On August 24, villagers from the Hamzoni village came out in protest against the humiliating search operations in the area conducted by security forces. Situated near the district headquarters of Miranshah in North Waziristan, this village and the entire Tochi Valley, where the Dawar tribe resides, has borne the brunt of the security forces after the completion of Operation Zarb-i-Azb. The latest incident, in which the security forces opened fire on protesters, killing two people and injuring 11 others, is a grim reminder of the tense situation that persists in this part of the country.
A day earlier, an IED explosion left one security official dead and two others injured. As has become a norm in the restive districts of former FATA, security forces put the onus of the violence on the residents. They subject them to invasive search operations, often picking up suspects for ‘interrogation’ at will. People are also detained if they are suspected of having relatives or friends in the Taliban, in the past or present. All of this feeds resentment among residents and the situation is aggravated when citizens, like those living in Hamzoni village, have to endure 10-day-long curfews without breaks even for religious festivities. It was such treatment that prompted the villagers to stage a protest sit-in and it was the third in the last two months.
Upon return to their villages, people come to terms with demolished homes, markets and no source of livelihood. As if that was not enough, they were harassed, and curfews were imposed whenever there was any untoward incident
The curfew was imposed because security forces suspected that militants were hiding in the area and were being supported by the residents. North Waziristan has been the stage of a major military offensive since June 2014, when around 30,000 soldiers of the Pakistan Army were sent it to wipe out militants’ presence from the area. Hundreds of thousands people were displaced as a result of this operation. It was after a thorough operation that locals were allowed to return. They were vetted through a tedious process and issued separate cards apart from their usual national identity cards. Weapons of all types were confiscated and no compensation was provided. Upon return to their villages, people had come to terms with demolished homes, markets and no source of livelihood. As if that was not enough, they felt harassed, and curfews were imposed whenever there was any untoward incident.
As former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak recently said, “Western districts of Pakhtunkhwa live under martial law even after merger in the province.”
It is in this context that locals are feeling extreme alienation from the state apparatus. They no longer trust the promise of peace. This trend first manifested itself in the huge support that Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) gathered earlier this year. Then, in the general election, PTM’s Mohsin Dawar was elected to the National Assembly, defeating a Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf candidate.
North Waziristan is part of seven tribal districts that merged in to the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa just before the tenure of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government ended. It was hoped that after abolishing the notorious Frontier Crimes Regulations, with its collective responsibility clauses, the situation would improve. Now it seems that with or without the FCR, powerful men with guns stationed in the area think they can carry on with business as usual with little or no accountability.
When the latest sit-in entered its third day, local elders and the civilian administration intervened and ended the protest by agreeing to all the demands of the protesters, including compensation for victims, an end to arbitrary search operations, an end to unannounced curfews and an inquiry and court martial of the officers involved in the incident. However, later in the evening, a bizarre Twitter spat ensued between ISPR’s Major General Asif Ghafoor and MNA Mohsin Dawar.
Ghafoor said no one would be court martialled, though an inquiry would be conducted. He denied that Pakistan Army soldiers had killed or injured anyone. Mohsin Dawar responded with unusual severity seen in the public space in conversations between serving officers of the army and members of Parliament. “And you are keeping up your tradition of backtracking. Our one precondition for beginning talks was an admission of guilt from your side, regarding the martyrdom of innocent protesters. We only began talks after we were given that admission of guilt,” Dawar replied. The exchange went on with accusations of inimical forces in action from one side to references to rights enshrined in the constitution from the other. It seemingly ended with Mohsin Dawar posting a video clip in which security personnel fired on protesters and injured a child.
The incident in Hamzoni in North Waziristan shows that a region that has rarely seen peaceful political activity is on the path of growing public discontent, especially among the youth. They are no longer ready to accept the status quo. Street protests, like in other restive regions of the globe, cannot be ruled out in the future. The only road to peace is through eliminating the conditions that nurture such sentiments among the citizens.