By Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen
Feb. 11, 2019
I lost my home in 2009 when a major
operation by the Pakistan military forced us to leave our village in South
Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with
Around 37 million Pashtuns live in this
region that includes the north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, the
Federally Administered Tribal Areas — which have now been merged with the
province — and parts of south-western Baluchistan province. Our impoverished
region has been desolated by the long war on terrorism.
When I was in high school, we moved to Dera
Ismail Khan, a city around 100 miles away. Ours was yet another family among
six million people who have been displaced from the region since Pakistan
joined the war on terror in 2001. Tens of thousands of Pashtuns have been
killed in terror attacks and military operations since.
But our economic and political rights and
our suffering have remained invisible to most of Pakistan and the world because
the region was seen as a dangerous frontier after numerous militants moved
there after the fall of the Taliban.
The government ignored us when these
militants terrorized and murdered the residents. Pakistan’s military operations
against the militants brought further misery: civilian killings, displacements,
enforced disappearances, humiliation and the destruction of our livelihoods and
way of life. No journalists were allowed into the tribal areas while the
military operations were going on.
Pashtuns who fled the region in hopes of
rebuilding their lives in Pakistani cities were greeted with suspicion and
hostility. We were stereotyped as terrorist sympathizers. I was studying to
become a veterinarian, but the plight of my people forced me and several
friends to become activists.
In January 2018 Naqeebullah Mehsud, an
aspiring model and businessman from Waziristan who was working in Karachi was
killed by a police team led by a notorious officer named Rao Anwar. Mr. Anwar,
who is accused of more than 400 extrajudicial murders, was granted bail and
Along with 20 friends, I set out on a
protest march from Dera Ismail Khan to Islamabad, the capital. Word spread, and
by the time we reached Islamabad, several thousand people had joined the
protest. We called our movement the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, or the Pashtun
Ours is a peaceful movement that seeks
security and political rights for Pashtuns. Apart from justice for Mr. Mehsud,
we demand investigations into the killings of thousands of other Pashtuns by
security forces and militants. We seek an end to enforced disappearances.
As loyal, taxpaying citizens, we demand
that Pakistani security forces act as our protectors and stop the harassment of
Pashtuns at checkpoints and during raids. We demand that Islamabad cleanse
Waziristan of land mines and other unexploded ordinances.
We had several meetings with the military
leadership. Some generals publicly acknowledged our grievances but they never
moved to address our concerns. We held numerous sit-ins and protests and continued
to hope that Pakistan’s leaders would try to address our concerns. Instead,
they responded with intimidation and violence.
After every major protest, police arrests
and charges P.T.M. activists and supporters with rioting, treason or terrorism.
Some of our activists are still being incarcerated under a colonial-era
discriminatory law, which is no longer on the books.
When we soldiered on, they unleashed the
Taliban. In July, four P.T.M. protesters were killed and dozens injured after
Taliban fighters fired at them. A military spokesman declared these Taliban
fighters to be members of a peace committee and praised them for fighting
terrorism and doing their part for “stabilization.”
More recently, on Feb. 2, Arman Luni, a
leader of our movement, who taught at a college, died after he was beaten up by
the police for protesting against a terrorist attack in Balochistan province.
My fellow activists and I were barred from joining his funeral. We participated
anyway but were forced to leave the province after midnight. As we were driving
out, the security forces fired at our car.
Our demands and actions are underwritten by
the Constitution of our country but the military is trying to portray us as
traitors and enemy agents.
While vile propaganda against our movement
is reported as news, the security establishment has ensured that almost nothing
is reported about our movement in the mainstream Pakistani newspapers and
The military unleashed thousands of trolls
to run a disinformation campaign against the P.T.M., accusing us of starting a
“hybrid war.” Almost every day they accuse us of conspiring with Indian, Afghan
or American intelligence services. Most of our activists, especially women,
face relentless online harassment. A social media post expressing support for
our campaign leads to a knock from the intelligence services.
Scores of our supporters have been fired
from their jobs. Many activists are held under terrorism laws. Alamzaib Khan
Mehsud, an activist who was gathering data and advocating on behalf of victims
of land mines and enforced disappearances, was arrested in January. Hayat
Preghal, another activist, was imprisoned for months for expressing support
from our movement on social media. He was released in October but barred from
leaving the country and lost his pharmacist job in Dubai, his sole source of
Gulalai Ismail, a celebrated activist, has
been barred from leaving Pakistan. On Feb. 5, while protesting against the
death of Mr. Luni, the college teacher and P.T.M. leader, she was detained and
held incommunicado in an unknown place for 30 hours before being released.
Seventeen other activists are still being detained in Islamabad.
Imran Khan, who once boasted of his Pashtun
origins, took office as the new prime minister of Pakistan in August, but his
government has chosen to do little to change the state’s attitude toward our
demands for justice and civil rights.
The military is keen to ensure absolute
control. We are not seeking a violent revolution, but we are determined to push
Pakistan back toward a constitutional order. We are drawing some consolation
from the recent judgment by Pakistan’s Supreme Court telling the military and
the intelligence agencies to stay out of politics and media.
To heal and reform our country, we seek a
truth and reconciliation commission to evaluate, investigate and address our
grievances. Since our movement emerged, public opinion in Pakistan has turned
against extrajudicial killings. Most major political parties maintain that enforced
disappearances have no place in the country.
The legal and structural changes will take
time, but breaking the silence and reducing the fear sustained for decades by
the security apparatus is a measure of our success, even if the P.T.M.’s
leaders are imprisoned or eliminated.