Members of the Mehsud Tahaffuz Movement sit together in Dera Ismail Khan to discuss plans for a protest against the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud in the capital Islamabad [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan – Naqeebullah Mehsud never wanted this life, slaving away for long hours at a textile factory, scraping together the cash to start his own garment shop.
On the evening of January 3, he sat at a roadside restaurant in northern Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, with friends, discussing plans for how he was going to start that shop.
Armed men in plain clothes burst into the restaurant, demanding to know which of the young men was Naqeebullah Mehsud.
When he identified himself, the men grabbed Mehsud and took him away in their vehicle. It was to be the last time he was seen alive.
On January 13, police said that Naqeebullah had been among four Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and Pakistani Taliban “terrorists” killed in a shootout with police in eastern Karachi.
The incident sparked national outrage, with relatives and friends protesting Naqeebullah’s innocence.
They were joined by thousands of his fans – Naqeebullah ran a popular Facebook page where he posted pictures of himself modeling clothes and hairstyles.
Friends and family said that far from being a feared Taliban fighter who had killed several security forces personnel, as the police claimed, Naqeebullah was an aspiring male model.
A police inquiry was ordered by the Supreme Court, which was told that Rao Anwar, the police officer responsible for the killing, had presided over at least 444 killings in 745 police shootouts since he took over as a senior police official in Karachi’s Malir district.
Anwar, long known as Karachi’s version of ‘Dirty Harry’, is now on the run, wanted by the courts after the police inquiry found there was no evidence to suggest Naqeebullah was a member of the Taliban.
None of this, however, would have happened if it had not been for the Mehsud Tahaffuz Movement (MTM) – a grassroots group of young activists from Naqeebullah’s native district of South Waziristan.
Born in violence
“He was a very honest person, he did not have any kind of pride or arrogance,” said Abdul Wahid Mehsud, one of the founders of the MTM, and a friend to Naqeebullah.
“He said that he had worked a lot as a labourer, and that now that he was getting a good response from social media [to his modeling], he would open a shop […] and then all this fame would help to make the shop successful.”
Abdul Wahid, 30, is one of the founders of the Mehsud Tahaffuz Movement (Mehsud Protection Movement), back when it was just eight students at Gomal University, in the town of Dera Ismail Khan, about 300km southwest of the capital Islamabad, and adjacent to South Waziristan.
The group was founded to fight for the rights of members of the Mehsud tribe, which hails from South Waziristan.
It is more widely known as the birthplace of the Pakistani Taliban, home to the group’s founder Baitullah Mehsud and his successor Hakeemullah Mehsud, both of whom waged a bloody war against Pakistani security forces and civilians for years.
Driven from their homes in 2009, after the military launched a successful operation to displace the Taliban from its stronghold, most Mehsuds continue to live outside of their homeland, for want of both security and basic services like healthcare, education and employment.
The operation was brutal, and, MTM members allege, the military has not let up in its violence against South Waziristan residents who have chosen to return, often arbitrarily detaining them or subjecting whole villages to collective punishment if there is a security incident in their area.
“We have grown up watching all of this happen around us,” Alam Zeb, 25, one of the group’s most outspoken members, told Al Jazeera.
“In the end, we thought that someone should raise their voice, someone should ask the harsh questions. And we saw that there was no one. Not our political leadership, […] not our tribal leaders, […] no one is willing to ask these questions.”
The MTM’s fight focuses on three major issues: unexploded landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that remain strewn across South Waziristan, the alleged arbitrary detention of residents by the military and alleged harassment by the armed forces.
|Khan Rasool says he is indebted to the MTM for their work advocating for landmine victims [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]|
The military denies that it arbitrarily detains or assaults citizens in South Waziristan and elsewhere.
“In case of any sporadic terrorist or IED incident in the area, efforts to identify any possible resident facilitation to terrorists by the locals and to investigate details of the event, local populace is engaged strictly as per local […] tradition,” said a military statement in response to Al Jazeera’s questions.
On landmines, however, the MTM has emerged as the only group willing to organise victims and to lobby the military to do a more effective job of clearing explosives that have, so far, claimed at least 18 lives and wounded scores more since displaced Mehsuds began returning home in 2012.
“I am very thankful to them. I was not there that day, and for what they did I cannot thank them enough,” said Khan Rasool, 50, whose daughter and grandson were severely wounded in a landmine explosion in South Waziristan last month.
MTM members, he said, helped to get them the medical care they needed.
Bringing the ‘apocalypse’
The fight for Naqeebullah’s case, was personal.
“He was from my area, I knew him, I had met him a few times,” said Muhammad Idrees, 25, another of the group’s founders, who says the case outraged Mehsud youths because it brought home the issue of the social profiling of Pashtuns, and particularly Mehsuds, as “terrorists”.
Ihsanullah Mehsud, a member of the movement, narrated how on a recent trip to Pakistan’s second city of Lahore he was denied accommodation at a hotel, after the hotel owner saw his last name on his national identification card.
Others quickly chimed in with similar stories.
“If [the MTM] hadn’t raised their voice, [Naqeebullah] would have been considered the same kind of ‘terrorist’ as so many others who have been killed, in the hundreds, for years,” said Ihsanullah.
In the end, we thought that someone should raise their voice, someone should ask the harsh questions. And we saw that there was no one.
Alam Zeb, MTM member
Asked if they think that residents of South Waziristan are accorded the same human rights as other citizens in Pakistan, they laugh, apparently at the absurdity of the question.
“[In South Waziristan], the state of human rights is that when someone is killed in an explosion, [the army] goes there and oppresses the very people who were the targets. To ask them: ‘Why did this explosion happen?'” narrates Alam Zeb.
“Essentially, to ask them ‘Why did you die?'”
Since February 1, the MTM has led a sit-in of hundreds of people from across the country in the capital Islamabad, uniting demonstrators across political party lines, rallying around Naqeebullah’s killing.
Their demands include the arrest and trial of Rao Anwar; the formation of an inquiry commission into similar extrajudicial killings by the police in Karachi and elsewhere; and an end to the policy of “assault and abduction of common people” after security incidents in South Waziristan and elsewhere.
“They say it is a sign of the Day of Judgment, when Pashtuns actually stand together,” said Saeed Anwar Mehsud, a political leader from South Waziristan.
“It seems the MTM has brought about the apocalypse.”
Subverting power structures
If the MTM is able to achieve that which has never happened before, it is also because they work in a manner that no one else does, using social media and grassroots activism to subvert traditional power structures.
“The tribal leadership of South Waziristan, they have almost all been killed,” said Mansur Khan, director of research at the Islamabad-based FATA Resource Centre.
“The ones left now are sycophants to the government or military. And the MTM opposes those who are constantly standing with those in power.”
In addition, Khan says, the young activists have been able to harness the power of social media to organise directly with common people, bypassing political parties and traditional leadership structures.
“Social media has become such a weapon for us, that we can use to make our voice or the voice of any person from the tribal areas heard. […] It has given every person a voice,” said Alam Zeb.
Zeb is known for hosting Facebook Lives when landmine victims arrive at the local hospital in Dera Ismail Khan, documenting what happened to them, where the explosion occurred, and what government aid (if any) they were offered.
“This in itself is a way to protect yourself,” he said, adding that once such videos have been broadcast, the authorities cannot deny that the problem exists.
|The youth movement subverts traditional power structures, such as that of the government’s Political Agent, to conduct grassroots activism through social media and other tools [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]|
Once, Idrees said, he was questioned by a man identifying himself as a member of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, asking why he was posting statements and victims’ stories on social media, rather than approaching the military directly.
“I said that we have done this out of desperation,” he said. “We have gotten tired, after all the times where we told you and you promised that the issues would be resolved by such and such time. And they were not.”
The phone call carried a veiled threat, Idrees said, and it was not the first that members of the group have received.
Last year, several members were detained for hours by security forces, after leading a protest for landmine victims. Others have been kicked out of their homes for their activism.
“We are accused of being agents, of being after money from NGOs, but we have set those things aside and pay no attention to them,” said Wahid.
“Even if they cut us into tiny pieces, we will not step backwards. We have burned our boats to enter this battlefield.”
Back at the protest in Islamabad, Wahid and other speakers continue to rally the hundreds who refuse to leave until justice is done for Naqeebullah Mehsud.
The stage they stand upon is draped with 15ft high portraits of the young aspiring model, taken from his Facebook portfolio and now looking out upon the massive crowd.
“What he could not achieve in life, it seems he has achieved in death,” said one bystander.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s Web Correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.