To Be Young and Pashtun in Pakistan

Demonstrators in Islamabad, Pakistan, last week. The police shooting of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring model, was “the tipping point” for ethnic Pashtuns angry about years of mistreatment by the state, a Pakistani newspaper editor said. Credit B.K. Bangash/Associated Press

Demonstrators in Islamabad, Pakistan, last week. The police shooting of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring model, was “the tipping point” for ethnic Pashtuns angry about years of mistreatment by the state, a Pakistani newspaper editor said. Credit B.K. Bangash/Associated Press

LAHORE, Pakistan — On Jan. 13, the police in Karachi, Pakistan, claimedto have killed four militants suspected of having links to the Islamic State. Rao Anwar, the officer leading the operation, said that the men had opened fire on the police and were killed in the gunfight.

Pictures of the dead circulated on social media and were broadcast on Pakistani television networks. Family members watching television news recognized one of the dead: Naqeebullah Mehsud, 27, from Waziristan, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the border with Afghanistan. He had been arrested by the police 10 days earlier.

Mr. Mehsud, who is survived by his wife, a son and two daughters, had worked various jobs in the city and recently decided to set up a clothing store with help from his brother. He was also an aspiring fashion model, posing rakishly in bright clothes and sporting a manicured beard in photographs on his Facebook page.

Naqeebullah Mehsud was an aspiring fashion model.CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images

On that night in January, a photograph of Mr. Mehsud’s bloodied corpse in a bare room appeared on my Facebook feed. I shivered with a mixture of dread, anger and hopelessness. He wasn’t very different from me: a young Pashtun man who had escaped the pitiless war consuming our home in Waziristan, a poor, isolated place that became an epicenter of the so-called war on terrorism and would be referred to as “the most dangerous place in the world.”

Mr. Mehsud, like me, was trying to build a life in a Pakistani city far from home. Doing that requires acts of will and hope despite an awareness of a history of neglect, prejudice and violence that the people of the tribal areas share with Pakistan.

An operation by the Pakistani Army against militants in the tribal areas in 2014 displaced around a million people. The process of return began in 2016, and military authorities formulated new rules of passage. To visit or to return to live in Waziristan and a few other districts, you needed more than a Pakistani national identity card. You had to produce identification called a Watan Card.

I got my Watan Card last March. On it, apart from my biographical details and a photograph, there is a drawing of the Khyber Pass and the abbreviation N.W.A., for North Waziristan Agency. It marks me and other residents of the region as separate from the full citizens of Pakistan.

In the aftermath of Mr. Mehsud’s death, as accusations mounted that the gunfight in which he was said to have died had actually been staged by the police, thousands of young Pashtuns began marching in protest to Islamabad, the capital.

On Feb. 8, I set out from Lahore in a bus to join them. On the ride, I thought of the personal and political history that had shaped our lives, brought us to the moment when thousands of Pashtuns were gathering in an unprecedented protest to say treat us with dignity and as equal citizens.

Mohammad Khan Mehsud, father of Naqeebullah Mehsud, at the protest over the killing of his son.CreditAsif Hassan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

I was born in the late 1990s in Khushaly, a village in northern Waziristan circled by blue and black mountains about 30 miles from the Durand Line, which messily demarcates the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Most people in the area were subsistence farmers, cultivating wheat in winters and corn in summers. Some ran small stores in Mir Ali, a nearby town of about 20,000. The economic precariousness forced a substantial number of men to leave for distant lands as migrant workers. I was 5 when my father left for Dubai to work as a laborer.

I lived with my mother, a sister and a brother in a mud-brick house. Our days began with the morning call to prayer. After the prayers we returned home and drank tea with milk. Pakistan might have had a nuclear bomb, but my people couldn’t afford breakfast.

Over the years, men from Waziristan and other tribal areas like my father sent home remittances and nourished dreams of a better life for their children. Thanks to these remittances, thousands of students in Waziristan in the mid- and late 1990s were able to enroll in modest private schools, which were an improvement on the abysmal government-run schools.

Our troubles began after the Taliban, led by Mullah Muhammad Omar, took over Kabul in 1996. Waziristan became the gateway for thousands of madrasa students who traveled to Afghanistan to join the Taliban. Many young men from madrasas in our area signed up. When they returned home, they set out to replicate the oppressive, puritanical ways of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

In the summer of 2001, my father returned home from Dubai after seven years. He set up a shop in the Mir Ali bazaar, buying and selling automobile tires. He spoke wistfully of the doctors and engineers he had met in Dubai. He hoped I would study to be a doctor.

A few months later, the Sept. 11 attacks and the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan changed everything. Arab and Central Asian militants on the run from Afghanistan sought refuge in Waziristan. In the summer of 2002, the Pakistani military started operations against the militants. Anger over these operations radicalized young men in the area, who flocked to join militant groups.

My father worried that I would get caught up in the war. In the spring of 2004, I left my village with him to attend high school in Peshawar, the largest city in northwestern Pakistan. Every day I wondered whether my family and friends back home were alive, whether they were safe. Newspapers ran cryptic reports about the violence and the deaths in Waziristan. Phones remained cut off for weeks.

A decade of pitiless violence followed. The militants attacked military posts and passing convoys, and planted bombs on roads. The military retaliated with aerial bombingsand artillery fire. New cemeteries were opened across the region. Coffin stores did brisk business. Civilians were disappeared and killed by both the militants and the military.

President Barack Obama increased the number of American troops in Afghanistan in December 2009, and intensified the drone strikes on Qaeda and Taliban fighters in South and North Waziristan. Researchers at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London estimated that American drone strikes in Pakistan from 2009 to 2015 killed 256 to 633 civilians and 1,822 to 2,761 militants.

I witnessed my first drone strike when I was home for summer holidays in 2009. One night I was sleeping on a cot under the starlit sky, when a fierce explosion woke me up. I tried to collect myself. My uncle shouted: “Drone! A drone attack!” Two more explosions followed. My uncle led me to the village square where people had gathered.

Villagers had seen a ball of light and fire rise from the house hit by the missile fired from the drone. Normally, we would rush there to help. Yet fear of another drone strike kept us from making the short journey, from picking up the remains of the dead and transporting the injured to a hospital. I saw the corpses of three militants in the morning when the funeral was held. The missile had shredded their bodies. I couldn’t sleep for days.

The war continued. After graduating from high school in Peshawar, I moved to a public college in Lahore in 2010 to study literature. The seductive, sprawling metropolis of Lahore was strikingly different from the war-ravaged Peshawar and Waziristan.

A Pakistani Taliban militant surveying a road through the Shawal Valley, in the tribal region of North Waziristan, in 2014. CreditIshtiaq Mahsud/Associated Press

But my Pashtun ethnic origin, my being from Waziristan, would turn me into a target for racial profiling. The prejudice and suspicion against ethnic Pashtuns like me intensified after the tribal areas became the base for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, whose bombing campaign killed hundreds in Pakistan’s cities.

One night several policemen barged into my dorm room, which I shared with three other students, ethnic Punjabis. After the policemen looked at our identity cards, they took me aside and rifled through my books and my belongings for incriminating evidence.

Yet I made new friends, found inspiring teachers and went to diverse social and academic gatherings in Lahore. A new world seemed possible.

My father continued running his shop in Mir Ali. He had switched from selling tires to being an ironsmith. One night in December 2013 I was watching the television news at my university and saw a report about Pakistani planes bombing the market in Mir Ali. Fortunately, my father was not at the store at the time of the airstrikes. The next morning, my family packed up and joined a caravan of people seeking safety in Dera Ismail Khan, a city about 180 miles south of Peshawar.

The site where the author’s father’s shop stood. CreditRaza Wazir

Six months later, in June 2014, came the military operations against the militants in the tribal areas that resulted in the displacement of more than a million men, women and children. People fled their homes with only what they could carry in their hands. Most of them found refuge in the neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

A week later I visited Bannu, the town closest to the tribal areas. Families displaced from villages in Waziristan filled the road leading into town. Carcasses of cows, goats and sheep, which had died of thirst in the punishing heat, were rotting by the highway. Malaria and other diseases spread in the camps for the displaced outside the town because of open sewers and mosquitoes. Most of the displaced lived in those difficult conditions for two to three years.

Displaced families returning to their villages in 2016. CreditMohammad Iqbal/Associated Press

Three years passed before I could return home. Last March, at a refugee camp in Bannu, I was able to get my Watan Card, which allowed me to travel to Waziristan. While waiting for my card to be issued to me at a military checkpoint, I met an old man from my area. “Waziristan is like a garden hit by a hailstorm,” he said. “Everything valuable had been destroyed.”

We boarded a military pickup truck going to Mir Ali. Along the way were the remains of the years of fighting: burned-out mud huts, houses disfigured by bullets and artillery fire.

About half an hour later, we entered a vast flattened area strewn with debris. It was the town of Mir Ali. The grocery stores, vegetable and tea stalls and bookshops I had grown up with were dust. I spotted the plot where my father’s shop once stood. Workers were carrying away the rubble. Bricks, iron rods, broken furniture and my memories were being carried off in a truck, to be resold in a nearby town. Every signpost of my personal geography had been destroyed.

It was already dusk when I reached my home in Khushaly, about five miles from the town. A family whose house had been destroyed in aerial bombing was camping out there. After his shop was destroyed, my father had decided not to return. I stayed with relatives and heard tales of horror and suffering. The absence of hope marked our conversations.

The murder of Mr. Mehsud became the tipping point that compelled young Pashtuns to gather in Islamabad by the tens of thousands to raise our long-suppressed voices, to express the accumulation of pain and frustration over the past 16 years of war.

The protesters chanted the refrain of a song about our status as unequal citizens in the independent Islamic Republic of Pakistan: “What sort of independence is this? What sort of independence is this?”

Pashto anthem “Da Sanga Azadi Da” with English subtitles (click cc to see them) Video by Abid Riaz

I saw a sea of students, lawyers, professors and doctors. Young and old, men and women. We shared stories of oppression, abuse and injustice. All of us had lost a friend or a relative in the unending war. Arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas, multiple displacements, the loss of homes and livelihoods, the maiming and killing of children by the land mines planted during the military operations had all fueled despair and anger.

A woman from Swat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa spoke about how her two sons had vanished in Karachi after being arrested by policemen led by Rao Anwar — the officer involved in the death of Mr. Mehsud. She had lost her eyesight since then but continued looking for them, beseeching the Pakistani authorities for help. “I won’t be able to see them now,” she said. “But I would recognize the smell of my sons.” (Courtesy

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