Aug. 26, 2011, an ordinary day. I was driving to work on the same road in Lahore that I took every day, and my mind was busy with the mundane. A car blocked the road, but I didn’t give it much thought. Then five masked men put a gun to my head, pulled me out of the car and my world spun horribly out of control.
Right now, I can’t tell all of the details of my capture or my release for security reasons. Someday I hope to be able to recount the full story. But I can say for sure that mine was no ordinary kidnapping.
Just seven months earlier, my father, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province, had been shot dead by his guard for criticizing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, after a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy. With my kidnapping, there was more at stake than just money. My captors wanted the release of their “Muslim brothers” being held in jails across Pakistan. I knew that was going to be difficult, and that because of their ludicrous demands, my release would take time. In such dark moments it is easy to sink into despair. But I clung to my faith and the Quran, the memory of my courageous father, and the love of my family.
The torture started in my fourth month of captivity. The people who kidnapped me were from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or I.M.U. — one of Pakistan’s most feared militant groups. They found perverse pleasure in torturing me. I found solace in prayer. I prayed for the fortitude to bear as much pain as my torturers could inflict until they broke from inflicting it. I often thought of my father, who had suffered political persecution in the 1980s under the dictatorship of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. He would say physical pain touches only the surface; you must never let it break your spirit.
It is difficult to say which was worse, the physical torture or the excruciating tricks my captors played on my mind. They showed me printouts of Twitter posts to convince me that I had been forgotten. They shared agonizing details of how easy it would be to target my mother, how vulnerable my family was. They showed me a picture of my wife on a pilgrimage in Mecca and claimed she was a hypocrite feigning piety. They showed me my sister’s tweet on Nelson Mandela’s death and said it represented fealty to an infidel. My brother’s photograph at a social event was proof of my family’s errant ways. But this “evidence” gave me strength. I knew that my family was well, and that they, and many others around the world, were thinking of me and praying for my safety and release.
Solitary confinement, loneliness, doubt and anxiety can do strange things to your mind. You start questioning your sanity. The faces that you have loved so much recede into darkness; voices that you heard so often fade into obscurity. But memory has its own magic. I could not go home, but I could bring my home to me. In my mind I visited familiar places. I conjured up my boisterous friends, one by one, and imagined myself to be a stand-up comedian and developed comedy routines for each friend. These practiced routines are now coming in handy as I see my friends again.
There were some 30-odd months when I had brief, unmonitored, almost surreal contact with the outside world. One of my guards, like myself, was a Manchester United fan, and every other week he would sneak a radio into my cell and we would listen to soccer games. For him, this was an illicit pleasure. He believed that playing or even listening to soccer was a sin. For me, it was a window to the outside world. Getting soccer news kept me sane. “You must surely be the only United fan in this position,” I would tell myself. “They are playing and winning for you.”
Looking back, I can see that I was always free. No one can imprison you except yourself. My abductors could make my life intolerable, but as long as I held on to my sanity, I was liberated. I was in God’s hands, not theirs, and I knew that He would protect me and take me home. He did. He worked miracles: I survived drone strikes and war, I lived through multiple illnesses without treatment, I was shot, mentally and physically tortured, I lived in abysmal living conditions, and survived the rout of the I.M.U. by the Afghan Taliban in November 2015.
I could spend a lifetime being bitter and asking why this happened to me. Surely some of the bad that befalls us is not our fault, but is merely the function of someone else’s greed, malice or cruelty. But there is a higher purpose, a cosmic design. I know that how you react to what happens to you, with what grace you handle misfortune, and the strength and bravery with which you tackle hardship are the things that matter. This is what God sees and judges.
There was something divine in what happened on Feb. 29, 2016. At the crack of dawn that day, at perhaps the exact moment that a Taliban elder was opening my prison door to set me free, hundreds of miles away, a cell door in Rawalpindi was opening and the executioner was readying the gallows to hang my father’s assassin.
Then, March 8, 2016, an extraordinary day. It had taken me eight days and several stories to hitchhike my way from Oruzgan, Afghanistan, to Pakistan’s Balochistan Province through rain, hail and sun. The motorbike I was riding hit a highway, and I knew this one led to freedom. As I turned onto the road taking me home, I thought of the moment I had spoken to my mother and my wife after my first six months in captivity. I had been told that I was going to be shot after the phone call and that I should say farewell to my family. I told them with finality in my voice, the same words my father once wrote to my mother from jail: that I was not made from a wood that burns easily. Having said this to them gave me peace, and this peace was my strength for four and a half years. It had taken a long time, but here I was, coming back to change that goodbye into a hello.
Shahbaz Taseer is a Pakistani businessman.