PESHAWAR: Families of the 26 girls from Bajaur Agency, who were being held hostage in Karachi reportedly in connection with a "debt dispute", claim they had no knowledge of the developments that led to their alleged captivation.
Investigators have started questioning the suspects involved in what has now been taken up as a case of ‘human trafficking’, officials said.
However, the parents of the girls said they had sent their daughters away in hopes of securing a better future for them in the wake of the Taliban's growing influence across the tribal area.
“I am clueless as to what has happened. I sent my daughter to Karachi because the education was free,” Tulla Khan from the Pashat area of Salarzai Tehsil, Bajaur, told The Express Tribune via telephone.
“We sent our daughters after many other girls from poor families were also sent to be enrolled in these madrassas,” he said.
However, Khan said he was not aware of the entire details of his 9-year-old daughter who had been studying at the madrassa for the past two years and eight months.
He said, “These were not the first girls that were sent.”
He said that his nephews who, lived in Sohrab Goth, visited his daughter regularly and brought her home during the holidays.
Mir Zaman Khan, the father of another girl who had been studying at the madrassa, said his daughter was part of the group that had left for Karachi to study at a seminary 11 months ago.
“Since then, I have had little contact with her,” he said.
“But it’s a trend around here to send the girls to study in Karachi,” he said, adding that he was waiting for confirmation from the political administration of the agency that had contacted him regarding his daughter.
Mir Zaman said he knew little as to what had happened to her.
Tribal Maliks from the area told The Express Tribune that the trend to send girls to Karachi developed in 2008 when militants exercised considerable influence in the area.
“The elite send their children abroad, while the poor had no choice but to enroll them in seminaries that offered free education,” one of the elders said.
“While we intervened initially, we could not stop them because they thought we were impeding their religious education,” the elder said, explaining that the consequences of such an allegation could have been deadly at the time.
Investigators have taken three people into custody, of which one was identified as Qari Saifullah -- the nephew of the woman who took the children to Karachi.
“The details of what actually happened remain murky,” a senior administration official told The Express Tribune.
“While it seems that the girls might have been sold to Qari Ayub in Karachi, there is evidence that a large number of girls from the previous years who went to study in Karachi had returned,” he said.
Meanwhile, the governor of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa sent an assistant political agent from Bajaur to Karachi to identify the girls and bring them back.
Fata Additional Chief Secretary Azam Khan issued orders to release funds on an immediate basis to have the girls on a chartered plane which would land at the Peshawar airport, the Fata secretariat said.
However, the investigation is still ongoing and the time-frame for the return of the girls cannot be specified, said officials.
Shahbudin Khan, an MNA from Bajaur, whose village the girls belong to, told The Express Tribune from Karachi that he had requested the Sindh government to let him meet the girls and that he had landed in Karachi late last night after hearing about the incident.
“I was not allowed to meet them,” he said, “The facts could be contrary to what is being said.”
The MNA added that despite being requested to meet the children twice by the governor of K-P, he was not permitted to do so.
“These are our kids,” he said. “I had come to take them back home, but it seems the issue is now of political point-scoring rather than a humanitarian one.”
In a meeting between commissioner Karachi and representatives of the K-P governor's team, it was decided that the children would be presented before a judicial magistrate where they would be asked if they would want to return home, a spokesperson of the Fata secretariat told The Express Tribune.
Assistant Political Agent Fayaz Sherpao, who was part of the meeting, said they had informed the Sindh government that the children would be taken back to Bajaur Agency, and the issue would be settled in accordance with the legislative rules in Fata.
The children whose parents had arrived would be identified and handed over to their parents, he said, adding that those whose relatives are in Karachi would also be verified before any further step is taken.