x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Painful wait for family after boy is snatched by gang

After Saahil Saeed, 5, was kidnapped in Pakistan his family are fearing for his life and a nation is reflecting upon its rising crime rate.

Visitors gather at the family home in Jhelum to offer comfort to relatives of Saahil Saeed.
Visitors gather at the family home in Jhelum to offer comfort to relatives of Saahil Saeed.

JHELUM // Raja Shahid Bashir did not think twice before opening the gate of his house late on Wednesday to allow a taxi to enter. His brother, Raja Naqash Saeed, was ready to fly back from Pakistan to his home in Oldham, England, with his five-year-old son, Saahil.

Mr Saeed's wife was waiting in Britain for her family to return after a two-week trip to Pakistan to visit Saahil's sick grandmother. Their suitcases were packed, the tickets and passports checked. Saahil's passport was maroon, as he was born in the UK, while Mr Saeed carried his green Pakistani passport. Their flight was due to leave from Islamabad, about 100km north, early on Thursday. They were waiting for a package to arrive from a relative before going to the airport.

Mr Bashir nodded to the taxi driver and was about to go inside to let his brother know his ride had arrived when four armed men rushed into the compound and forced their way into the house. "It happened so quickly that I didn't even realise what was going on till the intruders had barged their way into our house and waved their guns and grenades around," he said. "The gunmen forced all 10 of us into a room and began harassing us," said Mr Bashir.

The men tied the hands and feet of all the family members except young Saahil, who they kept to one side. The terrified child began whimpering and crying but no one was allowed to comfort him, Mr Bashir said. The child's grandmother, Tasneem Bashir, said the men swore at the family, and were very rough with the other men. "They didn't hurt the women but with the men they were hitting them with their shoes, slapping them around and were pretty rough," she said.

The gunmen began beating Mr Saeed, shouting insults and threatening to take away his son if he did not pay them £100,000 (Dh540,000). "I told them I did not have this money," he said, with tears in his eyes. "I begged them to leave me and my family alone." Mr Saeed is unemployed, but previously worked at a bakery in Britain. His wife has a job in a supermarket in Manchester. Despite his insistence that he did not have the money, the men kept beating him and threatening to take his son. "At first I thought they were joking, but it turned out they were serious," said Mr Saeed.

As well as taking young Saahil, the gunmen ransacked the house, taking jewels, two or three mobile phones, a couple of cameras, a laptop and some cash. As soon as the assailants left, Mr Saeed and his family began trying to get the boy back. One person sat next to the phone in case the kidnappers called. The women recited prayers. Mr Saeed and his brothers contemplated whether to contact the police.

Eventually they did, and the story made headlines across the world. While Saahil still has not been found, police have made at least two arrests, including the taxi driver. Raja Tahir Bashir, the police investigator, said officers were "doing everything possible and everything in their control to get this innocent child back". In the city of Jhelum, rumours circulated about the possible motivation for the abduction. Some suggested a distant family member, perhaps envious of the Saeed family's perceived glamorous life in Britain, was behind the kidnapping.

Others, however, have pointed to a growing number of kidnapping-for-ransom gangs operating in the country. Though nationwide statistics on abductions for ransom are difficult to find, the home minister of Sindh province, Dr Zulfiqar Ali Mirza, told local politicians that in the city of Karachi alone, 37 people had been held for ransom in the first six months of 2008, out of which 34 were recovered and one was killed.

Kidnappings of children in Pakistan run at several hundred a year, and the nature varies, from abductions for ransom by criminal and militant groups as well as kidnappings to convert children into beggars or militant fighters. By midday yesterday, no call had come from Saahil's kidnappers. Mr Saeed has said he will do his best to get the money they want, but he has also offered to change places with his son. "I will do whatever needs to be done but please just return my son," he said

Saahil's mother, Akila Naqqash, has also made a televised plea to the kidnappers to release her "happy, bubbly son", and not to harm him. Ms Naqash, also the mother of Anisha, four, and Hafsah, 21, told her son's kidnappers that they had no money and were not wealthy people. Muhammad Khaleeq, the secretary general of the Pakistan Association of Dubai, said there was growing concern about rising crime in his home country.

"Generally, we all know that the situation at home is not very desirable," he said. "A common man definitely does not feel as secure as he used to feel a few years ago, but honestly speaking it's my homeland and that doesn't stop me from going back home any time." Shuaid Iqbal Nazir, a 35-year-old Pakistani who works for Dubai Municipality, said incidents like the kidnapping of Saahil were disconcerting. "A similar incident has happened to my family," he said. "One of my father's cousins was kidnapped for two months and after that he was recovered."

Mr Nazir said his family paid ransom for his relative's release about two years ago. "My family members approached the president, the prime minister, all the levels that they could have done, but no one rescued him. "Law enforcement agencies failed to recover him and he was in an influential position in one of the important banks in Pakistan. "These things happen but we cannot avoid going to Pakistan because our family members are over there. I cannot avoid meeting my mother and my other family members just with the fear that kidnapping will happen.

"There are other incidents like suicide attacks and these things but an incident can happen anywhere." Meanwhile, Saahil's family sits and waits. His grandmother pleaded with the kidnappers: "I am begging them, whoever they are, to please return my grandson. Please." @Email:newsdesk@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Kathryn Lewis in Abu Dhabi