“You don’t want me to chop off your hands and feet,” says the Army officer to a Pashtun. This horror-flick statement is part of a 10-minute video that, if authentic, would be the first time that proof of the brutality of the Pakistani Army will have been captured on tape. The footage shows Pakistani soldiers interrogating and then beating Pashtun men suspected of harbouring the Taliban. The soldiers kick, whip and thrash their victims who scream and agonize on the ground.
Authentic or not, the ruthlessness shown in the video is already real for the Pakistani media so much so that hardly a local media outlet dared report on it. Being beaten or having your hands chopped off is rather unpleasant business after all, and few reporters are willing to risk that for a story. The fear is pervasive, and the near pitch-perfect silence speaks volumes about the army whether the video is a real or a fake.
It was the BBC that first carried the story on October 1st after the video had been making rounds on Facebook. That was followed by a piece in the Guardian. Under pressure from stories being carried in the foreign press, the English language dailies, Dawn and the Daily Times finally ran pieces today available here, here and here.
Compare that to the coverage of the Taliban flogging video in April this year. Within a week, numerous articles had already been published. Justifiably horrified progressive Pakistanis took to protesting the Taliban in Karachi and Lahore. Then newly reinstated Chief Justice took suo moto action the same day calling the case to court. As a result, the man beating the girl in the video was arrested a day ago.
It’s one thing to criticize mullahs, militants or politicians like President Asif Ali Zardari, say local journalists, but quite another to probe “the establishment,” the term in Pakistan for the nexus of military and security agencies that run intrigues, kidnappings, undercover operations, and lately, the American war on terror.
Democracy may be transient in Pakistan, but the establishment is well…established. Cameramen know the areas that are off-limits for filming in the heart of Pakistan’s cities; reporters know which stories should go unrecorded. Otherwise, as one reporter explained it to me, “Accidents happen.” You may be hit by a car, or a container might fall on you. Or, you may disappear and a few hours later your brother will find your mangled body.
That’s what happened with Musa Khan Khel, the 28-year-old Geo Television reporter who was killed in Swat the day the Swat peace deal was signed with Sufi Muhammad. Only a few days earlier, Khel had told his reportedly told his employers, “I have been receiving death threats from a powerful force. They are after me. They want to kill me.”
Khan Khel never specified who “they” were. Veteran reporter and Khan Khel’s friend, Imtiaz Ali says he doesn’t know either, but “The Taliban proudly declare when they’ve done something.” In this case however, they came to offer condolences to Khan Khel’s family after his death.
It is known that Khan Khel was on tenuous terms with the Pakistan Army officials and often barred from official press conferences in Swat, the region he was covering as a result. He set out on the morning of his death to report with his brother. They were banned from covering senior minister Bashir Bilour’s press conference that day announcing the Swat deal between the government and local militants.
Khan Khel stated this fact in the last report he filed. It would run in The News a day after his death.
The Army is everywhere. When I was a child, we would watch a television show about young dashing Rashid, an Air force pilot who does kamikaze rather than be caught and divulge his secrets to the enemy. I wanted to be him. At six years old, didn’t we all?
Now, returning after 19 years, the symbols are everywhere. Unity. Faith. Discipline. The Army motto haunts the country in oversized and often fairly ugly sculptures. A sculpture of Jinnah along with the army motto lay carved on a grassy hill in Islamabad. Three phallic marble swords pierce the sky in Karachi. At their hilts, the army motto. In Lahore at the Wagah border between Pakistan and India, thousands throng to watch the Army ritual on Independence Day. There is no room for everyone inside the enclosure. The crowd runs thick. It surges forward. Soldiers on horseback lathi-charge, beating at random. A man screams in the crush trying to turn his car back around in the human sea. His daughter is bleeding from her head. He needs to get out.
We all need to get out. In its latest operation in Swat, the Pakistan Army has already been accused of human rights violations by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). After being so unceremoniously tossed out of their homes and livelihoods, the nearly 3 million internally displaced Swatis are being handed 500Rs per adult head and returned on buses, packed off for journeys scheduled to be as long 35 hours, which if one is familiar with “Pakistan standard time” actually means more like 45 hours. One bus fell into a ditch this week. Fifteen people were killed.
The public indignities which the Pashtuns have suffered are the result of the “army better than the Taliban” mentality. But for whom exactly? Caught in that abysmally narrow-minded refrain are all the calumnies, indignities, horror and violence of what has happened in Swat. In the name of destroying the Taliban, the Pakistani elite cheered on an army that razed villages and collectively punished Pashtuns. That is what is going on in that video: collective punishment. And the groundwork for what is geographically and mentally in the periphery was laid in the heartland of Pakistan. Stories of the “Talibanization” of Karachi smack of cold racism against the immigrant Pashtun population against whom the MQM, the party that rules Karachi, has long held a grudge. They are the underclass in Pakistan, our cooks, our car drivers, our chaukidars.
And what will follow in Waziristan?