Individual tragedies easily go unnoticed in Pakistan. People are too busy grappling with corruption, militant violence, poverty and an infrastructure so dysfunctional that everyone, everywhere endures daily power outages.
Ziaullah Khan and his wife, Shazia, are the victims of one of the cruelest crimes of all. Yet in this troubled land, they're struggling to get anyone to listen — let alone help.
A Stolen Baby Boy
They're a young couple, just starting out. She's a teacher; he works in a print shop. They live in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.
Just under four weeks ago, their first child, a boy, was born in the city's biggest public hospital, the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS).
Pakistan is a patriarchal, gender-prejudiced, traditional society; first-born males are especially celebrated. The arrival of their baby was greeted with delight by the couple's family.
"It was a moment of joy," recalls Ziaullah. "Everyone came in with gifts for the baby. My sisters came to hospital wearing their wedding dresses."
Their euphoria didn't last long. Less than a day after the baby was born, he was stolen.
Ziaullah says a middle-aged woman, who'd been hanging around the maternity ward posing as a staffer, walked out with him in the middle of the night and disappeared.
Shazia was asleep, recovering from a cesarean section. She only spent a few hours cuddling her newborn son. Grief-stricken, she remembers him as "the most beautiful baby in the ward, and very healthy too."
The hospital says there were no functioning CCTV cameras (these have since been installed, it says) and that security guards saw nothing. The couple dispute this. They suspect collusion by hospital staff, which the hospital denies.
Four weeks on, Shazia is still living in the ward; she refuses to leave until her boy is returned.
An 'Insult To Humanity'
The family has set up a protest camp outside, covering windows and walls with signs appealing to the government, the hospital authorities and human rights organizations.
"Abduction of a child from an innocent mother is an insult to humanity," reads one slogan.
This "insult to humanity" happens alarmingly often in Pakistan. NPR was unable to acquire reliable data on the exact number of babies stolen every year. Police unofficially say these abductions are fairly common. A newborn was stolen from the same hospital last year; its corpse was later found.
Police say there are many possible motives for this crime. Babies are sometimes snatched by gangs who make large sums of money by using tiny kids to beg on the streets.
These abductions are sometimes acts of revenge, say police. Sometimes they're the result of family inheritance disputes (in feudal areas, the arrival of a newborn boy can mean someone else doesn't inherit the farm, after all). And sometimes boys are abducted and switched with girls.
The most common explanation, though, is that babies are stolen for illicit sale to childless couples.
That's what parliamentarian Zahid (Zahir) Khan thinks probably happened to Ziaullah and Shazia's baby. He's helping them pressure the authorities to track down their baby.
Khan says, in practice, there is little to prevent criminals from selling someone's baby to a childless couple.
"This is a failure of the state. There is no proper system of registration, so the thief will have the baby registered, saying, 'He is my baby,' " Khan says. "Nobody will demand a certificate from the doctor."
Ongoing Protest And Pleas
Ziaullah and Shazia aren't sure why their baby was abducted. They insist a family feud isn't a factor. "I rule that out. No member of my family would do that," says Shazia.
They, too, think the thieves probably intend to sell their boy to a childless couple. They also speculate that Islamist militants took him for future use as a suicide bomber — though officials consider this far-fetched.
The couple's primary concern is not the motive. They simply want the return of their son.
"This is a very cruel society," says Ziaullah, tearfully. "You think of your child. You think about his future, the way you will bring him up. Then someone just steals him."
The couple say they're willing to forgive the woman who abducted him, just so long as she gives back their baby.
Until they have their boy in their arms, Ziaullah and Shazia plan to carry on protesting at the hospital — refusing to leave and determined to make the world listen.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Individual tragedies can easily go unnoticed in places like Pakistan, with its corruption, violence and poverty. NPR's Philip Reeves tells us about a wife and husband who are victims of one of the cruelest crimes of all, and yet, they're struggling to get anyone to listen.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This should be a joyous time. Ziaullah Khan and his wife, Shazia - she's a teacher; he works in a print shop. They're just starting out, and they've just had their first baby. Ziaullah says the family was so excited when their baby boy was born
ZIAULLAH KHAN: (Through interpreter) It was a moment of joy. Everyone came in with gifts for the baby. My sisters came to the hospital wearing their wedding dresses.
REEVES: Shazia was so proud.
SHAZIA KHAN: (Through interpreter) He was the most beautiful baby in the ward, and very healthy, too.
REEVES: Their joy didn't last long. Less than a day later, their baby was stolen. The couple say a woman posing as a hospital staffer took him from the maternity ward in the middle of the night. Shazia says she was asleep, recovering from a caesarean section. That was nearly four weeks ago. Shazia's still living in the ward. She's refusing to leave until her boy is returned.
S. KHAN: (Through interpreter) People come here full of hope. I'm not leaving empty-handed.
REEVES: You mean, you're planning to stay.
S. KHAN: Yes, until my baby discovered.
REEVES: Shazia and Ziaullah and their family have set up a protest camp on the steps of the hospital. That's the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, not far from Parliament and the Supreme Court. The baby's uncle, Atika Rehmam (ph), shows me the signs they've made.
There's a sign right here hanging on the wall
ATIKA REHMAM: Abducting a child from an innocent mother is an insult for the humanity.
REEVES: For humanity - an insult to humanity
REHMAM: Yeah. We haven't any enemy. We need our child back.
REEVES: There seems to be no reliable data showing exactly how often babies are stolen in Pakistan. Police, speaking unofficially, say baby theft's fairly common. A baby was stolen from this same hospital last year and later found dead. Sometimes girls get switched for boys, often, though, babies are just abducted, but why?
Dozens of small kids in spotless blue uniforms are filing out of class. This is a school and children's home for boys as young as two. In this country, children face dangers of many kinds. Most of these kids have lost parents to sectarian attacks or in the war between Islamist militants and Pakistan's government. Security's a top priority, says Sonia Shahid (ph), a philanthropist who runs this place. Sonia says she's often contacted by parents hoping to adopt kids. She believes that in Pakistan babies are often stolen for childless couples.
SONIA SHAHID: Many, many women are childless, so they need a child. The only thing is that she doesn't steal that kid. There is always a third person who get her that child.
REEVES: And that's a criminal enterprise.
SHAHID: Very, very criminal, yes.
REEVES: Politician Zahid Khan is helping Ziaullah and Shazia pressure the authorities to track down their baby. He suspects the boy was indeed stolen for adoption. Selling someone else's baby to a childless couple is all too easy here, says Zahid.
ZAHID KHAN: (Through interpreter) There is no proper system of registration, so the thief will have the baby registered, saying he is my baby. Nobody will demand a certificate from the doctor.
REEVES: Police say babies are also sometimes snatched by gangs who use tiny kids as street beggars. And sometimes these abductions are about revenge or a family inheritance dispute. Ziaullah and Shazia aren't sure why their baby was stolen. Probably for adoption, they say. Shazia says it's definitely not because of a family feud.
S. KHAN: (Through interpreter) I rule that out. No member of my family would do that.
REEVES: Ziaullah believes hospital staff colluded with the thieves. The hospital says it's investigated and found no evidence of this. The couple's chief concern, though, is the return of their son.
S. KHAN: (Foreign language spoken).
REEVES: "We'll forgive the woman who stole him," says Shazia. "We just want our baby back." Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.