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Wednesday Mar 14 2018

A portrait of Manzoor Ahmed Pashteen, a missing voice

Manzoor Ahmed Pashteen (in the red cap).

Last year, in March, I was in Dera Ismail Khan, a southern city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to attend a friend’s wedding. Later that night, as the festivities ended a few of us – mostly reporters - headed to a local hotel for tea. There I met him for the first time. The young man walked over to our table and introduced himself as the head of the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement — I’ll be honest, I had no idea what it was.

We listened, politely, and then returned to our conversations. But the 23-year-old Manzoor Ahmed Pashteen was relentless. Journalists need to do more, he pleaded. They need to give more coverage to the everyday ordeals that Pashtun men and women face in Pakistan. Mehsuds, a Pashtun tribe, “are still struggling to be heard,” he continued breathlessly. “Men from the Wazir and Dawar tribes have used social media platforms to their advantage. Why haven’t we done the same?” Pashteen was convinced if the Mehsuds can come together and present their demands audibly and indistinguishably in one voice, only then will they be taken seriously by the state. “You journalists are lucky,” he said, “You have access to Facebook and Twitter, we don’t.”

He was not wrong. South Waziristan, one of the seven tribal agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan, where a large number of Mehsuds live, has remained deprived of the internet. Even after the Pakistan Army launched Operation Rah-e-Nijat in 2009, a ground and air offensive to rid the area of militants, the coverage of broadband and mobile 3G is still patchy. Tribesmen have to walk great distances to catch signals from towers installed in neighbouring areas. If they had open access, insisted Pashteen, the Mehsud tribes would be able to communicate seamlessly and a movement for their rights could be initiated.

Yet, internet or no internet, there was no stopping this ambitious man. When he spoke, it was difficult not to hang on to his each and every word. Pashteen was determined. He was passionate. He was the voice that had long been missing in Pakistan.

The eldest of seven siblings, the boy grew up in the Sarokai district of South Waziristan.

His father was a teacher at a local school. Even from a young age, it seems, Pashteen always had a flair for activism. In 2014, he joined the Tribal Students Society and was made its president for two years. Then two years ago, he began raising awareness about landmines and unexploded ordinances littering their mountainous hometown. Occasionally, he would compile the list of those hurt in landmine explosions and Whatsapp them to all reporters, including me. Some of these reports would make it on-air, many wouldn’t. He would also share pictures of children killed and disabled by landmines on social media. When local news networks did not pay attention, a frustrated Pashteen then turned to the international media for help.

Young men like him would gather at the Haq Nawaz Park in Dera Ismail Khan or in Tank to draw attention to their demands. In the process, many would be arrested. Pashteen has also spent two days behind bars.

In the meantime, anger amongst the Mehsuds kept simmering and boiled over into a 10-day protest outside the National Press Club in Islamabad in February. The protest was also propelled after the killing of an aspiring model from South Waziristan, Naqeebullah Mehsud, who was allegedly killed extra-judicially by a notorious cop in Karachi.

After the murder, there was palpable fear in South Waziristan. Some Mehsud elders were of the view that the man be quietly buried, like so many other Pashtun men who have been killed in fake police encounters. But others wanted justice and accountability. Enough was enough, it was decided that the Mehsuds will take their nonviolent protest to the country's capital. The word spread quickly through Facebook. Within hours, dozens of young men reached the morgue to claim Naqeeb’s remains. Then dozens turned into hundreds in the Sohrab Goth area of Karachi.

Pashteen and his friends took the 27-year-old’s body to his ancestral village, under the protection of the paramilitary Levies and police. Once he was laid to rest, Pashteen took Naqeeb’s father back to Karachi, where they decided on a date for the 'long march'.

Finally, on January 26, Pashteen and many Pashtun men and women made history. They set off, undeterred, from Dera Ismail Khan to Islamabad, collecting people from all parts of FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The demands were simple:

· Bring Naqeeb’s murderers to trial

· Clear landmines in the tribal areas

· Reduce the curfews that people of FATA are subjected to after every bombing in Pakistan

· Produce the missing people in court

· Form a judicial commission to investigate staged encounters

With these demands, the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement turned into the All Pashtoon National Jirga and Pashteen became a household name.



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