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Days Passed

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The Story of the Brown Box

by Dr. Aafia's brother


This is the true story of a Brown Box.  An ordinary cardboard box. Not too big, not too small. Nothing special. It was the kind of an everyday box used to package every thing from priceless objects to toilet paper.

A few months ago, I came home one evening to find this box waiting at my front door. It was odd.  I had not ordered anything by mail and was not expecting any other delivery. Unfortunately, these days, finding an unexpected box is more cause for fear than curious excitement.

But then I noticed on the side it had printed in large writing a name and a number in one of the best examples of penmanship I have seen in years.  The name was one I recognized. I was momentarily paralyzed.  How or why would someone send this package to me.

I took the Box inside and did not know what to do with it.  I was both apprehensive and curious.  I checked with lawyers and friends. But for some time I just let it sit there in the entry way in my home and every day when I came home the box stared at me and I knew I wanted to open it.  I mention this dilemma this only to illustrate how the events of the past 6 ½ years have shaped our lives and how routine, simple actions can become a complex ordeal filled with suspicion, apprehension, anxiety and anticipation all rolled into one.

Getting back to the box. Finally, one day I decided to open the box.  Nothing special or auspicious about the day.  Just another day but it seemed that it was time.  With camera and video in witness, the tape sealing the box was cut and the lids carefully opened.

Inside the box the contents were sloppily thrown in – a marked contrast to the neatness of the handwriting that adorned the front of the box.  Surely different people must have handled the contents and the labeling.  No one could be both that rash and sensitive at the same time.

As I slowly removed the contents, one by one, my hands trembled.  There were two folded white scarves, several envelopes, writing pads with half written thoughts as if the pads were snatched in mid sentence.  There were letters from people from as far afield as Australia and Hawaii, from Pakistan and Arkansas.  And there were partially written letters to people who would now never get them even though the stamps were right there. And incomplete poems for which we would not know the ending. There were articles from magazines carefully clipped to highlight what? It would not be known. In the middle of this there was a Quran thrown in the pile.  It had been meticulously tagged by its reader who would no longer be able to use these references.

The rest of the box contained items of food – from tea bags to cookies, sealed fish and snacks. Sustenance no longer destined for the person who stored it.

I went through the items carefully at first, almost scientifically, as if handling a lost treasure, cataloging what I found.  But soon, as the items became personal, the reality of what I had in my hands hit me – and it hit hard.

You see the box had come from Carswell Medical Center in Fort Worth Texas and the name on the side was that of my sister Aafia, # 90279-054
This box contained all that remained of the worldly belongings of Aafia’s life. This is what she accumulated during the 8 months at the institution known as the “House of Horrors”. It hit me that without warning, one day someone took her away.  She had no time to complete tasks, letters, consume a special treat or send a last letter.  All her belongings, both of her scarves and her beloved Quran were all left behind.

She was strip searched naked and taken away with nothing but her body.

And I was reminded of what it must be like to die.  All the things that are left undone.  The things we think we will finish the next moment or the next day.  The favorite clothes, the favorite book, the favorite meal. In the end when they take you, it is you alone they take.

For a while, I could think of nothing else.  And then I realized that for Aafia, this was probably just another case of dé jà vu.

Back in March 2003, Aafia had her whole life snatched away when she and her three young children were summarily disappeared from the streets of Karachi.  How must that have felt?  You lose the “things” most precious to you – even more precious than your own life? – Your children, the youngest only 6 months old.

We don’t know much of what Aafia endured between then and when she suddenly emerged in Ghazni in July last year.  But there again, she was shot and everything in her possession taken from her –  and for a second time she lost her son – a son whom she was not sure was even alive anymore and had been reunited with only a short time earlier – and who did not recognize her as his mother.

So you see, Aafia has experienced the feeling of “death” over and over again. No wonder she says they have “killed” me. Every time they “transfer” her, it is akin to dying. Only she is forced to wake up and the nightmare continues. So, I wonder – is God a sadist that He puts Aafia through this agony over and over again? When is it enough? Or is this all a lesson for others to see?

I used to think Aafia meant the phrase “killed me” in a metaphorical sense but now I see it as a much more physical expression. Just imagine how many times this may have happened over the years of her captivity when we have witnessed it at least three times in the “open” non-secret captivity of the past year. And there is the brown box that testifies to it.

Yes, back to the Brown Box.  Because the story does not end here.  That Box stayed in the entry, contents placed back inside. Then one day I saw the box and thought of the Pharaohs and how they built Pyramids to carefully store the contents of the world that they would take with them on the journey beyond death.  How meticulous the exterior architecture but equally haphazard the interior chambers and the storing of the food… clothes… ornaments…

So too the brown box – simple clean exterior with meticulous writing and an interior haphazardly packed with the tools of life.

But there was a difference – a big difference between the pyramids of the pharaohs and the Brown Box of Aafia.  The one was planned. The other reflects reality of how life ends abruptly.  In reality, even the Pharaohs would have had a brown box that collected their daily unfinished business because while they could prepare for death, they could not predict its time.

By now the Brown Box was becoming an eyesore in the entry and the kids were asking too many questions so I took it up to the attic to store it. Here it found company among many other brown boxes that contained pieces of my life, forgotten memories and material possessions that I had not seen in years and probably will not even remember until and if I see them again.  But I hang on to them as if they and I will someday re-live the “good old days.” 

And it struck me that I had dozens of brown boxes and they only filled the forgotten pieces of my life and here was Aafia’s one Brown box that was now representative of her entire life. But she is alive so she will accumulate more “stuff”.  But how many more times will these be taken away? How many more deaths? How many more Brown boxes?

I left the Brown Box in the Attic but had trouble sleeping until one morning I woke up and brought it back down and placed it in my study – out of the way but in full view of where I sit every day.  You see, I could not just put away Aafia’s life in the Attic and let it become another forgotten piece of my life.  I have to see it every day because my sister is in my thoughts every day and as long as she is alive the Brown Box will be waiting so she may complete those letters, those poems and drink that tea.

So, for now, the story remains incomplete, waiting for an ending… with a prayer that God will make it a happy one.

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