The alleged harassment of women and children by the security forces in northwestern Pakistan’s restive Waziristan region has provoked outrage and protests.
Pakistan’s powerful military has denied accusations that soldiers conducted aggressive searches and harassed women and children in a remote village in the region.
But activists in the region say that instead of investigating and addressing complaints about alleged excesses by the security forces, the government is trying to pin the blame on the victims.
“Our message is loud and clear: We will no longer silently tolerate any oppression,” Noor Islam Dawar, the leader of Youth Of Waziristan, a civil society group, told thousands of protesters in Mir Ali, a major town in the North Waziristan tribal district bordering Afghanistan.
“Nobody can stop them when those being oppressed rise up,” he said at the protest gathering on January 29.
Dawar urged the residents of Waziristan and other Pashtun regions to push for their rights. Over 50,000 civilians were killed and some 6 million others were displaced during more than 15 years of Taliban attacks and military operations in Waziristan and other regions of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. The fighting also ruined livelihoods in the once peaceful tribal Pashtun countryside.
The fresh round of protests follows a video that went viral earlier this month. In a video first posted by the Youth Of Waziristan on January 19, 11-year-old Hayat Khan recounted how four months after the security forces picked up his elder brother and father, soldiers regularly barged into their house in North Waziristan’s Khaisor village to make various demands.
His mother later spoke publicly about the humiliation she says she felt when security forces repeatedly visited her home while all male family members were away.
“The soldiers once told me to make beds for them because they would spend the night inside our house if [my son] Shariat (eds: his full name is Shariatullah) didn’t come [to surrender],” she said. In the video her face was covered by a burqa or veil that women in conservative parts of Pakistan use to cover themselves from head to toe.
Hayat’s mother was unwilling to share her name or show her face because of the risk to her security. “I am now publicly speaking because I am sick of the humiliation and dishonor. I am speaking out to protect myself,” she said.
The military, however, has rejected her complaint.
“There was a jirga (tribal council) held here [in North Waziristan], and this whole thing was proved to be a lie at that forum,” Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for the Pakistani military, told the private Geo News on January 27.
Supporters of the Youth Of Waziristan and the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), however, rejected the January 26 tribal council because it comprised the pro-government tribal elders who they claimed even beat up Khan, Eid Rahman, and Yahya Khan Wazir. The latter two activists were instrumental in publicizing the alleged harassment in Khaisor.
In a January 20 protest in Khaisor, the PTM demanded that the government carry out an independent investigation of the incident.
But the military spokesman said no mistakes had been made.
“Anyone can commit a mistake, but we have [an accountability] system within the army so if anyone commits a mistake we do not let them go free,” he said. “The allegations leveled here even violate the local culture, and it has been unnecessarily hyped up even when these are debunked locally.”
Earlier, in a written message sent to a Radio Mashaal correspondent in North Waziristan on January 22, a source in the military said that Khan’s father, Jalaat Khan, and his elder son, Adil Khan, were detained for their alleged role in kidnapping an employee of a Pakistani petroleum exploration company and suspected involvement in an attack on the security forces in a remote part of North Waziristan last year. The source said that Shariatullah was an absconder while still holding his hostage.
The text message said the security forces had not violated local norms.
“Security Forces are also sons of the soil and do not violate the local riwaj (eds: Pashto word for customs),” the message said. “During the arrest of Jalaat and Adil on October 23, 2018, their uncle and the local Maliks (eds: tribal leaders) accompanied and sanctity of parda (eds: veil) was maintained.”
On January 26, the authorities released Jalaat Khan. He has not spoken publicly since, and attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.
After the attacks of 9/11, North Waziristan transformed into a de-facto headquarters for the Afghan Taliban’s dangerous military wing, the Haqqani network, and its Al-Qaeda, Pakistani, and Central Asia allies. A large military offensive in 2014 forced the militants to leave the region, but it also displaced more than 1 million civilians.
Most have now returned to their ruined houses and shattered livelihoods, but the region is still years away from lasting peace and stability.
Two former lawmakers offered a grim view of life in North Waziristan. Bushra Gohar and Jamila Gillani were part of a five-member female delegation that visited Khaisor and other parts of North Waziristan on January 27.
“Many women told us that if their husbands or other male relatives are involved or suspected of any wrongdoing, the security forces can detain and investigate them, but they should not barge into our houses,” Gillani said of the key message she heard from a group of some 25 women in Khaisor, which is populated by members of the Pashtun Wazir tribe.
Gillani said they were struck by the story of one elderly women, Noorani Bibi, who had documented every visit of the security forces to her house by drawing 25 lines on a sheet of paper. Each line denoted a visit by the soldiers as Bibi can’t read or write.
“I don’t want anything but just want to be united with my family in our house and guaranteed that there will be no raids,” she told the visiting women in a video posted on the Internet.
“Women and children have been psychologically affected by the break-ins and harassment,” Gohar said. “We saw a young girl faint and fall to the ground when a crowd gathered in the house [to talk to us]. Another older woman also fell face-first.”
Gohar said that parts of North Waziristan resembled a battle-scarred wasteland ruled by fear where civilians still feel trapped between the security forces and the militants, some of whom have now surrendered to the authorities but enjoy considerable influence.
“The incidents in Khaisor aren’t isolated,” she noted. “These must be thoroughly investigated and the culprits brought to justice.”
Lawmaker Ali Wazir represents South Waziristan tribal district in the lower house of the Pakistani Parliament. He told Radio Mashaal on January 29 that a large caravan of members from the Pashtun Wazir tribe will visit Khaisor on January 30.
“Once we are there, we will first try to establish what happened,” he said.