THE slave traders came for 10-year-old Akash Aziz as he played cops and robbers in his dusty village in eastern Punjab.
Akash, still in the maroon V-neck sweater and tie that he had worn to school that day, was a "robber". But as he crouched behind a wall, waiting for the schoolfriend designated as the "cop" to find him, a large man with a turban and a beard grabbed him from behind and clamped a cloth over his nose and mouth before he could cry for help.
He recalls a strange smell and a choking sensation. "Then I fainted," said Akash, a delicate little child from a loving family that takes pride in his enthusiasm for English lessons at school.
Akash woke up in a dark room with a bare brick floor and no windows. The heat was suffocating. As he languished there over the next month, 19 other panic-stricken boys were thrown into the room with him.
The children, all Christians, had fallen into the hands of Gul Khan, a wealthy Islamic militant and leading member of Jamaat-ud Daawa (JUD), a group linked to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Khan lives near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, but when in the Punjab he stays at the JUD's headquarters in Muridke, near Lahore, where young men can be seen practising martial arts with batons on rolling green lawns patrolled by guards with Kalashnikovs. Osama Bin Laden funded the centre in the late 1990s.
The JUD, which claims to help the poor, says that it has created a "pure Islamic environment" at Muridke that is superior to western "depravity". Khan's activities explode that myth. He planned to sell his young captives to the highest bidder, whether into domestic servitude or the sex trade. The boys knew only that they were for sale.
This is the story of the misery that Akash and his friends, aged six to 12, endured in captivity; of their rescue by Christian missionaries who bought their freedom and tried to expose the kidnappers; and of the children's moving reunions with their loved ones who had believed they were dead.
Last week I had the privilege of taking six of the boys home to their families, including Akash. The astonishment of mothers and fathers who had given up hope and the fervent, tearful embraces made these some of the most intensely emotional scenes I have witnessed.
That joy was a long time coming. On the first day after his abduction, Akash was left in no doubt about the brutality of the regime he would endure.
"I drank from a glass of water and one of the kidnappers pushed me so hard I fell on the glass and it broke in my hands," he said. His slender fingers still bear the scars. No more glass for him, he was told: he was fit to drink only from a tin cup.
The boys were ordered not to talk, pray or play. Five of them were playing a Pakistani equivalent of scissors, paper, stone one day when the guards burst in and beat them savagely on their backs and heads. On another occasion Akash was repeatedly struck by guards yelling "What is in your house?" "I kept telling them, We have nothing'," he said anxiously. "I was so afraid they would go back and rob my father and mother." It is painful to imagine blows raining down on the ribs of so slight a figure.
The guards mostly sat outside playing cards, shaded from the 116F heat by a tree. But the boys were allowed out of their room only to use a filthy hole-in-the-ground lavatory. All they could see were high walls around the two-room building that was their prison. The other room was always locked.
The children were fed once a day on chapatis and dhal, but never enough. Akash slept huddled against the others on the floor and woke each morning a little more resigned to his fate.
"We just sat around the walls thinking," Akash said. "We were remembering our homes and our mothers and fathers and hoping someone would rescue us. But nobody came."
I first saw Akash in a photograph among those of 20 boys who were being touted for sale in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan on the Afghanistan border renowned as a smugglers' paradise and home to fugitives of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. He was just another black market commodity along with guns, grenades and hashish.
Unbeknown to Akash, a Pakistani Christian missionary and an American evangelist who runs a tiny charity called Help Pakistani Children had seen the boys' photographs and taken up their cause. Neither man is willing to be identified today for fear of the consequences.
An elaborate sting was conceived. The Pakistani missionary would pose as a Lahore businessman named Amir seeking boys to use as beggars who would give their cash to him.
The two men would also collect evidence that could be used in any police action against the kidnappers. "We knew if we just purchased the boys, the slavers would just restock. We would be fuelling the slave trade," said the American evangelist, who asked to be referred to as "Brother David".
They had no idea how hazardous their enterprise was until Amir used some black market contacts to engineer a meeting with Khan and discovered his links to the JUD. "We realised we were out of our depth," Brother David said ruefully. But they persevered and prayed a good deal.
Amir played his part well. Within a week he had bought three of the boys for $5,000 (£2,650) and put down a $2,500 deposit on the 17 others, including Akash.
The first three were handed over on a Quetta street in April and returned to their families. But Khan wanted $28,500 for the lot. He gave Amir two months to come up with the money, saying he did not mind if the deadline was missed: he could earn more if he sold them for their organs, he claimed.
Brother David went home to America to raise funds. Amir travelled again and again to Quetta, taking Khan to lunch as his bodyguards lounged outside in pickup trucks, their Kalashnikovs at the ready. He enlisted police officers who insisted that the eventual transaction be recorded with a secret camera so that the evidence against Khan would be irrefutable.
Twelve days ago Amir received a call from Khan summoning him to a meeting at a crossroads on a dirt road near the JUD's Muridke camp.
There was no cover here, just newly harvested wheatfields and water buffalo wallowing in a pond. Six policemen dressed as labourers with the intention of alerting colleagues in cars concealed a mile away to arrest Khan once the cash had been exchanged for the children.
Amir and a young assistant waited for an hour at the crossroads before one of Khan's men walked up and directed him to another location. The police had been wrong-footed.
Amir finally found his quarry under a large, shady tree where he was sitting on a rope bed while an acolyte massaged his shoulders. "You have the money?" Khan asked.
When Amir handed him the $28,500 cash in a black knapsack, he examined it briskly. Then, without explanation, he broke his promise to hand over the boys there and then.
"I will check the dollars are real first," he said. "If your dollars are good, you will get the children."
A second blow followed. Khan announced that he was going to take Amir's assistantas hostage. If the money was real, he said, the children would be delivered in two hours. If it was counterfeit, the hostage would not be seen again.
It was a heart-stopping moment, not least because the young man posing as Amir's bag carrier had hidden the secret camera under his shirt. Amir motioned him to the back of his car as if to retrieve something from the boot, and ripped the camera from his body.
The hostage was blindfolded and driven to a building where he was held alone in a room. "I was so praying that your money was good," he later told Amir.
Another anxious wait ensued. The police were off the scene and the two hours passed with no word from the kidnappers. Nor was there any news the next day.
Finally, a call came through from Amir's assistant in the dead of night. He had just been dropped off by the side of a road 15 minutes' drive from JUD headquarters with the remaining 17 boys. They were afraid but alive, he declared. They were being taken to a shack nearby. I drove there immediately and found Akash asleep on a plastic mat surrounded by his 16 friends.
Their thin limbs were sprawled and their bodies curled against each other for comfort. One boy gripped the sleeve of another as he slept. They stank of urine.
As the children awoke, the bewilderment showed in their eyes. The first task of the missionaries was to reassure them but few seemed to believe Brother David when he said: "We will protect you. We will take you home to your mothers and fathers. The bad men who took you are gone." Not one boy smiled. It had been too long since they had dared to hope.
Yet after a cold wash under an outdoor tap and a change into fresh clothes, preparations began for the the first of the long car journeys back to their homes in remote Punjab villages. As the boys gradually warmed to their liberators, they talked a little about their ordeal.
Asif Anjed, 8, one of the smallest, had the biggest personality. But his concept of time was so childish that when I asked him how long it had been since he had seen his parents, he thought hard for a moment and said: "Six or seven years." It had been five months.
Asif had retained a sense of outrage from the moment of his abduction. "They put me in a bag!" he kept saying indignantly. He picked out a bright orange T-shirt because he liked its bear logo, the symbol of a football team in Chicago.
Like Akash, Asif said he had lost consciousness when a man with a beard and turban put a rag over his mouth. He became indignant again when I asked whether he had tried to escape. "The men told us if we ran out of the door they would cut our throats," he said.
Asif seemed to have few memories of home. "My friend was Bilal," he said. He grew quiet when he realised he had forgotten what his mother looked like.
As if exhausted by the effort of trying to remember, he fell asleep across my lap during the 15-hour drive to his home in the desert of southern Punjab on the Indian border. As we drew near, the garrulous Asif looked solemn, perhaps not knowing quite what to expect. At a place where fertile green fields gave way to white desert sands, he pointed to his house at the end of a path across a stretch of wasteland.
His father, Amjed, must have seen him getting out of the car. He came running out of the house, barely able to believe that the boy walking hesitantly towards him in plastic sandals was his son. Then he flung out his arms, scooped up Asif and squeezed him against his chest.
Asif's mother, Gazzala, came bustling down the path as fast as she could in her flowered salwar kameez, dragging his younger sister, Neha, by the hand.
She collapsed on her knees in front of Asif, her only other child, weeping and clutching him to her, the long months of anguish etched into the lines on her face.
Like any other boy of his age, Asif seemed embarrassed by these extreme displays of emotion, glowering as his mother clung to him for longer than he would have liked.
Both parents remembered every detail of the day their boy had failed to return home from school. Asif's father manages a small chicken farm and usually collects him on a bicycle for the 3km ride. He still cannot forgive himself for staying home to work that day.
When Asif did not appear his father started a frantic search, stopping strangers on his bicycle to ask, "Have you seen my little boy?" In common with other families, Asif's did not go to the police. "The police will only take interest if they are paid and we have nothing," Amjed said.
"We thought someone had killed him," his mother added, the tears streaming down her cheeks. "I couldn't stop imagining that maybe they had broken his arms and legs."
As the reality sank in, both parents began to smile. They looked at Asif in shock as he repeated his customary line "they put me in a bag" but were soon planning a family feast to celebrate. "It's a miracle!" Amjed said.
Khan would also be shocked if he knew that his captives had not been sold into slavery. Their rescuers fear retribution and are also worried because the exposure of Khan has implications for the way religious extremist groups are treated in Pakistan. Even the police said the reach of such groups was too long for them to be dealt with in a straightforward way.
Why should it be so difficult to prosecute slave traders who cloak themselves in the garb of pious Muslims? For one thing, the JUD offers free medical care and education and won hearts and minds by providing blankets, tents and food after last year's Kashmir earthquake. Few Pakistanis care to know how closely it is associated with Lashkar-i-Toiba, a group proscribed by Pakistan and Britain as a terrorist organisation that participated in an Al-Qaeda attempt to assassinate Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, in 2003.
There can be no denying Khan's connections with the JUD. After he collected his $28,500, he was seen driving directly into its headquarters.
Brother David and Amir are ready to present their dossier of evidence, including the secret tape of Khan taking the money for the boys.
In almost any other country, an investigation into Khan and his work for the JUD would be automatic. It is not so simple in Pakistan. Musharraf has announced numerous crackdowns on the extremist religious militants but the extremists continue to gather strength.
The stories of these boys cry out for action. "The slavers must be stopped and brought to justice," Brother David said. "I pray that a public outcry will arise in Pakistan and around the world that will put an end to their vile business."
Akash, the first boy to be returned to his family, constitutes the strongest possible case for an end to child trafficking.
For the first few hours of the journey to his village, Akash sat on the edge of the back seat next to me. He rested his hands on the front seats, gazing out through the windscreen, answering any question with a monosyllable and flexing his fingers over and over again.
He recalled that his best friend was called Rashed they played cricket together but he could not remember the name of his school.
He shook as we approached his village. I thought he would collapse. Then came a quiet, uplifting moment that brought tears to my eyes.
The driver stopped by a canal to ask directions. Taking the initiative for the first time, Akash tentatively raised his arm, pointing down a narrow dirt road running with sewage.
He had not even reached the door of his house before his grandmother, wrapped in a colourful shawl, engulfed him in an embrace in the dirt alley outside, her face contorted with delight.
Akash's mother was so strangely impassive that it made me angry until I realised she was too shocked to take in the fact that the son she had thought was dead was snuggling up to her. Finally, she hugged him, kissing him over and over again on the top of his head. "We were hopeless," she said. "His father searched and searched. We prayed. But we thought he was gone."
Akash had another surprise waiting for him at home: a two-month-old brother he had never seen.
Home at last, resting against his mother, he smiled broadly for the first time and, just a few hours after getting into a car for the first time, declared his ambition to become a pilot