It was supposed to be just a one-hour flight from Pakistan’s northwestern capital, Islamabad, to the southern seaport city of Karachi.
Instead, Manzoor Pashteen, the young leader of a new movement demanding security for Pakistan’s Pashtun minority, says he was forced to make the journey over 40 hours.
The 26-year-old activist says the harassment and constant surveillance he endured during that journey on May 12 and 13 have strengthened his resolve and made it crystal-clear to him why the authorities were desperate to prevent him from addressing tens of thousands of supporters in Karachi.
“The Pakistani state obviously didn’t want to let me use their airplane,” he said. “The state also wanted to prevent me from using the road.”
Pashteen leads the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM), which emerged from protests in February. Since then, it has taken on Pakistan’s powerful military in a heated but peaceful protest campaign. The movement wants the army to probe and end thousands of enforced disappearances and illegal killings, which have defined the country’s domestic war on terror since 2003.
The Pakistani military has already taken steps to address the movement’s lesser demands about demining, harassment at security checkpoints, and other ill-treatment of civilians.
An estimated 30 million Pashtuns have borne the brunt of violence over the past 15 years, and tens of thousands have been killed in attacks by terrorist and counterterrorism operations by the army. More than 6 million were displaced by the fighting.
The PTM’s bold allegations of the army’s failures and support for militant groups have endeared Pashteen to many Pashtuns. Youth, in particular -- many of whom have faced similar displacement and difficulties -- are drawn by his appeals for justice, dignity, and equal rights.
On the morning of May 12, a supporter drove Pashteen and three friends to the airport for their flight. But when Pashteen tried to obtain a boarding pass, the airline told him his ticket had been canceled. The group tried to book another flight from Islamabad, but a travel agent told them they were unlikely to get one.
Pashteen says they then set off by car for Lahore, a major Pakistani city nearly 400 kilometers east of Islamabad. They were stopped at a security checkpoint close to Lahore’s airport for several hours and were only allowed into the airport after the last flight to Karachi had departed.
By afternoon on May 12, Pashteen decided to drive all the way to Karachi. But his friends soon sensed they were being followed.
“These two cars were full of people brandishing handguns. They chased us and occasionally overtook us,” he said.
Pashteen says they realized the plainclothesmen were government intelligence agents.
“When we stopped for roadside breaks, they stopped too and were talking on wireless handsets,” he said. “I overheard them telling someone, ‘We have apprehended them, and we will not let them go,’” he said.
“I asked them if weren’t they supposed to be our protectors and guards,” he said of conversations with the security officials. “If you are tasked with protecting the masses, why are you behaving like gangsters?”
Pashteen says the person who bought him a plane ticket and his driver, Anwar, were also harassed. His journey through the eastern province of Punjab, which constituted some 600 kilometers, was the most difficult, but it began to improve once they crossed some of the initial hurdles in the southern province of Sindh on the morning of May 13.
“It was probably near Mirpur [Khas] when the [paramilitary] Rangers surrounded our car and held an assault rifle to my head to order me to step out of the car,” he said. “They snatched a mobile phone from one friend as they slapped and punched the others.”
After that point, the physical abuse stopped. But aggressive searches in which Rashteen says they were humiliated, photographed, and searched continued.
He also says the government agents and check points seemed to dissipate once a massive PTM protest commenced on the afternoon of May 13. Late that evening, the organizers announced they would not end the meeting until their leader had addressed the gathering.
Pashteen and his entourage finally reached the venue around 11:30 p.m. after 40 hours in transit. The PTM’s leadership claimed more than 100 of its supporters were interrogated while 30 were kept in custody in the runup to the Karachi protest.
Adil Rasheed, a spokesman for the police in Karachi, rejected the PTM’s claims that its supporters were mistreated or detained. “We even provided the gathering with security,” he said.
“Once I stood before the people, I felt well-rested and fresh, but I was taken aback that most of them had waited there for hours without any water in the sweltering heat,” Pashteen said.
The Pakistani military has repeatedly denied the PTM’s accusations that it is involved in grave abuses such as disappearances and illegal killings or that it clandestinely supports Islamist militants.
Spokespersons for the Pakistani military in the northwestern city of Rawalpindi and the Rangers in Karachi could not be reached. Repeated attempts by Radio Mashaal to seek comment from Interior Affairs Minister Talal Chaudhry, Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, and anti-terrorism Minister Sardar Muhammad Ayub Khan Ghadi were not successful. Malik Ahmed Khan, spokesman for the Punjab government, was also not available for comment.
Interior Affairs Minister Talal Chaudhry has told Reuters that actions against PTM supporters and academics “by unnamed forces” were part of a wider clampdown on freedom of expression in the country.
“We now have to listen to the people of Pakistan,” Chaudhry said. “There have been very few such things in Pakistan’s history where people come out on their own to support a leaderless group.”
In Karachi, Pashteen spoke to his supporters for nearly an hour. But when he finished his speech, he asked supporters not to mob him for photographs.
“I am very tired today. You would do me a great favor if you would all return home,” he told them.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect RFE/RL's standards editor's suggestions.