Hell in Holy Land, one story for International Migrants Day
Bilquis, who prefers using her first name only, was repatriated from Dhaban Jail in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia this year on Eidul Azha. She narrated her experience to Maria S Kazmi from Justice Project Pakistan who put it in the form of an article.
Four years and seven months. That’s how long I was away from my husband, my sons. My family.
Almost five years in prison, for something I didn’t do.
Some days it feels like my own fault. For being too greedy. For thinking that I could visit the Holy Land. For not thinking about why someone would offer me that chance without any strings attached.
Almost half a decade ago, I made a new friend. She was from a different village and she would come and visit me at my house. One day, we were talking and she asked me if I wanted to perform umrah. Umrah. It had always been my dream. But I told her I couldn’t. My children are hard-working labourers, our family is poor. I don’t have the money to go for umrah. I told her all this. She looked at me and said, “I will give you the money. But you should go for umrah.”
Of course, I forgot all about it. It seemed like a pipe dream. But she didn’t. And one by one, things started happening. She helped me get a passport, then a visa to Saudi Arabia. She even gave me money for the trip and a bag with a box of mithai (sweets). She seemed so generous and I was eager to go. It was, for me, the opportunity of a lifetime. I knew I might never get this chance again. When everything was done, I told my family I was going for umrah.
I had never even been on an airplane before.
The day I left Kasur, it was a beautiful sunny day. All the way to the airport, I kept thinking how lucky I was. I was getting my dream. I was going. How many poor people get to see the Kaaba?
They arrested me right after I got off the plane in Riyadh. One moment I was standing with all the other men and women, and the next I was being separated and led into a different room to be questioned. They were all speaking in Arabic and I had no idea what they were saying. I found out much later that they were asking about the bag my friend gave me. The bag with the box of sweets in it.
So, there I was. Hours away from the Ka’aba that I would never be able to circle.
Imprisoned for drugs found in a box of sweets.
They never found the woman who had tricked me, she and her husband disappeared completely. The house that they rented was emptied out, my sons told me. I never even thought such people existed, people who would fool you into taking drugs to the House of God. Who used your devotion and poverty against you, as a weapon. Who would do something so terrible?
What I still don’t understand is why they didn’t stop me at the airport in Pakistan. Had they stopped me there, perhaps I could have proven my innocence. At least, I would have been close to my home and family. My children would have gotten me a lawyer; they would have fought for my freedom. They would have visited me.
But instead I was locked up in a foreign country, in a strange prison surrounded by strangers.
There isn’t much to say about prison when you’ve spent so long there. Because every day is almost exactly the same. But I was lucky, again. The people around me were good. They were good to me. Others have it much worse.
The day they told me they would release me, I knelt to the ground in sajda and cried. I couldn’t believe that Allah was finally going to return me home to my family.
December 18 is commemorated as the International Migrants Day to highlight the plight of millions of people around the globe living new lives and building new communities.