Civilians in a remote area of western Pakistan have accused the country’s powerful army of mass arrests and torture after the Taliban claimed a bomb attack that killed and injured members of the army.
Residents of Shaktoi, a rural mountainous area of South Waziristan district, say security forces imposed a curfew, arrested local men, and conducted aggressive home searches after a roadside bomb killed three soldiers and injured four others last week.
Officials in the region, however, have rejected accusations of military abuses.
“We faced abuses and arrests after the attack,” Abdul Mutalib, an eyewitness, told Radio Mashaal. “They beat many people in their homes during a search operation and arrested many locals and some 100 laborers working on a road,” he added. “They broke the arms and legs of some of them during torture.”
Mutalib said some 40 soldiers conducted aggressive house searches in Anakhel, a village close to the site of the September 3 attack on the Pakistani Army. “They arrested men who were at home or just walking down the street. Some of them are still being detained at a local school used by the army,” he said.
Shaktoi is administratively part of South Waziristan but is approached from a road in neighboring North Waziristan. Most residents of the region are members of the Mehsud, a Pashtun tribe. Nearly half a million Mehsuds were displaced for a decade after a large-scale 2008 Pakistani military operation against the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the umbrella organization of the Pakistani Taliban.
Activists in Waziristan say the displacement and abuses by the Taliban and the military led to the emergence of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a movement for the protection of Pashtuns, in February 2018. Since then, the supporters of the civil rights movement have protested military abuses and Taliban attacks in their homeland. Ending aggressive searches and collective punishments is a key PTM demand.
In a protest in Tank, a city adjoining South Waziristan to the east, and in the southern seaport city of Karachi, PTM members protested the alleged abuses in Shaktoi on September 7.
“We are demanding the immediate release of detained civilians,” Alamzeb Mahsud, a PTM leader, told Radio Mashaal at the protest in Tank. “We can no longer tolerate such treatment,” he said. The army is “still imposing collective punishment years after claiming to clear our homeland from terrorists.”
Hayat Preghal, another PTM activist, says civilians are helpless in the face of seemingly unending hostilities between the army and the Taliban. “We feel sandwiched between these two forces,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Ultimately, we will have no choice but to abandon Waziristan altogether to protest against the two and protect our people from their reprisals and infighting.”
But Shaukat Ali, the police chief in South Waziristan, says they have received no report of abuses even though search operations are common in the region in response to a recent uptick in Taliban attacks.
“I find it strange that people begin protests against abuses before lodging an official complaint,” he told Radio Mashaal. “If they complained about innocent civilians being detained, I could have asked the army and the police to release them.”
In a September 3 statement, the Pakistani military’s media wing said an officer and two soldiers had been killed while four others were injured by improvised explosives while they were providing protection to a road construction crew in Waziristan. “Security forces cordoned off the area,” the statement said. “Search operation being carried out for area clearance.”
The PTM plans to hold more protests against the alleged army abuses.