Earlier this month, I sat next to the Pakistani general leading tens of thousands of troops in a northwestern region once considered the epicenter of global terrorism.
Major General Azhar Iqbal Abassi, an infantryman, was cordial, and our meeting was frank and candid. With the help of PowerPoint, he gave us a detailed briefing about the achievements of his forces since they launched the Zarb-e Azab offensive. In June 2014, Islamabad unleashed all its military might on North Waziristan, where myriad Islamist militant groups had run a de facto jihadist state for more than a decade.
His upbeat assessment was, however, in contrast with the reality of life outside the tightly guarded sprawling garrison in Miran Shah, the administrative capital of North Waziristan.
It’s true that most militants fled Zarb-e Azab, and they no longer control territories in North Waziristan. But more than 1 million of its civilian residents braved death, injury, and displacement and have only recently returned to destroyed homes and ruined businesses in demolished bazaars.
On top of that, they had to put up with long waits and harassment at security check posts, deal with violence after the occasional militant attacks, and live without key rights and civic services taken for granted in the rest of Pakistan.
I know this because North Waziristan is my home. I grew up in Darpakhel, a village north of Miran Shah, and our February 15 meeting with military officials was aimed at finding a solution to some very basic problems that North Waziristan residents face. While security, the rule of law, and access to basic services are a given in most societies, we are fighting hard to get them.
Everyone in the delegation I led was proud of our achievements. In hours of deliberations, we demanded that civilians should not be harassed or tortured or a curfew imposed in their communities following a militant attack. They agreed to streamline the cumbersome checks on numerous checkpoints across the region’s roads. They promised to look into the issue of disappeared people and some people have been reunited with their families since.
In a major concession for civic freedom, all political parties will be able to campaign freely in the run-up to this year’s parliamentary elections. They also accepted our demands for letting North Waziristan residents rebuild their markets and promised to reopen the Ghulam Khan border crossing with neighboring Afghanistan so that the local economy, mainly based on trade and transport, can recover.
In a sign of how difficult it is to live in North Waziristan today, we were also promised that the government would implement development projects, reopen major roads connecting parts of the region, and restore mobile telephones and Internet and help reopen branches of a local bank.
I do not think that these small concessions will turn Waziristan into a haven, but it might make it barely habitable.
The road to get the authorities to agree to very basic demands was, however, not easy. The meeting in Miran Shah was a follow-up to our numerous meetings with civilian officials and military generals in Islamabad and neighboring Rawalpindi earlier this month. We prompted them to take notice after we braved 10 cold nights in the open while protesting outside the National Press Club in Islamabad from February 1.
Popularly dubbed as the Pashtun Long March, our sit-in protest galvanized years of grievances in Waziristan, other districts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the neighboring provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. The Pashtun heartland in these regions turned into a frontline on the war against terrorism after 9/11.
Closed to outside observers, millions of Pashtuns in FATA paid a particularly heavy toll. They were first terrorized by militants and then affected by the military’s counterterrorism sweeps. They constitute a majority of the 50,000-plus civilians Pakistani officials estimate have died in more than 15 years of unrest. More than 6 million Pashtuns were displaced by fighting. Thousands are still unaccounted for. Pashtun laborers, traders, students, and professionals face harassment, stereotyping, and racial profiling across Pakistan.
The January murder of one such Pashtun victim spurred our movement for reclaiming our lost dignity, rights, and privileges. Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring model and shopkeeper, was killed in what a government probe declared to be a staged shootout with the police in the southern seaport city of Karachi. Like thousands of Pashtun victims, his suspected murderer still remains at large.
My generation grew up in a world defined by intolerance, hatred, and fear. But the one we want to build now for future generations must be defined by love, tolerance, and emancipation.
This awakening heralds a tectonic shift in northwestern Pakistan that the world needs to pay close attention to.
Mohsin Dawar (@mjdawar), a lawyer, is the Chairman of National Youth Organization and a senior leader of the newly formed Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or Pashtun Protection Movement. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.