KABUL — The men and women have little in common, except they all seem to have vanished into thin air.
Some disappeared in the middle of a Taliban attack. Some fled Afghanistan and were never heard from again. Some went missing weeks ago; others have been gone more than two decades.
But twice a week, tearful relatives call out to them on a radio show that has come to serve as a disturbing window into modern Afghanistan: “In Search of the Missing.”
After three decades of war, an estimated 1 million Afghans are missing, a number that grows every day as the fight against the Taliban continues. Their relatives know what it means to disappear here — the probability that people have landed in a mass grave or a prison or a smuggler’s safe house. But maybe, against the odds, their loved ones are waiting to be found.
For many Afghans, the 10-year-old radio program is their only hope. It has helped reunite more than a dozen families and provided closure to many more. In the process, it has become one of Afghanistan’s most popular programs.
The idea is simple. Anyone can call the program’s phone line and leave a 20-second message describing a missing person. The message is then broadcast, with the hope that someone in the audience has seen him or her.
To listen to “In Search of the Missing” is to hear the tragedies plaguing this country.
“My brother disappeared after hiding himself in a compound during a Taliban onslaught,” one caller said last month.
“My brother was on his way to Iran, and we have no news about him,” another said.
“I haven’t heard from my son for eight months,” a woman said. “I am so anxious and sad.”
Each week, hundreds of Afghans leave messages to be aired on the program. That number has steadily increased over the past 10 years.
Zarif Nazar, a producer at Radio Azadi, the local name for U.S.-funded Radio Free Afghanistan, started the program in 2004 after hearing dozens of stories from Afghan friends and relatives in search of missing loved ones. Nazar knows well how families are fractured by war — he fled Afghanistan for Germany at the beginning of the Soviet occupation in 1979.
He now lives in Prague, where the program is recorded, but many of his relatives remain in far-flung corners of Afghanistan. Twice a week, he broadcasts a stream of tragic calls into his homeland.
“It touches the soul of the Afghan people like nothing else,” Nazar said.
Afghans are the largest single group among the world’s refugees — about 2.5 million people. The country of roughly 30 million also has 600,000 internally displaced people, one of the world’s highest ratios. Because of the urgency with which those people fled their homes, many families are missing someone.
Thousands of expatriate Afghans listen to Radio Azadi from their homes in Europe or North America. Others are in Afghan villages with little access to modern communications tools such as computers. Many of the missing, Nazar accepts, probably are dead.
There are girls who ran away from home after being forced into marriage. There are boys who inexplicably disappeared to Pakistani religious schools, known as madrassas. There are people who vanished in the midst of Soviet bombardments, or during the melee of the civil war of the 1990s.
“Throughout decades of conflict, massive displacements, deaths, and disappearances, ‘missing people’ have become a part of every Afghan’s life,” said a report last year from Physicians for Human Rights.
Still, many Afghans didn’t realize the scale of the problem until “In Search of the Missing.” Now, nearly a million people listen to the show each week, Nazar said.
The show’s success stories include extraordinary transnational reunions. Siblings in Canada found their father in Iran 15 years after his arrest by the Taliban. A family found a loved one who had been sent to the Soviet Union some 20 years earlier, when he was a child.
“Khan Agha, my son. My heart has been in pain without you,” Bibi Fatima said through tears in a live broadcast of the latter reunion.
“I'm so happy to hear your voice, mother,” Khan Agha responded.
Because there is no organized Afghan effort to catalogue or locate the missing, many Afghans call the radio program rather than the Afghan government, preferring to place their trust in the program’s many listeners.
Last year, Dutch investigators published a list of 5,000 missing men and women who were killed by the Afghan communist government in 1978 and 1979. The list, originally compiled by the Afghan government but not previously made public, provided closure to a fraction of the families on decades-long quests to locate relatives.
“There are thousands of people who have no proof. Maybe they think their relatives were killed, but they can’t be sure,” said Hafiz Rasikh, the head of political affairs for the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, a group that has demanded clarity from the government on the issue of missing persons.
Mass graves have been unearthed accidentally during construction projects across Afghanistan over the past 10 years, but the government has done little to catalogue the victims or their killers. A report on the graves from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission has not been released because of government concerns that it could implicate top officials and prompt civil strife.
Ziauddin, a farmer in rural Badakhshan province who, like many Afghans, goes by one name, tried Radio Azadi because he knew of no other option. His brother, Din Mohammad, was last seen about 15 years ago in the middle of the civil war, when he was fighting for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
Since then, Ziauddin has relied on word of mouth to try to find his brother. It’s the only option for many here, given the lack of Internet access.
“We don’t know if he’s dead or alive or anything about him,” Ziauddin said in a telephone interview. “Don’t have money or time to go to big cities to search.”
A few years ago, he started listening to “In Search of the Missing.” After hearing dozens of messages that described men like his brother, he called Radio Azadi to leave one himself.
“I still hope that if he is alive, he will hear our message,” Ziauddin said.