- 09 Feb - 15 Feb, 2019
- 25 Aug - 31 Aug, 2018
When I woke up for the second time, I saw the sun shining and the heat was unbearable. My body ached more than ever. I was feeling dehydrated and my head kept spinning. With a blurred vision, I looked around and tried to recall the events that have led me to this place. I touched my head where I was hit and could feel the blood clots. Suddenly, I remembered what happened last night and felt chills going down my spine. My eyes were left wide open and my heart jumped to my throat.
I was lying under a small shelter made of straws and my right ankle was tied to a chain whose other end was locked around a tree. In front of me was a vast desert. The shelter still had signs of straw walls on its sides. I desperately started looking around for the person whose sound I had heard before losing consciousness. I was lying on ground and could not gather enough strength to get up. And then I heard Sumbal sobbing. It was coming from behind the tree. I did not feel any fear now. I knew ghosts don’t bother during bright sun light. So I mustered up all of my body’s strength and crawled in the direction where the sound was coming from. I circled around a tree and there I found her body wrapped around itself, like a baby in a mother’s womb. After reaching close enough, I slowly extended my arm and touched the body. It shuddered and then opened up like a flower but with a stench I had never experienced before.
She was still dressed up in her airhostess uniform even with an apron tied up front. Her ankle was also tied to the same tree. Our chains were about ten feet long which allowed us to move around it. There was a water bucket placed at one side with some bread pieces under the shelter. A person would come on a camel every third day, check on us, refill the bucket, leave some pieces of bread and then depart.
At first, she did not trust me. She would remain jumbled up at one side and would keep as much distance from me as possible. Physically, she seemed normal but psychologically she was closer to losing her mind. I, on the other hand, was mentally fit but physically, I needed sometime to recuperate. The only medicine I had there was time and I knew it can heel every wound.
After few days, she started feeling normal in my presence and did not sneak away from me. One evening during sunset, I saw her sitting with her back against the tree. I inched closer and also sat near her. She did not move or squeak. I started narrating my story and she listened quietly. My story started from her calls and included details of how I ended up here. I waited patiently for her to speak.
As night approached, the temperature lowered considerably. And when I had lost all hopes, she started speaking.
It was her last flight before her marriage. Her father had died a few years ago due to cancer.
They spent everything they had on his treatment but he left the world leaving them with absolutely nothing. She soon realised her obligation of looking after her mother and a little brother. It was not until she got selected for an air hostess training that their miseries began to wane down. After a successful training, she started flying with a private airline on domestic and international flights. Relatives who had initially objected to her work were now stunned to see her earning a good income. Proposals started flooding in and despite her reluctance; she was engaged to a distant cousin.
It was a routine flight till they missed the landing due to bad weather. The pilot was now forced to circle around and make another attempt. She was about to sit at her seat near the door when the turning aircraft wing struck the hill. In the backdrop of loud noise and dreadful screams, she held the door handle tightly with her arms wrapped around it. Next thing she felt was the door knocking out of fuselage and flying away. She just closed her eyes and saw the images of her mother and little brother before losing her consciousness.
She woke up badly injured in a small room. There were two men and a woman who were discussing as to what to do with her. She kept her eyes closed. One man said that the airline has announced that there are no survivors. They had found her close to the crash site when they went to investigate the loud bang near their home. They picked her up and brought her home in a bid to receive some compensation. They belonged to a network of timber mafia who would cut trees at night and smuggle them to the furniture market. In the next few days, they inquired about her family and how much they could pay for her safe return. When they found out that she was worth nothing, they decided to wait for the compensation to be given to her mother so they could grab that in return for her life.
They kept her locked and heavily sedated. However, they could not wait anymore. After three months, they sold her to another party. She was tied to a stretcher and her mouth was duck tapped. She was put in an ambulance and then brought all the way to this place. Her one ankle was tied to a chain attached to a tree and she was left alone in the desert. The effect of drugs subsided in few hours. She found her cell phone placed in a pocket of the apron which she was still wearing. She would always shut down her cell phone and keep it there during the flight. She took it out and switched it on but there was no signal, so she turned it off.
Her days here turned into weeks and weeks became months. During the initial days, she tried to escape but was unable to get the chain detached from her ankle. One thing she persistently kept doing was to check the cell phone’s signals by switching it on occasionally. One cloudy night, she turned on the phone and saw a bar of network signals. She almost started crying and immediately dialled her mother's number but there was no tone. She dialled another contact but perhaps due to late night no one responded. She also tried to send a text but there was some error in the settings and then she finally lost the signal. She kept switching her cell phone on and off over the next few months but it went in vain. By now, her mental state was getting worse and she could not think straight. It was after another six months when she was randomly dialling a number during thunderstorm that she found the ring tone. It was my number, though it soon got disconnected but she kept dialling this number every time she switched on her phone.
She asked me about her mother and brother. I told her that they both are fine. She was worried as to why she is still here. I told her that the compensation from airline has not yet been given to her mother. Her abductors are probably waiting for the same.
We then started planning an escape. She told me that she has tried a lot but could not open the chain lock. But I was focusing more on the tree to which we were tied. Our chain was about ten feet long and we could move around a bit. I told her to look for any sharp object like a blade or stone or anything that can help us cut the small tree slowly. After an elaborate search of the area, I found a small knife from the straw shed. So then, turn by turn, we started cutting the tree. After resting for an entire day on which the camel man had to come to replenish our supplies and then continuing with our escape plan for another two days, we were finally able to cut half of the stem. We then waited for the camel man to arrive on the third day. He was a short and weak person with a petite body. It was not difficult for me to wrap the chain around his neck and knock him down. With little help from Sumbal, I tied his hands and threw him in the shed. Then we applied all our remaining energy in pushing the tree down. We got our chains free from the tree but these were still tied to our ankles. We picked up our chains and ran towards the sitting camel and climbed over it.
We both sat on the camel and tried every trick but it would not get up from the ground. Then Sumbal made some noise which she had noticed during her one-year-long stay here, her noise made the camel finally get up from the ground. We still had to move it in the right direction. I knew the way from where the camel man arrived so I held its reins like I had seen in movies and started guiding it towards that direction. After travelling for about two hours, I saw the mobile tower in the far distance.
The compound door to the mobile tower was open and its keeper was sitting outside. I did not waste a second and jumped off the camel and grabbed the old man. I spoke to him using sign language and asked him to make the camel sit. Then we went inside the compound and closed the door behind. I took out Sumbal’s phone and switched it on. It showed full signal strength but as I started to dial the first number, its battery died.
I then turned to the old man who was sitting scared in one corner. I asked him about my stuff but he did not reply. I then started looking for the small room and finally found my bag including my phone from under his charpoy. Its battery was also dead but I had a charger in my bag and the generator was on. I inserted Sumbal's SIM into my phone and then made calls to everyone I knew including media persons, ambulance services and police emergency, as well as my family and friends. Sumbal also spoke to her mother, as she remembered her number.
Within the next few hours, the compound was surrounded by a mob of people and we were securely guided from there to the nearest medical facility. The media had a field day. Our kidnappers were never found. The person we tied in the desert shed had also escaped. We were, nevertheless, fortunate to be alive and back with our loved ones. Despite some of her psychological issues, I got married to Sumbal, for I was sure she will overcome them with the passage of time. •