I have gone to the forest to lie among the moss and sleep under a canopy of trees. I have gone to the forest to root among the soil and listen to the birds.
They don’t sing anymore.
Someone’s taken them. That’s what they say. That they have vanished, dropped from the sky – disappeared.
‘Where?’ My eyes adjusted to the light. ‘Where did they hide away the birds?’
But no one would tell me, a stranger.
When I was pregnant with him, my ribs moved. They expanded to hold him inside me. When he was born, they cut him out of me. And then they put me back together, torn, with a piece missing, ribs too wide for me to breathe.
But now that he’s gone, I have walked to the juniper forests of Ziarat to search for the disappeared.
I called him Delawar, brave hearted. I called him Mazar, tiger. I wanted him to be a fighter, like his father had been, but I wanted him to live, like his father had not. I should have named him something smaller, something less proud. When he asked about his father, I should have cried and shown him fear. Instead I sat tall and spoke with joy. A martyr never dies.
Oh but they do. They do. Everyone dies, Mazar, even you.
Delawar Mazar walked along the dry earth, kicking the small pebbles with his plastic slippers. One, he counted, two, three soldiers. His father held his hand as they walked. Delawar Mazar smiled at his father, squinting as he looked up at him.
‘What are you doing?’ his father, Nowruz, asked.
‘Killing soldiers,’ Mazar answered, digging a stone into the ground with his toe. ‘Killing all the soldiers, one two three.’
His father, whose name was nothing special – spring, it meant, the start of a new day – laughed. ‘Good boy,’ he said, patting his son’s head. ‘Good boy.’
But soldiers were bigger than stones and they, however innocent the boy, did not have a sense of play at all.
‘Do you know why we fight?’ Nowruz asked his son, who was older now and did not understand that wars could not be fought with nature, with rocks and twigs and stray pie-dogs that roamed the dark gullies between homes, searching for scraps of food.
Delawar Mazar crept out of the kitchen late at night and fed the bones to the dogs, petting their blonde, mangy fur as they ate. He tied a red string around the one whose nipples drooped. She must have had puppies somewhere; she always carried the bones away in her teeth. But the boy dog, he curled up and sat by Mazar’s feet, gnawing and chewing until there was nothing left of the chicken legs. Mazar tied a white string around his neck. You are my second in command, he whispered into the broken ear of the dog. You are my lieutenant general. Together we will run this place into the ground.
But the white-stringed dog did nothing except concentrate on his drumsticks and lick Delawar Mazar’s feet when he was done.
‘Do you understand why we fight?’ His father asked him one night, when the moon rose over the mountains, round and full of light. Mazar was twelve. He had no interest in the cameo of the moon.
‘Because we can,’ the boy answered. He appreciated war; he discussed it with the dogs all the time. Even the female dog, even she would play a role in his army. Once her pups were grown she would serve on the front lines too.
But Nowruz shook his head. ‘No, bacha,’ he said, ‘We fight because we must. Because we cannot breathe otherwise. Because fighting is oxygen and we are trapped in a country without air.’
Mazar picked at the plastic strap of his slippers. His fingers smelled like dog hair. He repeated his father’s lines in his head. He would have to pass this on to his soldiers soon.
‘Do you see?’ Delawar Mazar sat on his knees in the nala. The water had long vanished, the riverbed was dry and only small parcels of green grew along the banks. He drew a line in the dust with a stick and tapped it so the dogs, white and red and two others that had followed them out here, understood. The two new ones barely glanced at the map being drawn on the earth, sitting patiently and waiting for their food.
‘This is where the soldiers will attack from,’ Mazar wiped a film of sweat from his brow. ‘They will enter the town from the left, coming out of the valley. But if we amass our forces at this point . . .’ Mazar stood and dragged his stick along the ground in order to demonstrate the exact troop movement required. ‘. . . then we can outflank them and mow them down before they strike.’
The dog with the red string around her neck yawned. The two new ones lay down and rested their chins on their paws. Delawar Mazar nodded his head.
‘Yes, of course you’re right. We can’t do this on our own.’ He held one wrist in the palm of the other hand behind his back as he surveyed his troops. ‘We will need reinforcements.’
Above them, he could hear the swallows. Mazar looked up at the sky and watched the small, delicate birds, darting in and out of the thicket of trees.
‘Call up the reserves!’ Delawar Mazar shouted, raising his stick in the air at the flight of petite black swallows. ‘Call up the battalions!’
The day Nowruz vanished, I asked Delawar Mazar where his father went. I asked my son if he had seen his father since morning, but Delawar Mazar was too busy communing with the birds. They were coming to him, he said. They had heard his message.
White partridges, their wings marked with guitar strings, sand partridges, houbara bustards who had escaped Arab princes and their shooting season, and black swallows – all of them had heard him, he said.
Mazar kept his eyes on the distance before him. He lay on his back, arms stretched behind his head and counted the birds as they dove in and out of the cloudy sky.
‘Have you seen your father?’
‘He went away,’ the boy replied, calmly. ‘He went away to fight.’
I ran towards Mazar and fell to the ground, grabbing his shoulders and crying. ‘What are you doing? What are you doing just laying there?’ I should have slapped him, but instead I shouted and wept. ‘Go out, get up! Go and find your father!’
And Delawar Mazar turned his head towards me, not sitting up or moving a muscle, and said, pointing up at the birds, ‘What do you think I’m doing?’
The men started disappearing slowly.
At first only a few were taken and only from the big cities. They plucked them from schools and offices and their homes in the dead of night. We heard of them on the news, in the thin newspapers that men read aloud in the bazaars. But soon they were taken from everywhere – from fishing villages and small mountain towns. They took them to the tops of the mountains, carrying the men up in helicopters. But their eyes were blindfolded shut, so they could not see the dark beauty of Balochistan – earth meeting the sky, undressed, rugged earth, the quiet expanse of the land. They could not see their home before they died, pushed out of the helicopters as they floated near the mountain peaks. Their eyes were covered and their hands tied.
It was new, the vanishings.
Before, when our grandfathers fought, they jailed the fighters. They imprisoned the men who wanted freedom. And those who were especially against Pakistan, those they killed. But at least you knew. At least a father came home from jail. At least a brother was brought home to bury.
But not anymore.
Though Delawar Mazar’s forces had grown, though he had an air force of partridges and swallows at his command, they could not find Nowruz.
Mazar was fourteen then, not yet a man when his father disappeared, vanished like all the other men who fought for the empty province.
‘Where is Baba?’ he asked me then. I looked at him – tall, like his father. But his mind always somewhere else, in a dream, following a swarm of wasps, a skulk of foxes, a colony of ants – all of whom he believed answered to him and were drafted into his own very personal war.
‘He is gone,’ I said, keeping tears from my eyes.
‘Where?’ Mazar asked.
And then, like a fool, I said it.
‘A martyr never dies.’
No one knew what to make of the boy, who no longer called his meetings in dry ravines and empty gullies. Emboldened by the growing size of his defences, Delawar Mazar recruited everywhere.
In the bazaar, he stood near the chicken cages piled high outside the butchers, hooking his fingers into the thin wire and whispering to the native birds, small and sinewy, until the butchers came out from behind their bloody tables and told him to leave.
He carried a small pouch of bones and dried fruit – mulberries and almonds – knotted into the fabric which he wore across his shoulder like a jogi. But unlike the snake charmers, Mazar the tiger played no lute and never begged for coins. He kept his hair long, like his father’s, the dark curls resting on his shoulders, and his beard tightly trimmed. His shalwar was large, like the warriors’, and the soles of his shoes cut from tires. No, he was not a malang. The leader of an army had to look a certain way: clean and disciplined.
Now Mazar was enlisting fighters everywhere – carrying his pouch of food, he stood in front of the shepherds as they searched for land to graze their flock and bent down to speak to the lambs. He crept behind the charlatans who came through towns on Eid with their chained, dancing bears and waited till the men were fast asleep before freeing the black bears and leading them to safety, their chains and anklets lined with bells, ringing as they ran.
In the desert, Delawar Mazar crawled on his belly and sang to the saw-scaled vipers. He could not promise the poisonous snakes any beetles or frogs for food, it was a sin to eat one’s comrades after all. Delawar Mazar’s army only fed on the bones they scavenged; he had long given up eating meat. But if they joined him in his fight against the oppressors of the state, Mazar promised the serpents he would keep them rich in milk and glory.
‘Don’t you know what people are saying?’ I asked him when he returned home with his growing band of followers. ‘They say you are mad, that you are crazy, that the devil has entered your soul.’
But Mazar, now a man, only smiled at the wild creatures that had turned our small home into a menagerie, a refuge for animals big and small, and said, ‘Do you know why we fight?’
‘Who is we? These animals – you are one of them now?’
But he shook his head pityingly and gestured to the long-eared hedgehogs that we used to hide from as children, afraid of any awful diseases they might carry, but that now slept in my home curled into little balls. His hand swept past the Indian crested porcupines that looked like rats in fancy clothing and said, ‘We, my brothers and I in arms.’
‘Do you know why we fight, Ma?’
But this wasn’t my son. His father was a fighter, a martyr. I did not understand him anymore.
‘We fight because we have to. Because we cannot breathe otherwise. Because fighting is oxygen and we are trapped in a country without air.’
Though Delawar Mazar walked for miles, to the salt pans and the dried riverbeds, though he navigated the tracery of rivers that remained, he always led his troops home.
‘I travel to rouse my brothers,’ he told me. He travelled to collect and to train because the battle was nearing. It was almost time.
‘How do you know,’ I asked this tall, bearded giant that had once moved my ribs, ‘How do you know that the time is coming?’
Delawar Mazar squatted down on his haunches and ran a finger over his tongue. The gazelles he had brought home from the desert crowded around him, creating a protective ring around their leader. Though the gazelles blinked quickly and had the delicate beauty of their species, they were not afraid. I stepped closer towards my son to watch him but one lowered its head and levelled its horns at me. I had seen them leap and run behind my son, shadowing him like he was their own. And now I had seen them separate him from me, as though he was not mine. Mazar licked his finger and ran it through the dirt around him.
‘I can feel it.’ He said, simply.
I saw on the news that the army was launching an operation here, they were sending in thousands of soldiers.
I saw it on the news and I heard the anchor, the beautiful girl who read from a sheet of paper, pressing her lips down on every word, say that the operation would be long and thorough. They would weed out the foreign agents that had infiltrated the resistance movements; they would show no mercy to those who fought against the unity of the state. I told my boy this and he laughed.
‘Next they will say my brothers are foreign agents too.’ He stroked the caracal that had come, like a house cat, to rub against his leg. Its green eyes glistened and the long black hair on its ears stood alert. ‘They will say my caracal was trained in India and my foxes by the Revolutionary Guard in Iran.’
Mazar laughed until he scared the wide-eyed dormice who had abandoned their forest homes to follow him here. ‘Can you believe it?’ he asked the animals. ‘Look at what imaginations they have . . .’
Delawar Mazar now counted his army a hundred strong; he lead:
A sloth of former dancing bears, who still wore silver bells around their necks and ankles;
A destruction of wild cats;
A brood of native chickens; a murder of crows; a cast of hawks; a host of sparrows;
Flocks of goats and lambs;
A knot of green-spotted toads that left his hands and feet covered in warts;
The dogs with the red and white string, his loyal sentinels, and the packs that had grown around them.
Though he had devoted troops who followed him across the province and protected him from the jealousy of his peers, at night Delawar Mazar sat with his head in his hands.
‘I can’t find him,’ he sobbed quietly. ‘All these fighters and still I cannot find him.’
And I, his old mother, stroked his back and hushed his worries. Nowruz had been disappeared for years by then. Seven, maybe ten.
‘No one can find him,’ I told Mazar. ‘No one can bring back the missing.’
But still my son cried, his hair now bearing strands of white. ‘I have an army,’ he said, quieting his tears. ‘I can do it.’
‘Yes,’ I said, looking at holes on the elbows and sleeve of his kameez, bitten by rats and mice. ‘Yes, you do.’
‘They will find Baba,’ Delawar Mazar said, wiping his face clean. ‘I swear to it. They can find any man.’
Even an army built on codes Delawar Mazar had spent years developing – writing symbols in sand and constructing noises that reverberated across multiple notes – even an army based on loyalty and love was no match for the power of the state. And the state, like all power, was everywhere.
Mazar came home during the rainy season with his face bloodied and his shalwar torn into shreds, like a dress. His eye was sealed shut by a corona of purple and blue burst veins and capillaries. ‘You see what they’ve done to me?’ he asked, spitting out a tooth.
‘You see how frightened they are of me? How close my troops must be?’
Later, when the moon had thinned into a crescent, the butcher, who had been there, told me what happened: Mazar had walked through the bazaar with his army of birds and frogs and cats, leading them to the police thana. Holding the strap of his knotted pouch with his thumb, he burst into the station and demanded the police release all the missing men. ‘Set free your prisoners’, Delawar Mazar shouted, ‘Set free all the fighting tribes you have disappeared!’
The station was a small structure, just three rooms. Everyone heard Mazar, but the police dragged him out into the street to beat him just so everyone could see. That’s what the butcher told me, his fist tight around the broken neck of a chicken. ‘Oh how they beat your boy,’ he said, shaking his head.
But I knew that only later. Then, I ran to my son and held him.
‘Who can fight you with all these warriors beside you?’ I ran my hands down Mazar’s strong back, the same boy I had once cradled in my arms and fed from my body. ‘Who can fight you now?’
But Mazar, whose clothes smelled of metal from the blood he had lost, looked at the congress of animals gathered around him and shook his head. ‘My army cannot fight like this,’ he said. ‘We cannot fight without a platoon of leopards.’
‘Would you marry?’ I asked him as he rested his head on my lap. His wounds had taken months to heal. He walked with a limp and carried a stick – no longer to draw military manoeuvres in the dirt with, but to balance himself. ‘Why don’t we find you a woman,’ I said as I pressed his shoulders and his arms, ‘Someone to care for you? Someone to distract you, to help you?’
But Delawar Mazar only smiled at me sadly.
‘I am married to my country,’ he said, tilting his head towards the mules and cattle that filled our home with the smell of dung. ‘I am wedded to the cause.’
‘But this is too much, Mazar,’ I said. ‘Enough is enough. Yes, you have an “army” and OK, you are leading your “troops”. But enough. Be a man. Be a proper man.’
And at that, he stood up and hobbled away, his muscles still weak from the beating.
‘Don’t sabotage me,’ he hissed over his shoulder. ‘Don’t think you can stop me. I am not my father.’
For days, Delawar Mazar hunted the land, searching for the last member of his army. He sent his lieutenant generals and his air force and even a hastily cobbled navy of carp – swimming their way down the Zhob River – but not one soldier spotted the leopard’s black rosettes anywhere.
But the leopards were out there, hiding, this he knew. It was only a matter of time before he chanced upon a comrade who would point him towards the right path.
Delawar Mazar spoke to his brothers at twilight, when he was sure they would not be watched by night vision cameras and drones flying overhead like hummingbirds.
‘Put your feelers out,’ he said to the caracal. ‘Let them know we are waiting. We will not strike without them.’
Explaining chess to the vipers, whose poisoned fangs had never once been a threat, Delawar Mazar likened his army to the great game’s wooden pieces. ‘We have the pawns, the vanguards, the defensive rooks,’ Mazar said, speaking out loud what his father had taught him on paper as a child. ‘But what we need now is a queen.’
In the dark, the animals listened quietly.
‘Be careful,’ shopkeepers and roadside beggars warned Delawar Mazar, ‘Soon the army will disappear you and your fighters too. What’s to stop them from dropping you down the mountains?’
‘You think you’re special?’ The butcher asked Mazar as he brought his troops to rifle through his discarded innards and bones. ‘They’ve taken everything here – what’s to stop them from taking your tribe too?’
But though Delawar Mazar knew that the shopkeepers were trying to scare him away from whispering through the cages of their native-grown chickens and that the beggars were trying to rob him of what little money he carried, he began to count his troops every morning and every night just to be sure no one was missing.
‘You’ll tell me,’ he asked the gazelles who shadowed him whenever he went, ‘if you see anything suspicious?’
‘You will tell me,’ he badgered the swallows, ‘if anyone is watching us from above?’
The birds answered Mazar tenderly. They would protect him with their lives. Of all the fighters he had trained and loved over the years, they were the gentlest. He knew the swallows understood all his longing and pain.
But they were the first to drop out of the sky. One morning there was no birdsong, no swallows. They were gone.
‘Can you hear me?’ Mazar travelled to the forests. ‘Can you hear me?’ he shouted up at the trees.
But no matter how loud he called and no matter how long he waited, no reply came. In his heart of hearts, Delawar Mazar knew the swallows could hear him, wherever they were. Come back, he whispered into the hollows of the tallest juniper trees. I forgive you.
In his heart of hearts, Mazar knew the swallows could hear him because the juniper trees of Ziarat were the earth’s oldest living trees. They had heard secrets long before his. Much before the sadness of Delawar Mazar, the junipers of Balochistan carried the weight of the world.
The dogs vanished next, disappearing one afternoon while they were out scavenging for food. No one ever saw them again – not the foxes who went out after their scent, not the cats who stalked even the furthest homes, not Mazar, broken by the desertion of his loyal generals.
‘They didn’t leave you,’ I told him, the dogs had been with him, eating the food that fell by his feet since he was a boy. ‘They were old,’ I said. ‘The proud like to die alone, they had to go.’
But by the time the lambs, now sheep, had disappeared, Delawar Mazar knew the moment to fight had been lost.
‘They are picking us off one by one,’ he whispered, afraid. ‘They are disappearing my tribe.’
Mazar lay down under the stars, his remaining brothers curled on the floor beside him. The smallest of the creatures slept curved along the nape of his neck, the crook of his elbow, the crease of his knee. The larger beasts sheltered his body with their own, the geckos resting on his hip bone, a bear draping an arm over his chest. They loved Delawar Mazar, even the rooster who fought with all the other fowl; even he lay by his commander’s side, warming his feet with his feathers.
‘Cover me,’ Mazar murmured.
I stood to place a shawl over him, but he stopped me. ‘No,’ he said, raising a hand.
‘Cover me,’ he repeated. And in a movement so slight it could have only been choreographed by nature, by the rise and fall of the sun and the rustling of the wind through the conifer trees, all the creatures laid down, bent and adjusted themselves so that nothing of Delawar Mazar lay exposed. And just like that, he was no more.
In the morning, on the patch of earth where my son had slept, only the faintest impression of his body remained. Delawar Mazar was gone. Not one of his animals remained. It had been twelve, thirteen years since his father was taken. But unlike then, I did not go to the town, I did not travel to the city. I did not go to the police station and I did not sit outside the press club with a photo of my disappeared son.
There was nowhere to go. So I looked for him everywhere.
In the juniper forests that smelled of warm berries and dry grass, I lay amongst the moss and searched for the birds. ‘Where?’ I asked the insects, the fireflies and wasps, who would not speak to me. ‘Where have you taken my tribe?’
Image © Louise Smith, ‘Jasmine’