What It’s Like to Be at Gunpoint and then Live to Talk About It

I was still with my parents and sister in Pakistan in 1996. My father was, at the time, a departmental director for the Pakistan Union of Seventh-day Adventists. My mom worked as the cashier for the union office. In those days, salaries for the union workers were still disbursed in hard cash on the 25th of each month was when the monthly salaries were given out. My mother, as cashier, had a key role to play in the days leading up to salary day, and also on other days, as she handled most cash reimbursements passed through her hands and the transactions were recorded in ledgers. The money was stored in a large walk-in safe that was securely locked with two long, old-fashioned looking, keys.

My father was out traveling the night of the 25th. He was expected back that night and I went to bed knowing that I would open the door when he came. It was a ritual we had both perfected over the years. My father never took his keys and late at night when he returned he would hit the window in my room and I would wake up and go to the door to open it and then get back into bed and go right back to bed without a major interruption to my sleep.

I woke up to the sound of my dog, Bandit, barking. I told him to shut up and was about to turn over and roll out of bed and go open the door for my dad, when I heard some rustling outside my window.”

I heard one man, whisper, “He is a man, shoot him!” I braced for the shot. The hair on the back of my neck standing was up, I lay perfectly still. Then, “I heard another reply back, “No, if I shoot him, everyone will wake up.” I realized this was not an ordinary night and lay perfectly still. They moved away from my window. For what seemed like hours but was actually a few seconds, I got out of bed and ran to the middle hallway, where I found my mother frantically talking on the phone. The emergency line in Pakistan was 17, in the dark she had dialed 15, it was the operator. She told them that we were experiencing a home invasion, and she gave our her address. The operator, replied, “Oh, you should call 17, that’s the number for the police”, and hung up. My mom tried to dial 17, but the phone went dead. The thieves had cut off our phone line.

She told me that she too had awakened to the dog barking and had heard the doorbell ring. She thought it was my father and had gone to open the door. But just as she reached for the doorknob, she asked, “Who was it? The campus guard replied, “Is the pastor in? I have some guests for him.” She replied, “No, he is out. Can you ask them to come in the morning?” He replied, “No, the guests are for you.” My mother immediately became suspicious. She wasn’t expecting any guests. And even if she did, her friends were the type that would call before coming. She looked through the window next to the door, and saw a man hiding behind the pillar. She bolted to the phone to call the police.

The men had rounded the back of our house and having found the back door securely locked proceeded to my sister’s room window. They cut through the screen and with a knife moved the curtain away. My sister woke up and ran into my parent’s room. My mother and I joined her.

The men outside called out my dad’s name, saying, “We know you are in the house, give us the keys to the safe.” We quietly waited. Then, they grew more urgent. With every passing minute, they knew that our neighbors may wake up and decide to look out their windows and call the police. So they decided to change tactics. They decided to shoot our dog. Bandit was a house pet. My sister was very attached to him and would often take him to bed at night. He was still growing but at a year and half he already had a big dog’s bark. It was his bark that kept the men from trying to enter our house. Our non-cooperation was beginning to wear thin.

When the lead thief gave the word to shoot the dog, my sister started to cry out-loud. It was then, they realized that we were in my parent’s room. They cut away the screen mesh and moved the curtain.

In Pakistan, all the windows have lateral bars on them and a screen mesh on the outside that keeps bugs from coming in. It is nearly impossible for a thief to come through the window because the bars are at least 2/3 of an inch thick.

My mom was standing near the door to her closet. My sister was near the window on the ground by the bed, and I was on the bottom side of the bed, near my dad’s closet. The man asked who we were. My sister replied, that’s my brother, and my mother.

He asked me to sit against the wall. I could see the glint of the moonlight on the handgun in his hand that he pressed up against our window. He told me that if I made any sudden movements he would pull the trigger.

For the next fifteen minutes, he and I talked. I bargained with him to save my life and that of my sister and mother. I tried to convince him that we didn’t have the keys to the safe and that he should go and “talk” to the treasurer of the union who was three houses down. The treasurer was an old British retiree who had come to serve a few years in Pakistan. I explained that no one could access the safe outside normal business hours and that he alone had the authority to open the safe and the keys with which to do it. It wasn’t entirely true, but it was a plausible story, and the thief bought it. My motivation at the spur of the moment was to save God’s money.

He went back to the street to confer with his team.

While he was talking with them, I asked my mother if we should use the revolver sitting in the bottom drawer. A few months back, a student of my father, had given him a gun and bullets for safe keeping. I remember him taking the bullets out of the gun and handing me the empty gun to hold. He explained to me the basics of gun safety, and then he took it back. That gun was less than three feet away. I could have used it to shoot in the air to scare off the thieves or shoot at the man holding us hostage. The noise would surely wake up the neighbors and our nightmare would be over. My mom said, no.

The man returned from his conference with his friends. His voice changed to a steely tone, as he asked me one more time to give the keys or else. I realized we had pushed the envelope as far as we could, my mother threw the keys at the window. He reached through the mesh and the bars to take them and left.

Twenty minutes later, he was back. He gave us the keys and my sister asked him to close the window mesh because mosquitoes were coming in to the room. He obliged and left.

We sat there in silence. Then my mom spoke up. God kept us safe. We should say a prayer to thank Him.

Then someone knocked on the door.

It was the same campus guard. He arms were tied behind his back. He pleaded with us to open the door and let him in. My mother said, “No. You broke our trust.” He replied, “I couldn’t help it then, they would have shot me. Please you have to untie me. My arms are hurting.”

I told him we would open the door for just a second, and let him in. We checked the pillar to see if there was anyone hiding, there wasn’t. And we opened the door and he rushed in. We untied him and told him to go to a missionary’s house and wake him and his wife up.

The guard left and then returned with the missionary with his baseball bat. He heard the story, and decided we needed to go to the General Secretary of the Union and wake him up.

Both the missionary and I and the guard walked across campus to talk to the General Secretary.

We reached his house and knocked on his door. When he opened the door, he was wearing black from the waist down. I told him the story even as I had this feeling that this wasn’t the first time he was experiencing it.

We returned to the missionary’s home where my sister and mother were. We waited till daylight.

By daylight, everybody knew. Rumors were rife. People questioned how the money was stolen and yet we had the keys. Since when did thieves return keys?

One hundred and sixty miles away, my father heard the news. He heard that that his house had been invaded and the Church’s money had been stolen. He boarded the bus and feared for the worst for us.

I’ll never forget when he arrived home. He gave us hugs and listened as my sister filled him on how brave Bandit was and how he had protected us from the thieves. My mother sat silently by. Afterwards they had a moment together in the kitchen alone. She started to cry. It was the first time that she had given into the feelings she must have had during the entire ordeal.

It was months before we got over the shock from the incident. We didn’t sleep in our house for a week or two, and then we took an extended vacation on top of it.

To this day, I cannot forget the sights, the sounds and the feelings, I experienced that night. Some times in my dreams, my mind rewinds back to when I first awoke hearing Bandit bark. I have several versions of the dream: one where I run to the bedroom and fire off the revolver. Another where I have another bigger gun and I train it on the door and challenge the thieves to come in. And still another of taking a shot through the bathroom window, at the street where I knew the co-conspirators were standing and injuring or killing all of them. In other versions, they break through the door, and then I wake up in cold sweat.

It is hard to explain what it is like to bargain for your life to someone who has never experienced it. It is still harder to hear after yet another shooting tragedy of how if we were all armed, those tragedies would be less frequent. It is equally hard to hear people say that all guns should be taken away. I guess my feelings about the issue of gun control depends on how able I think I would have been to pull the trigger on an other human being in defense of my own family. The feeling varies from day to day.

I’m thankful for many things. The chief being: the gift of life. I’m also thankful that my father decided not to return that night. Knowing my father, had they caught him, he would have had to have been tortured or shot before he gave up the keys to God’s money. And the trauma of having him plead to me to hand over the keys would have been unbearable.

Many afterward, hailed our “bravery” and our calmness in the face of danger. I was fifteen and my sister was 12. Internally, I could barely contain my rage. The feeling of helplessness and the anger of having someone bring so much fear to my family. It is a feeling that has lessened over the years but hasn’t completely gone away.

I suspect for many, it is precisely the fear and the fear of helplessness that motivates many to keep a firearm in their house. I don’t begrudge them.

I still feel that an honest conversation about the impact of guns and the ability of guns to multiply the causalities needs to be acknowledged by the pro-gun ownership lobby. I think a person’s right to protect themselves and their family from bodily harm should also be acknowledged by anti-gun lobby.

There are some steps that are easy and can be taken by both sides:

  1. Have an honest conversation without questioning someone’s faith or their love of the country.
  2. Mandate gun safety training. Mandate gun locks/cabinets.
  3. Employ biometric locks on guns. Too many kids pick up guns and shoot themselves, their siblings or their parents. It can be stopped.
  4. Eliminate loopholes for buying guns online and across states.
  5. Have the same gun restrictions across states. You shouldn’t be able to buy a gun in Arizona that isn’t legal in California etc.
  6. Mental health starts with better program funding for those who need it. Fund it completely every year at State and Federal levels.
  7. Research: We need more research into gun violence. And this needs to be funded fully.

Any one who has ever faced the barrel of the gun and lived to talk about it will never be the same. If you do meet a victim or know someone who has been a victim here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Let their healing take place on their time. Don’t try to minimize their experience.
  2. Don’t politicize their statements or testimony either way: pro or against gun ownership. Don’t say, “So, and so had this experience and they still advocate for…”
  3. Understand that some healing takes place over years. And that they might never get there.
  4. Saying God will keep you safe. Or God kept you safe during your experience does not always bring the comfort you think it would.
  5. Survivor’s guilt can happen. This is when a person may feel like they shouldn’t have been saved or someone else was more worthy than them.
  6. Encourage them to seek professional help: From a pastor or a clinically trained therapist or psychologist who specializes in this type of healing.
  7. God does provide security but sometimes He allows things to take their course. This means that bad things and happen to good people.

Since that time, we have moved on as a family. Bandit served us many more years until he passed away from old age and depression. (He stopped eating for a while when I packed up and left for the States. He completely stopped eating when my sister started packing her clothes to leave for nursing school. He died about two weeks later.) We believe that he was the difference between those men breaking in to our house and staying outside like they did.

Above all, we thank God for protecting us that day. And I hope my not using the gun led those who perpetrated that horror on us will consider their ways and repent of it.

Philosophically, I have arrived at the place where I feel like whether to or live or die, it is up to God. After recovering from cancer, I feel that God has decided to continue to extend my life, and I am trying to be as useful as possible to others. I realize that some will never have that chance due to gun violence. I’m trying to make the most of my gift of life.

I do think that someone on the inside, someone we knew, was involved in the crime against our family.

I leave following up on that matter up to God.

I offer my prayers and whatever I can to support anyone who has lost a loved one from this recent tragedy in San Bernardino, CA or elsewhere around the world. Obviously my story is nowhere near what happened there, or at Newton or Columbine or hundreds of other places like them. There are still some things that we have as individuals can do, some as faith-communities, and still others as citizens of this nation. I pray that God will help us find the wisdom and the courage to find better solutions together.

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