TANK, Pakistan -- A Pashtun tribe in northwest Pakistan endured Taliban bombs, Pakistani military sweeps, and displacement for years to return to what they hoped would be a peaceful homeland.
But an estimated half a million Mehsuds are once again threatening to abandon their towns and villages in South Waziristan if authorities fail to clear landmines and unexploded ordinance from the mountainous regions.
A major Mehsud jirga or tribal council this week warned the government to either protect their children from being blown up in landmine explosions or brace for unprecedented protests and a mass exodus of Mehsud tribespeople into Pakistani cities.
Qayyum Sher, a former Pakistani military officer and Mehsud tribal leader, says government efforts to rehabilitate his community amount to nothing if it continues to fail to protect them from the scourge of landmines.
“We are calling on the [Pakistani] army to cleanse this region from mines if they want us to live a peaceful life here,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We Mehsuds are united in demanding an end to frequent incidents where men, women, and children are either killed or lose their limbs to landmines.”
Saeed Anwar, another Mehsud tribal leader, says during the past year landmines have killed or maimed more than 70 children. Many Mehsuds returned to their homeland after a Pakistani military offensive forced them to abandon their homes in 2009. Most sought shelter in the hot and arid plains of neighboring Tank and Dera Ismail Khan.
“I think this situation [the prevalence of landmines] is a violation of international laws and conventions,” he said. “We are adamant that if the authorities fail to cleanse Waziristan from landmines, we will abandon it altogether.”
The Mehsud ordeal began soon after a handful of extremists from among the community became leaders of the Pakistani Taliban movement after the demise of the hard-line Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001. Over the past 16 years, hundreds of thousands of Mehsud civilians have paid a heavy price as militants killed tribal leaders and targeted civilians while they also became collateral damage in military offensives that ultimately forced them to leave their homes.
The community now appears to have learned hash lessons from their past silence over their suffering. Anwar says they plan to protest until authorities succumb to their demands. “How can we live in a place where the lives and limbs of our children are not safe?” he asked.
Anwar pledged that the corridors of power in Islamabad will now have to listen to their demands. He accused Islamabad of treating them as lesser citizens, saying that when a landmine killed seven Mehsud children last year, authorities only offered them the equivalent of $150 in Pakistani currency in compensation while the victims of a fuel tanker accident in Punjab Province received more than $27,000 in compensation.
“Even when killed by unexploded ordinance that are left behind after military sweeps, our dead are worth less than Punjabis trying to collect fuel from an overturned tanker,” he said. “It is the government’s responsibility to clear all these mines.”
Sherpao Mehsud, the head of a welfare organization in South Waziristan, says his fellow tribespeople returned to their homeland after the government assured them of complete security.
“For nearly 10 years, we suffered in every nook and cranny of Pakistan,” he said. “We demand that Pakistan’s chief of army staff immediately dispatch professional military demining teams to clear Waziristan from the curse of landmines.”
Pakistani authorities have not commented on the demining demands. But senior Pakistani officials usually project the return of the displaced tribespeople as a major success. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, nearly 75,000 displaced families have returned to South Waziristan.
Activist Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen says some students from his community are eager to protest to bring attention to the deadly threat of landmines in Waziristan.
“We are ready to launch a sit-in in Islamabad until authorities move to address this problem,” he told Radio Mashaal.
Hundreds of Mehsud tribal leaders are now scheduled to meet on January 22 to devise a final strategy for pushing the government to respond to their demands.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on Radio Mashaal correspondent Sailab Mehsud’s reporting from Tank, Pakistan.