Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a former Reuters correspondent, is a journalist based in Islamabad.
On Friday evening I drove back home to Islamabad after covering Pakistan’s July 25 general elections from the eastern city of Lahore. As I fumbled in my purse for my keys, the front door rattled and I heard footsteps on the other side.
“Madam, is someone else home?” my driver, Shaukat, asked. I live alone.
I dialed the police emergency helpline and explained that someone was inside my house. Commandos brandishing automatic rifles soon arrived and entered my home, going from room to room, looking under beds and behind sofas.
Nothing was missing. In the lounge, we found one window, which locks from the inside, open. One officer said that maybe the intruder had left through that window. “Or maybe some khalai makhlooq was here,” another one joked.
He was using the Urdu word for “extraterrestrials” to suggest that I might have imagined the movements and sounds I was describing. The irony was lost on him: In Pakistan, khalai makhlooq is often used to refer to the army and its spy agencies, part of a rich political vocabulary born out of fear of openly criticizing the country’s most powerful institutions.
These “aliens” have for years been accused of piling pressure on civilian governments to tow their line, of threatening and abducting journalists and human rights defenders who speak up against them, of “disappearing” ordinary citizens on terrorism or other charges without due process and, most recently, of helping to rig a landmark general election in which cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan has emerged the undisputed winner.
In the hours that followed, after the police left and friends arrived to comfort me, I thought back to the several phone calls I had received in previous days from “well-wishing” army officers warning me not to write against the army. I remembered the words of one brigadier who called me three times about a tweet in which I reported about the army’s blocking of Dawn, the country’s oldest newspaper, saying that my words had generated a lot of anger among my Twitter followers and that “if one of them takes matters into his own hands, you will have only yourself to blame.”