Brandeis university PhD, disappeared after leaving her sister's home for Karachi airport in 2003, taking Ahmed, Sulieman and Maryam with her. The Americans say she was a leading al-Qa'ida operative. So does her ex-husband. She had re-married Ammar al-Baluchi, currently in Guantanamo Bay, a cousin of Ramzi Yousef who was convicted for the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing. Not, you might, say, a healthy curriculum vitae in the West's obsessive "war on terror". In 2004, the UN identified her as an al-Qa'ida operative.

But released inmates from the notorious American prison at Bagram near Kabul– where torture is commonplace and at least three prisoners have been murdered – have stated that there was a woman held there, a woman whose nightly screams prompted them to go on hunger strike. She was dubbed the "grey lady of Bagram". At her New York trial, Siddiqui demanded that Jewish members of the jury be dismissed, she fired her own defence lawyers who said she had become unbalanced after torture; Siddiqui blurted out that she had been tortured in secret prisons before her arrest. "If you were in a secret prison ... where children were murdered..." she said.

And so to the town of Ghazni, south of Kabul. It was here that Afghan police stopped her in 2008, carrying a handbag which supposedly contained details of chemical weapons and radiological agents, notes on mass casualty attacks on US targets and maps of Ghazni. American soldiers and FBI agents were summoned to question her and arrived in Ghazni without realising that Siddiqui was in the same room, sitting behind a curtain. According to their evidence, she managed to take one of their M-4 assault rifles and opened fire with the words, "Get the fuck of here. May the blood of [unintelligible] be on your [head or hands]." She missed but was cut down by two bullets from a 9mm pistol fired by one of the soldiers. Hence the charges. Hence the conviction.

She wasn't helped by an alleged statement by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – the man who supposedly planned 9/11 and who is the uncle of her second husband, Ammar al-Baluchi – who claimed that Aafia Siddiqui was a senior al-Qa'ida agent. But then, he'd just been waterboarded 183 times in a month – which hardly makes his evidence, to use a phrase, water-tight.

The questions are obvious. What on earth was a Pakistani American with a Brandeis degree doing in Ghazni with a handbag containing American targets? And why, if her family was so fearful for her, didn't they report her missing in 2003, go to the press and tell the story of the children? Ahmed – son of Siddiqui or Afghan orphan, depending on your point of view – is now staying with Siddiqui's sister, Fauzia, in Karachi; but she refuses to let him talk to journalists. The Americans have shown no interest in him – even less in the other two, younger children. Why not?

It's odd, to say the least, that Dr Faruqi also maintains that in 2008 – before the Ghazni incident – Aafia Siddiqui turned up at his home in the suburbs of Islamabad. "She was wearing a burqa and got out of the car, just outside here," he says, pointing to the tree-lined street outside his office window. "I only caught sight of her once, and I said 'You have changed your nose'. But it was her. We talked about the past, her memories, it was her voice. She said the ISI (the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence) had let her come here. She wanted to get away, to go back to Afghanistan where she said the Taliban would protect her. She said that since her arrest, she knew nothing of her children. Someone told her they had been sent to Australia."

More questions. If Siddiqui was a "ghost prisoner" in Afghanistan, how come she turned up at Dr Faruqi's home in Islamabad? Why would she wear an Afghan "burqa" in the cosmopolitan capital of her own country? Why did she not talk more about her children? Why could she not show her face to her own uncle? Did she really come to Islamabad?

Fauzia Siddiqui is now touring Pakistan to publicise her sister's "unfair" trial, her torture at the hands of Americans. Most of the Pakistan press have taken up her story with little critical attention to the allegations against her. She has become a proto-martyr, a martyr-in-being; if her story is comprehensible, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief. But America's constant protestations of ignorance about her whereabouts before 2008 have an unhappy ring about them.

And the children? Rarely written about in Pakistan, they, too, in a sense, were "disappeared" from the story – until the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, paid an uneasy visit to Pakistan this week and, according to Fauzia, told the Interior minister, Rehman Malik, that "the children of Aafia Siddiqui will be sent home soon". Was Karzai referring to the other two children? Or to all three, including the "real" Ahmed? And if Aafia's two/three children are in Afghanistan, where have they been kept? In an orphanage? In a prison? And who kept them? The Afghans? The Americans?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Psychology Teacher

Main Teacher Pay Scale : Randstad Education Leeds: Teacher of Psychology An en...

International Promotions Manager - Consumer Products

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: A global entertainment busi...

Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: This new opportunity has responsibilities des...

Geography Teacher

£19200 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Devolution for the North would be great if only Manchester didn’t rile the region’s other major cities so much

Chris Blackhurst
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song  

Attacks on 'Ukip Calypso' show just how skewed people’s priorities are

Nigel Farage
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?