Anti-drone march to South Waziristan may face standoff with government

DI KHAN, Pakistan — An anti-drone march in Pakistan including 32 American activists has now covered well over half the journey from Islamabad, but still no one knows whether it will ever reach its destination, the former Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan. It’s still a no-go zone for non-residents.

In Mianwali, a district halfway along the planned marching route, supporters sporting the green-and-red flags of march leader Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (Movement for Justice Pakistan) swarmed around the car.

Khan, a former star cricketer-turned-politician, got out of his car and climbed on top of it.

“People of Waziristan, God willing, we’re coming. The PTI shares your suffering and pain,” he told the crowd. A senior South Waziristan official announced this week that the march would not be allowed to proceed.

Waziristan, which is divided into North and South, has borne the brunt of about 300 drone attacks in Pakistan since 2007; attacks meant to kill Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, but that often kill innocent civilians instead, Khan’s party says.

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An extensive report released last month by Stanford University and New York University called “Living Under Drones” detailed the drone-induced terror experienced by Pakistani civilians on a daily basis, including as many as 881 civilian deaths since 2004.

Mohammad Atif, a member of PTI’s political strategy committee, earlier said he didn’t know whether the rally will reach its destination.

“It’s a million-dollar question,” Atif said. “We are determined, but the government will try to stop us.”

In the evening a Pakistani journalist in Tank, which is adjacent to South Waziristan, said the road was blocked with shipping containers.

Before the march, government officials gave conflicting statements on whether they would allow it to continue all the way to Waziristan. Taliban statements on whether they would target the march were ambiguous, though US diplomats issued a warning Friday that extremists had threatened to attack the demonstration.

It didn’t dim the atmosphere. Khan’s supporters joining the trail were jolly and gave the impression of having a day out, despite the caravan’s dangerous destination.

“Yesterday a friend said: ‘You look so happy. It is as if you’re going on holiday to London,'” said Atif.

He’s well aware of the dangers, but said he sees no other way to voice his demand for an end to the drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

“Everything has a cost,” said Atif. “If we don’t take this risk, then who will be the voice for innocent people?”

Medea Benjamin, one of the 32 American activists representing the Washington, DC-based groupCode Pink, said the protest march is her obligation despite security concerns.

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“The people [in Waziristan] don’t get a choice,” she said. “Their lives are just at risk by the virtue of living there. So we feel we must take the risk to change the policy that has been terrorizing these people.”

The march has looked like a large election street rally, which are very much part of the Pakistani political culture.

Cars of local PTI candidates were adorned with election posters picturing Khan and the local PTI leader. In Mianwali, Khan was welcomed with people shouting: “Imran Khan, prime minister. prime minister, prime minister!”

In the background sounded PTI’s signature song, “Koun bachai ga Pakistan” (Who will save Pakistan?). Khan lifted his arms in the air as if answering: Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party will. 

While the anti-drone protest and politics are important to many of the participants, to some like 22-year-old Azad Khan from Mohmand — another troubled tribal area — the PTI leader is simply a hero for trying to hold a rally in South Waziristan.

“He’s my leader,” Azad Khan said. “I’m very impressed by him.”

Tajbar Khan from Mardan, sitting in a small car, added, “We want to show the world that we and people in South Waziristan are peaceful.” 

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