In his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire states: “Violence is initiated by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognise others as persons – not by those who are oppressed, exploited and unrecognised.”
These days I have been thinking of his words often, as earlier this year the Pakistani state attacked me and others from the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), killing over a dozen people and injuring scores of others. It had the audacity to try and put the blame for the violence on us.
We, of course, were not the ones inciting violence. Our only crime was to try and speak for a community that has faced decades of violence from both the state and armed groups.
I was born and raised in the region of Waziristan in the north-western part of the country, close to the Afghan border. The majority of us are Pashtuns, who constitute the second-largest ethnic group in Pakistan. Since colonial times, the region was governed by the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), a draconian law imposed by the British colonialists in the 19th century. It left the local population with no recourse to courts and liable to be subjected to collective punishment for over a century.
The law was finally repealed in 2018, when the region was merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and its people were made equal citizens of the Pakistani federation, at least on paper. In practice however, the inhabitants of this region do not enjoy full citizenship rights and protections; discrimination and abuses against us continue unabated. We are still targetted by police raids and security operations which violate and kill people with impunity.
This violence I grew up with has its roots in the decision of the Pakistani state and its US ally to transform Waziristan into an incubator for fighters in the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s.
The infrastructure that was built there to recruit and train fighters to combat the Soviet army was later used by armed groups like the Haqqani Network and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to wreak havoc in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the strategic decision to allow this vast region to become a breeding ground for terrorists had destructive consequences across the globe, it affected Waziristan’s local inhabitants, who were left at the mercy of violent armed groups, the most.
With the start of the US-led “war on terror” in the early 2000s, the region became a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and Taliban militants fighting an insurgency against the international coalition in neighbouring Afghanistan. Pakistan launched repeated attacks and air strikes on the region to “clear out” the fighters. But rather than stopping “terrorist activities”, these assaults killed countless civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands. Moreover, Pashtuns across Pakistan started to be stereotyped as “terrorists” even though they themselves were victims of terrorism.
In short, my people have been exploited and oppressed by the Pakistani state, various armed groups and foreign powers for decades and our suffering is still continuing today. But we are no longer willing to take the abuse, persecution and discrimination we face on a daily basis, sitting down.
The PTM shot to prominence in January 2018, when a long march launched in Karachi to protest against the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young Pashtun cloth seller and model, attracted thousands of supporters. The protests continued with a large sit-in in Islamabad and soon the PTM became a strong voice for the people of Waziristan. I was one of the founding members of the movement.
Since the PTM’s inception, our campaign for equality, dignity and peace has been growing every day.
As our movement expands its reach, however, the Pakistani state intensifies its attacks on us.
In April this year, the PTM carried out its biggest political gathering to date in my hometown of Miranshah, which is the administrative capital of North Waziristan – the region that has seen the worst Taliban and state violence. As one of the leaders of the movement and an elected member of the national assembly from that area, I was acting as host. The aim of this gathering was to make the Pakistani leadership understand that we have had enough of both militancy and state violence.
Even though Miranshah’s population is just over half a million, the rally attracted tens of thousands of people. The atmosphere was electric and the people were hopeful.
Our message was simple: We want the state to honour the constitutional contract that it has with us.
The constitution clearly recognises us as equal Pakistani citizens and disallows our oppression and persecution. Thus the solution to all our problems – be it justice for the thousands of “missing persons” who were abducted by the state, or the end of extrajudicial murders, or the clearing of the landmines that were left by the military or the ill-treatment that we are subjected to at military check posts – lies in making the state recognise our constitutional rights.
As is the case with all of PTM’s rallies, at the end of the day the crowd dispersed peacefully.
While we thought the rally was a big success, the state and the military had other ideas. Clearly feeling threatened by the size of the gathering and our peaceful, status-quo altering call for the constitution to be respected, on April 29, only two weeks after our rally in Miranshah, the Pakistani military issued a statement claiming that PTM is “being funded by foreign intelligence services” and told us that “the time is up” for our movement.
We did not know back then, but this was the military’s declaration of war on PTM.
A month later, on May 25, residents of Doga Macha Mada Khel, a small village in North Waziristan, launched a sit-in, accusing security forces of “persecuting” and “torturing” civilians during a recent search operation allegedly targeting “suspected militants”. The sit-in, which was taking place near the permanent Khar Qamar military check post, was peaceful from the very beginning.
As the only elected representative of the region that includes the village, I felt obligated to reach out to my constituents, support their protest and help their voices be heard. With this in mind, on May 26, I visited the village with another member of the national assembly, Ali Wazir, who is also part of PTM.
At the village, we were welcomed by a jubilant crowd of around 200 to 300 people. They garlanded us and together we started walking towards the sit-in area. However, the soldiers at the checkpoint refused to allow us to join the protesters. Tempers were raised, but I did my best to reason with the soldiers and convince them to let us through. But as soon as we went past the check post, I heard gunshots.
Initially, I thought the soldiers manning the checkpoint were firing warning shots in the air. But the sounds of occasional gun shots suddenly turned into the staccato of automatic fire, and villagers around me started to fall. Someone pushed me to the ground and I was dragged into a ravine. When I looked back, I saw blood-soaked bodies lying motionless on the ground and heard the cries for help of the injured.
Later we learned that 15 people were killed and more than 40 were injured as a result of the unprovoked attack. Wazir and eight others were arrested on the spot, but I managed to escape the scene, with the help of other survivors.
For the next three days, we walked through the villages of Daigan, Mohammad Khel, and Hamzoni to get to my village, Darpa Khel, near Miranshah, which is approximately 30km from the site of the massacre. Throughout our journey, we staged several protests to inform the public about the massacre and demand accountability.
When we reached Darpa Khel, we started another sit-in. The military, meanwhile, imposed a curfew on the village of Doga Macha Mada Khel that lasted for eight days, and also surrounded my village. I eventually chose to surrender to the authorities in the town of Bannu because I was scared for the lives of the people in my village.
In a display of brazen shamelessness, the authorities accused us, the victims, of assaulting the soldiers manning the check post and causing the bloodshed. They filed charges against nine people including me, Ali Wazir and Sanaullah Pashteen, who was killed during the massacre. A few days later, Wazir and I were also blamed for an IED explosion that injured four army officials in Doga Macha, even though we were both in the state’s custody at the time of the attack.
In jail, we were kept in cells set aside for terrorists. This was quite ironic, as one of our main demands from the authorities was for them to cleanse our region of terrorists and put those men in these very cells. We were also subjected to treatment usually reserved for the most hardened criminals and convicted terrorists – we were denied access to books, television, newspapers and radio. We were also deprived from participating in parliamentary sessions, which is our duty and privilege as elected politicians. Even during the essential budget session, our constituents were denied representation.
We remained behind bars for four months and endured every conceivable pressure, threat and accusation. In late September, we were finally granted bail because the authorities failed to back their accusations with evidence. However, the charges against us are still in place.
While we were still in jail, the victims of the Khar Qamar massacre, who were branded terrorists both by the authorities and the media following the incident, were suddenly accepted as victims and their families were offered monetary compensation. Interestingly, even the family of Sanaullah Pashteen, who was accused of attacking the checkpoint alongside us, was deemed eligible for compensation. The state offered the families of the deceased a payment of approximately $17,500. People injured during the attack, meanwhile, received around $8,000.
As we languished in prison, Pakistan turned into a larger prison for anyone showing us sympathy. Very few of our fellow politicians raised their voices for us. The local press was full of reports accusing us of treason and terrorism with no space whatsoever given to our version of events. The only venue available for people to share our version of events was social media, but those who used Twitter and Facebook to support us and share our narrative were arrested and charged with the crime of “cyber terrorism“.
But this oppression only strengthens our resolve. Frankly, we are at a point where we do not have much left to lose. Just the act of venting our grievances is an act of liberation and luxury for us. Just by speaking out, we are challenging the fear of freedom instilled in our people through decades of oppression. Losing this fear, and daring to demand freedom, is the first step in a process that will eventually liberate not only us, the Pashtuns, but all citizens of Pakistan.
Freire says where there is oppression, both the oppressed and the oppressors are victims, because the act of oppression takes away the humanity of the oppressor too. He considers it the responsibility of the oppressed to liberate not only themselves but their oppressors as well.
“The oppressors, who oppress, exploit and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free them both,” he wrote.
The PTM has chosen the powerful path of non-violence to liberate the oppressed Pashtuns in Pakistan, but in doing so, we will also liberate our oppressors so that they can find the humanity that they have lost in their intoxication of power and privilege.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.