Last weekend in Pakistan, Imran Khan lead a convoy of vehicles toward Waziristan which was at times over 20 kilometres long. The peace march, which I flew from Australia to attend, mobilised thousands to focus world attention on this impenetrable region and the still officially secret US drone war that is being carried out there.
According to Clive Stafford Smith, director of the legal charity Reprieve, the journey to Waziristan was Imran's idea. According to Imran, it was Clive's. But while they may joke around together, there is no friendly disagreement on the purpose. It was to protest drone strikes that have decimated the region and continue to kill innocent people. The strikes are not only against international law; they are also counterproductive and fuelling extremism in Pakistan. Though derided by critics as politically expedient, the peace march was an historic step in the larger global effort to lift the veil of secrecy that shrouds this extrajudicial assassination program.
At around 9am on Saturday, October 6, on the Islamabad motorway, we began the 440km journey from Islamabad to Waziristan. A convoy of hundreds of cars with flags and pictures of drone victims jostled for position as though in some kind of crazy race. The atmosphere was electric.
The participants included both men and women supporters of Imran's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, victims of drone attacks and local media. The international contingent included a number of foreign journalists, more than 30 activists from the US anti-war organisation Code Pink and those invited by Reprieve, including me.
The convoy wound its way through a rarely seen part of Pakistan, outside the cities where the majority of people live. Along the way more supporters joined from the towns of Rawalpindi, Attock and Mansehra. The convoy also travelled through Talagang, Rikhi, Mianwali, Kundian and Paharpur. At times people surrounded cars and threw rose petals upon them.
At every stop and through every built up area, the roads were lined with enthusiastic supporters. People on the ground seemed genuinely thankful that so many people had come so far to shine a light on policies that have terrorised their communities for over eight years.
A great deal of international and Pakistani coverage focused on the alleged security risks; one report went so far as to suggest no less than nine suicide bombers "may target Imran Khan’s rally". It is perhaps not surprising that such "threats" emerged. The peace march mobilised large numbers of people to draw attention to an issue many would prefer remained secret. In this context, it is difficult to separate fact from politically convenient fiction.
Yes, the march was undoubtedly risky. But living in Pakistan is risky. And the march commenced, continued and concluded with no bombings or other attacks. For me, as with other dangerous regions of the world I have been in, I felt the most unsafe when simply driving in the car. Why only overtake two trucks at high speed with oncoming traffic, when you can overtake in a convoy of four?
The focus on the security of the march was understandable, but while people who participated made a choice, the people whose plight the march sought to highlight face a far greater daily security risk and have no choice in the matter.
Both during and prior to the march I had the opportunity to hear from victims of drone strikes themselves. Their voices are almost always absent from discussions on drones. On New Years Eve in 2009, just days after President Obama was inaugurated, a missile fired from a drone struck the home of Karim Khan in North Waziristan.
"After the drone strike my house and kill my son, my brother and a mason, the media say they killed another person Haji Omar [Amir of the Pakistan Taliban]," he tells me, "but after four months they announced they killed Haji Omar again. A man has one life or many lives?" Karim Khan’s brother was a teacher and his son was a student. He strenuously maintains that the victims were not involved in any terrorist activity or with any terrorist organisations.
There is a total lack of any rule of law or due process in relation to drone strikes. He says, "if there are criminals, or people who done something against the government or are harming anyone, we are a sovereign state ... ask them to arrest people and bring them to the court".
I ask him what life is like living with the constant presence of drones. "Our houses, Madrassas, mosques have all been destroyed by drone strikes. Twenty-four hours they're circling, we hear it, see it, everything is affected, our trade, the school is empty," he says.
“Our houses, Madrassas, mosques have all been destroyed by drone strikes. Twenty-four hours they're circling, we hear it, see it, everything is affected"
I speak to other drone victims including family members of a strike on March 17, 2011. This strike hit a jirga: a tribal meeting of elders. An estimated 45 people were killed. They tell me how a team of 12 people took four hours to clean the drone site and identify body parts all while three drones continued to circle in the sky. Again the victims strenuously maintain the people killed were innocent.
I ask one of the Waziris how his relative's wife and children survive financially without their husband and father. He says he and his brothers take out a portion of their pay and provide for them -- they don't want compensation; they work and can support themselves, "we just want the mass murder to stop".
The victims and many Pakistanis blame the US for the drone strikes. After all it is President Obama who, according to The New York Times
, personally authorises who will be executed every Tuesday while reviewing a "kill list". But the question of Pakistani government complicity is also often raised; to what extent have Pakistan's rulers been turning a blind eye to the extrajudicial killing of their citizens?
We eventually make it to the town of Dera Ismail Khan and stay at a farmhouse for the night. Prior to setting off in the morning Imran and the Code Pink delegates address the crowd. Code Pink apologises on behalf of their government for the drone program and the up to 3300 people it is estimated to have killed in Pakistan.
The convoy sets off for the remaining towns before Waziristan. At several points the convoy is delayed. Approaching late afternoon and knowing the army would block access to Waziristan, the march finally turned to make the long journey back to Islamabad.
Prior to the march Imran Khan said: "Worst case scenario it will be great. Best case scenario it will be a game-changer." Time will tell.
*Justin Randle is a human rights researcher and former political adviser to Labor Victorian governments