Thousands of residents in northwestern Pakistan are staging a sit-in protest to pressure authorities into arresting those responsible for a string of recent murders.
Chanting angry slogans, the protesters in Mir Ali, a town in the North Waziristan district along Afghanistan’s border, called on Pakistan’s powerful military to ensure their security after a major security operation. The army claims the region was cleansed of terrorists after thousands of militants were killed during operation Zarb-e Azb, which was launched in June 2014.
The offensive displaced more than 1 million North Waziristan residents and completely destroyed the once-bustling agricultural and trading towns of Mir Ali and Miran Shah.
But insecurity has gradually crept back after Islamabad allowed most displaced Waziristanis to return to their homeland by the end of last year. A string of targeted assassination has now rocked the region.
The protests began after three prominent people were shot dead inside their houses in Mir Ali and Miran Shah over the weekend. They were among the latest in a string of assassinations. Unknown assailants have killed at least eight people inside their houses in North Waziristan during the past month.
“What kind of peace is this when we are being killed inside our houses?” Shafqat Dawar, a leader of the protesters, asked on May 14. “You [the army] never tire of telling the world that you have cleansed Waziristan [of militants], but we are not safe inside our houses.”
Dawar said the residents of North Waziristan and six more districts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are being deprived of the fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Pakistani Constitution.
“The only right we seem to have is that of being killed,” he is seen telling protesters in a video whose authenticity was confirmed by several participants. “We want all our rights but first want authorities to ensure our security.”
He asked how it was possible for unknown militants to target people when the authorities forced local residents to disarm and are still reluctant to allow civilians to bear arms in a region where most males once brandished handguns and assault rifles.
Samiullah Dawar, a local journalist, says insecurity in North Waziristan is on the rise after the government allowed some former militants back into the region under an amnesty deal.
“Some of the [former] Taliban members have returned, and there are reports that these surrendered militants have rearmed,” he told Radio Mashaal. “It is clear that after these [radicalized] Taliban are once again given arms they will resume what they know best.”
Last week, the militants dynamited two schools near Mir Ali. A pamphlet attributed to the previously unknown Ittehadul Mujahidieen group warned locals against sending girls to schools for education.
The protests in Mir Ali are part of a wider movement demanding security and rights for Pakistan’s second-largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Since its emergence in February, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) or Pashtun Protection Movement has held large protests across Pakistan’s Pashtun belt comprising FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and parts of southwestern Balochistan Province.
Former Pakistani military officer Syed Nazir says multiple factors might be at play to fan insecurity in North Waziristan including the emergence of the PTM.
“The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement have their eyes on this region and want to hold protests,” he told Radio Mashaal, noting that insecurity recently caused Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf, to be denied permission to hold a meeting. “Something similar might happen to the PTM.”
Nazir, a former brigadier general in the Pakistani Army, says the assassinations seem to be part of a militant strategy to mark their comeback.
“The security agencies are adamant in claiming the region has been cleansed of militants. But through these acts they are trying to show they are capable of returning,” he said.
After the demise of Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001, North Waziristan and neighboring South Waziristan turned into a global epicenter of Islamic militants. For nearly three decades the region was the headquarters of Jalalaluddin Haqqani, who had fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and joined the Taliban in 1996.
His extended family and followers, collectively called the Haqqani network, are seen as the most potent military wing of the Afghan Taliban. The group enjoyed power over the disparate local and foreign militant groups in North Waziristan and were seen as close to the Pakistani secret services and Al-Qaeda’s predominantly Arab militants.
Abdul Nasir, a senior civilian official in North Waziristan, did not respond to repeated telephone calls seeking comments. While the military strongly denies supporting militants, its media wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations, has not reacted to the protests in Mir Ali.
Nasim, a protester in Mir Ali, told VOA’s Deewa Radio that local military officers have repeatedly contacted protesters to assure them of increased protection though robust patrols and sweeps.
In April, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s powerful army chief, called for mainstreaming FATA to preserve the dividends from peace his forces have worked hard to achieved.
“Stability and development efforts [in FATA] must trickle down dividends of peace to the public while [the] control of cleared areas is being handed over to [the] civil administration," he said. "[The] key dividend remains linked to the mainstreaming of FATA in line with popular public sentiments.”
In Mir Ali, however, the protesters appear to have little patience for more violence.
“If anyone is killed, we will take their dead bodies to Islamabad to protest,” Shafqat Dawar said.