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 Afghanistan.
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 roams free.
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 Protection Movement.
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 television networks.
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 income.
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.