Amir Mateen

TANK, Waziristan: No matter how cynical you may be, it was difficult not to accept that Imran Khan’s rally against US drone attacks in Waziristan was an effective and a massive protest by any standards.

It remains debatable whether this might encourage Taliban in their terrorist activities that have already seen 50,000 innocent people dead. And that this may also stall any operation against them to stop them for imposing their way of life in Pakistan.

But there is no debate about its size: it was big. And perhaps, the biggest long-distance, political caravan that I may have seen in my 27-year journalistic experience. Before entering Tank, the procession was 14km long. The number is so precise because a group of senior journalists that included a TV anchor and two known Imran critics, decided to stay back at the tail.

Our junior colleagues at the front informed us about the procession entry into Tank precisely when we were 14km short of it. There were 5,000 vehicles, at least one third of them buses from places as far as Chitral, Ghotki, Haroonabad, Gilgit and Quetta. The journalistic estimate of the number of protestors, which is usually 10 percent of the public figures, was 25,000. And this was before the tribal of Wazirstan and Tank joined it.

The debate about the rally not making it to Waziristan may not be so valid. Imran Khan is right when he says that “we were not there to conquer a territory; it was a symbolic protest.”

But if Imran had not stopped from going further, in the words of a French journalist, “The craziest people that I have seen in my life” would have crossed all barriers to reach the announced destination—Kotkai.

The advance party, comprising at least 2,000 vehicles that got cut off from the main rally, had already thrown aside rock barricades before Tank, over turned a huge container trailer in Garra Pathar, about 15km beyond Tank. The procession was growing in size at Frontier Constabulary (FC) post about 5km further at Kaurr with the PTI workers getting alarmingly aggressive at being stopped time and again.

A large number of locals had also joined in to enter Waziristan without, for once, special identifications. Local Army command, perhaps fearing violence from the growing mob, let them go further on a newly built highway towards Jandola on the way to South Waziristan. It was interesting to see that the road here was the best that we had seen in the region, after crossing Indus at Chashma about 250 km away.

It was difficult to understand whether this was to catch Taliban or to facilitate them. The jawans gathered on the rooftop of the fort-style FC post waved at the advanced procession when it was allowed to go further. Perhaps it was a change to see so much festivity from their boring routine. By the time we returned, the militia had created a long detour far away from the waving jawans.

The rally moved on a beautiful meandering track over seeing the picturesque Waziristan Valley until they were stopped at Manzai about 30km short of Jandola. Imran Khan was in the middle of the procession stuck in Tank with most of his top men not leaving his eyesight. The only leader in the front was Azam Swati.

The advanced contingent stretching for at least 02km was big enough to pressure the administration to give way. South Waziristan Political Agent Shahidullah, escorted by an army colonel, was trying to argue with Azam Swati that he had strict orders not to let them go further. It was tense as the pressure from raucous PTI workers was mounting. No many people knew where Imran Khan was as most phones were not working.

The mood was festive as people thought they were being allowed to go all the way to Kotkai–as if it was some kind of a paradise as opposed to the birthplace and the original base of Tehrik-i-Taliban chief Hakeemullah Mahsud and his dead cousin Qari Hussain, the chief ‘cultivator’ of suicide bombers. It was quite a dampener when they learnt that Imran Khan was not coming to that point and holding a public meeting in Tank.

For the locals around Tank, joined by thousands from Waziristan, it was like a picnic. They had not seen such festive activity that also allowed free mobility. “We are so happy that you also see us as humans,” said one person from hundreds who would stop media contingent every now and then, sometimes making us wear garlands. “We are happy that somebody has come here to see that not all of us are terrorists.”

Many would insist that it was as peaceful as any other place. It was hard to believe them considering the amount of bad news that comes from here. But for a day it looked safe. It did look like any other town anywhere. Even foreign journalists were seen loitering around in an area that they may write about but never imagined to see. It was funny seeing a foreign female journalist wearing shalwar kameez trying to hide her identity. As if people would not see her as the only woman among thousands running around with a camera.

But somehow nobody felt scared moving around in what is generally dubbed as one of the most dangerous areas in the world.

This was quite opposite to the rumours about multiple suicide bombers having entered the tribal areas for explosions. Imran Khan may not be wrong when he accused Maulana Fazlur Rehman for spreading the rumour. Many thought there was little chance of any violence. The theory goes that the three major possible sources of violence had reasons not to do that.

Taliban should have been happy that the rally might help stop any action against them. The army and its agencies had no conflict with its objectives either. And there was no chance of the US drone attack on the rally as there were numerous foreigners, including Americans among the participants.

About 75 foreigners, including 35 journalists, also helped propagate the campaign against the drone attacks. But they stirred quite a scare when a busload of them got lost. It turned out that the driver missed a turn in Dera Ismail Khan and embarked on a wrong road for a good one hour. Panic spread among the organizers as many thought that they had been kidnapped. It was quite a relief when they managed to reach Imran’s press conference around midnight–not before being lost in Taliban territory for hours.

A senior journalist could not resist saying, “if only Taliban knew that a truckload worth a billion dollar ransom was roaming around their territory.” Crude indeed.

The News

October 9, 2012