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On the road to Waziristan…

Our road to drone-ravaged Waziristan was a long and winding one, at times frightening, surrealistic and frustrating, but always exhilarating and significant.

It officially began Friday morning, when we joined officials from PTI, the political party of Imran Khan, and Clive Stafford-Smith from the UK’s Reprieve at a press conference at the Marriott in Islamabad. In a clear sign that the media were taking the proposed caravan to South Waziristan seriously, a phalanx of international, American and local media were lined up across the ballroom, clamoring for up-close shots and interviews.

Among the first to speak was Stafford-Smith, who has gained fame for representing many American prisoners on death row as well as for becoming the second lawyer given access to the prisoners of Guantanamo. He noted that 85% of the supposed “militants” held in Guantanamo ended up being acquitted, and the same dynamic is at work in Pakistan, where a recent report estimated that only 2% of the drone victims are high-level terrorists. He told the crowd: “We are going to Waziristan because when you begin to open up the world to inspection, people begin seeing the truth – including the women and children being killed by our drones.”

Clive Stafford-Smith

Imran Khan, the controversial, charismatic leader of PTI, credited Stafford-Smith with the idea for the convoy, and joked, “It took me a while to come to terms with the idea. Even Pakistanis are afraid to go there.” But, he said, “the people of Waziristan convinced me to do it. I was 13 years old when Pakistan won its idependence. I saw the fear on the faces of my parents when the British troops went by and an explosion caused our windows to shake. I can only imagine what must go through the minds of the families of Waziristan when the drones strike. Sadly, our own government is complicit in allowing the United States to terrorize its own people.”

Lauren Booth, sister-in-law to the UK’s former prime minister Tony Blair, was also present, adding, “So many people are worried about the foreigners going on this convoy, fearing for our security. But we should be worried about the ordinary people who live in Waziristan and face danger every day!”

Later that night, we joined the youth movement of PTI for a march and candlelight vigil in a local square, as we prepared for our departure the next day. The enthusiasm and anticipation was contagious. The highlight of the evening for me, however, was the CNN reporter for Islamabad, Reza Sayah, who came right up to us to express his admiration for what we were doing. He is responsible for the extensive coverage given to CodePink’s presence in Pakistan by CNN.

It was clear there was widespread support for the initiative. Except, that is, in the Pakistani government – which issued a statement saying we did not have permission to enter Waziristan, a region that has been closed to foreigners for nearly a decade. The party line, of course, was that it was concerned for our safety. But I think the primary motivator was to limit what we saw and heard, and to take some of the ‘steam’ out of an anti-drone movement it supports in words only.

Despite the saber-rattling, including continuing warnings from our own embassy, we set out the next morning for Tank, a village on the “doorway” of Waziristan. At almost every village along the way, residents lined the street, shouting their support for the caravan’s mission and for Imran Khan. A 263-mile journey took 13 hours to complete.

CodePink photo

There were times of tension and unease, however. The massive turnout quickly overwhelmed the PTI’s ability to organize, and our two vans became separated from Kahn and his security detail, leaving us alone in a conservative land that normally never sees foreigners – particularly women. We were instructed to keep our curtains closed in several locations when the flags of fundamentalist groups appeared, and to cover our heads in deference to the culture the rest of the time. Rest stops were allowed only once. None of us minded, although one of our two buses was not air-conditioned and the heat soon became stifling. Riding right along with us the entire way was Richard Leiby, the Washington Post’s reporter in Pakistan. (He laughingly called the experience “a Republican’s idea of hell.”) That kind of attention alone was worth the trip; it is so hard getting the Post’s attention back in DC…

As darkness fell, we finally made it to the compound of one of the local tribes in the vicinity of Tank – a large farm where we were engulfed by hundreds of men for whom we were quite a novelty. The welcome, and chaos, were almost overwhelming. (The women, of course, were nowhere to be seen, although they were clearly doing the cooking.) Anxiety crept in when one of Stafford-Smith’s assistants visited our room to tell us that specific threats were now reaching the Reprieve team that there were “elements” planning to send a camel strapped with explosives into the throng the next day – perhaps targeting us as Americans specifically. With the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis would be converging on the area, and that the military was still vowing to shut the road to prevent anyone from going further, the decision was reluctantly made along with our sponsors to speak at a “pre-rally” that morning, but to do what we could to de-fuse the risk for everyone by keeping our presence as Americans low-profile during the height of the frenzy. We would return to Islamabad after the pre-rally. (It felt very real at the time. But we still don’t know if the threat was authentic or made up by the Pakistani government, or even U.S. influences, to discourage us or the PTI.)

Despite this minor set-back, the rally at the farm the next morning did a lot to make up for our disappointment at not making it across the border into Waziristan, so tantalizingly close, and the many people we knew were waiting for us. The compound flooded with people from across the region, and just prior to making our way to the stage, Imran Khan visited us to say a personal thank you. A politician he definitely is (and all that entails, negative as well as positive), but he is for sure a charismatic man! When he talks – in a large setting or small – he has the unique ability of a natural orator to make you feel as if he is directing his comments right at you, with 100% sincerity.

Imran Khan (CodePink photo)

As we wound our way out of our room and into the crowd, a chain of men holding hands created a makeshift aisle, and the word “welcome!” was repeated over and over in a chorus so loud it broke over us in waves of reverberating sound. On stage, the chain of hands held the masses back so they did not overwhelm us, but close enough that I could literally feel their energy and warmth. “We want peace! We want peace!”

I began to cry. So do I. So do we all. Let it be so….

CodePink photo

* * *

Postscript: Pakistani riot police did indeed show up, and when the crowds pushed over the giant metal containers blocking the way out of Tank, Khan made the call not to take a confrontational stand. The purpose, he said, was to focus attention on the drone attacks, and that had been accomplished. Some of the Pakistani media were skeptical, with the English-language DAWN newspaper questioning whether Khan had perhaps cut a deal on the side, saying, “His lack of criticism of the army seemed to fit oddly with a crowd frequently displaced by military operations.” However, local residents seemed typical of this man: “No one ever comes here. At least he is talking about us, and speaking against drones.”

As Fahd Husain wrote in The Nation: “This wasn’t your typical political stuff – jalsas, corner meetings and press conferences – no, this was heart-pumping, in-your-face, made-for-TV kind of activity that generates hype and discussion for days and weeks.

Drones will keep raining death as per American policy. The Pakistani government will keep on sporting an ambiguous posture as per its policy. The army will keep on engaging the Pentagon and CIA to bargain on drones as per its policy. And Imran Khan will keep blasting everyone as per his policy. Nothing really will change. Except one thing: Political parties will now be under greater pressure to appear bold and go where they normally don’t. As an unstated objective, that’s not a bad achievement for Imran Khan.”


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