The Hindustan Times, October 28, 2001
Leave Pak now, you’re in danger, HT reporter told
Aditya Sinha was covering the Afghan war for the Hindustan Times. He was expelled from Pakistan on Thursday. Here is a first-hand account of his expulsion.
Thirty-two days after I started reporting from Peshawar, the Government of Pakistan directed me to leave. “Immediately,” said the Interior Ministry’s order, a copy of which was handed to me by the Peshawar Special Branch.
It happened suddenly and unexpectedly. Just a week earlier, the Interior Ministry had miraculously extended my month-long visa by another 15 days. I hadn’t tried anything idiotic like the cross-dressing border-crossing so much in vogue with western journalists these days. I figured the Pakistanis were reconciled to the Hindustan Times filing copies for a few more days.
It was on Thursday morning, and I was at Nishtar Hall, waiting for the final day of a momentous Afghan tribal assembly. I had gone inside to get change for a Rs 500 note to pay the auto driver, and as I stepped out of the door, a man in a white salwar kameez and dark glasses asked me if I spoke Urdu. “Will you come with us please,” he said, as two other men stepped in. “We’re from the Special Branch and we would like to ask you a few questions.”
I was taken to the office of the SSP (security), where I spent anxious moments before the bearded Khalid Masood strolled in. After a look at my passport, and questions about whom I was writing for and where I was staying, he said: “You are in trouble. You have to leave the country.”
He wouldn’t say why, brushing me off with something about orders from Islamabad. I told him that I would leave, and that fortunately there was a flight to Delhi the next morning. “You have to leave today,” he said. “And I would advise you, for your own good, that you do not delay your departure. Who knows what may happen to you if you stay for another day? ”
That was clear enough. So I said that I wanted to go to Delhi because my wife was there. “No,” he said. “You can’t go to India. You will have to go to the country to which you belong, to the US. You book an air ticket via Dubai. My men will take you to the ticketing office.”
Apparently, the only international air destination from Peshwar is the UAE, and the only flight in operation after Sept. 11 was PIA’s. I offered to go to Karachi and catch another flight to a third country. “No, you can’t go anywhere in Pakistan now.”
Four men accompanied me to the guest house where I packed and paid the extremely nervous desk clerk. Another plain-clothed man arrived on a motorcycle and asked me about my meeting with the secretive Afghan women’s group, RAWA. “Who was it you met?” I had to give her name, feeling terrible about what would be in store for her. “Where?” Fortunately, she had come to my room. “What’s her telephone number?” Here I lied, if only to protect this poor Afghan. I said I contacted her through a journalist from the Dawn, whom I figured would not be bullied by the authorities.
My flight was at 10 p.m. nine hours were left. I spent the first in Masood’s office. He gave me a piercing look: “You are a US national, but on the inside you are Indian.” Soon he had to leave. “We are not arresting you, you will be in our protective custody,” he said. I wasn’t mistreated — it was just the tension of sitting in a dim room with a bunch of plain-clothesmen.
I was in touch with the office, and they got in touch with the US embassy, so I knew nothing unpleasant would happen. Finally, I was taken to the airport, where the PIA refused to put me on the flight because I did not have a UAE visa! My escorts had a private chat with the ranking PIA official, and all objections melted away.