Millions of ethnic Pashtuns have endured years of terrorist violence, military operations, and displacement in northwestern Pakistan, and yet their protests rarely reverberate in the country’s capital, Islamabad.
But the murder of a young shopkeeper in an allegedly staged gunbattle with the police last month appears to have stirred up grievances that were long suppressed.
The killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud in the southern city of Karachi prompted thousands of activists to converge on Islamabad to press for their demands in seeking justice and an end to their oppression.
Participants and speakers from all walks of life thronged the protest site in front of a busy Islamabad market on February 5. In a series of emotional speeches, speaker after speaker ran through their grievances and called on the government to act.
“Naqeebullah Mehsud was not the first Pashtun killed unlawfully in this country. A lot of our blood has been spilled,” protest organizer Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen thundered from the top of a metal shipping container used as a makeshift stage. “However, our patience has now run out after this killing.”
Pashteen, an activist who has spent years lobbying to draw attention to the plight of his Mehsud tribe, is among the campaigners determined not to leave Islamabad until their demands are met.
The protesters listed five demands, shaped by years of neglect and suffering. Swift justice for Mehsud tops the demands; they are asking authorities to arrest Rao Anwar, a fugitive police officer blamed for the murder according to a government probe.
Anwar has a reputation of staging gunbattles with suspected terrorists and criminals, and Pakistani media reports say he has supervised the killings of hundreds of people in what are locally called fake police encounters.
“The chief justice [of Pakistan] should personally monitor a judicial commission to probe unlawful killings in Karachi and the regions inhabited by the Pashtuns,” read a leaflet distributed at the protest. “All the victims of enforced disappearances should be presented before a court of law. Those found guilty of a crime should be punished while the rest should be freed.”
Last month, Pashteen, now in his 30s, mobilized a Mehsud jirga, or tribal council, to warn Islamabad to clear landmines and unexploded ordinance from their homeland in the South Waziristan tribal district or brace for unprecedented protests.
It’s no surprise that clearing the deadly landmines is one of the protesters’ demands. An estimated half a million Mehsuds left their homes before the onset of a major Pakistani military offensive in 2008, and nearly 80 adults and children have reportedly been killed in landmine explosions since most Mehsuds returned to their homes by the end of last year.
In a telling revelation about life in a conflict zone, the protesters are demanding an end to curfew and other coercive measures used after attacks against security forces. “Across FATA and Waziristan in particular, authorities should avoid imposing curfews and beating civilians,” the pamphlet said, referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas by its acronym.
Waziristan, divided into North and South Waziristan districts, are two of the seven FATA districts. The region turned into a front line of the global war on terrorism after 9/11 when Al-Qaeda and allied extremism sought shelter in the region after the demise of the hard-line Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001.
In the subsequent years, millions of Pashtuns in FATA and neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province paid a steep price. They comprise a majority of the more than 50,000 civilians whom authorities say have been killed in militant attacks and military offensives. More than 6 million were displaced in dozens of military operations as hundreds of thousands of families lost their businesses and livelihoods.
Many of those who took part in the Islamabad protest say they are angry over Pashtun profiling and atrocities by Pakistani security forces. “Every one of us has endured immeasurable suffering. Our bodies bear the scars of what we have endured, and our homeland has turned into hell,” Ali Wazir told participants.
Wazir, a tribal leader turned politician in his 40s, has lost nearly a dozen members of his extended family to violence in South Waziristan since 2003. Like thousands of killings across Pakistan’s northwestern Pashtun regions, the murders of his brothers, father, uncles, and cousins remain unresolved.
“Today, I can protest in Islamabad, but we cannot do the same in my homeland,” he said. “Today, we are in Islamabad and want to ask how many innocent people like Naqeebullah have you killed, and how many are languishing in prisons for years?”
Fazal Khan, a lawyer, lost his son in a 2014 Taliban attack on an army-run school in the northwestern Pashtun city of Peshawar in December 2014. He is deeply critical of the powerful Pakistani Army’s approach of killing some militants while appeasing others.
“We should not be deceived in the name of the Taliban,” he said, referring to the military’s treatment of a former Taliban spokesman whose faction accepted responsibility for the attack on his son’s school but was apparently pardoned after surrendering to the authorities last year. “They are like a guard who is fed, clothed, and armed in the best way possible but fails to protect our home from ruin.”
The Pakistani military, however, rejects such criticism. Last month, army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa claimed Pakistan had defeated “terrorists of all hues and colors” in its restive border regions and is now going after their “disorganized residual presence under Operation Raddul Fasaad,” or purging of evil.
Pakistani authorities are largely silent on protestor demands. On February 3, a junior cabinet minister, Tariq Fazal Chaudhry, visited the protest site and told participants that their administration supports their demands and is keen on resolving them, according to the daily Pakistan Times.
Former Pakistani lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak says the protest is a manifestation of the oppression endured by more than 5 million FATA residents.
“Pashtuns in FATA in general and Waziristan in particular have been devastated by the armed conflict, but their sufferings and agonies remain unnoticed,” he said. “Rapid urbanization, education, remittances, and the rise of professionals and the middle class have led to greater awareness, but the process of political empowerment lags far behind.”
Khattak says Islamabad’s failure in implementing reforms in FATA contributes to resentment as the region still languishes under a draconian colonial-era legal regime known as the Frontier Crimes Regulations.
He says youth activism has taken seasoned politicians by surprise and the masses appear to be now mobilizing for their rights. This, he says, is also changing perceptions about Pashtuns as a collection of warlike tribes.
“Such stereotypes are being shattered by the most peaceful and disciplined political agitation in Islamabad’s recent history,” he noted.