Manzoor Pashteen: The Pashtun folk hero making life difficult for Pakistan's ruling class
Updated 9:28 PM ET, Fri May 11, 2018
Pakistan (CNN)Manzoor Ahmed Pashteen, a 24-year-old ethnic Pashtun, was just a child when the US-led war on terror began, and it wasn't long until it was on his doorstep.
He said his family, who live in Pakistan's north-western region, close to the Afghan border, first heard the name "Taliban" in 2004. By the end of the year, with fighting intensifying, his family was forced out of their village, Sarwakai.
The following year "the situation became such that whenever an elder spoke out against the war they would suddenly disappear."
Pashteen has accused the military of allying with the Pakistani Taliban -- an almost-sacrilegious accusation in a country where the military is counted among the strongest and most trustworthy of institutions.
"Ask them: Who they are harboring in their cantonment zones, if not the Taliban?" Pashteen tells CNN, referring to the security forces' military stations.
The military and intelligence services have responded to repeated requests from CNN for comment by saying they are "not available to comment."
His suspicions are not unique in the remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where years of war and violence have left villages destroyed and lives ruined by militant violence and heavy-handed government interference, which often leads to what they see as indiscriminate killing and arrests.
The military has long denied claims of links to armed groups. It has also rejected allegations of involvement in extrajudicial killings and abuses in its long-running war against militants in the tribal region.
It's against this violent backdrop that a new generation of young men and women have emerged with a renewed call for justice.
Pashteen, a charismatic speaker and a defender of the Pashtun ethnic group, has been thrust into the spotlight as leader of this new movement.
On Sunday Pashteen will address what could be his largest crowd yet, in Karachi, home to the country's largest urban Pashtun population.
Birth of a movement
What started off as a conversation among students leaders at Gomal University in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtukhua (KP) province in 2014, quickly became its own organization, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) -- "tahafuz" means protection in Urdu.
But it wasn't until January 2018, following the death of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring model who security services killed as part of a raid on a group of militants aligned with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) -- the Pakistani Taliban -- that the movement really began to gather momentum.
Senior police officials later conceded after an investigation that Mehsud had no ties to militancy.
After three months of sustained outrage, a local police superintendent was arrested in connection with the killing. The case against him is currently ongoing.
Mehsud's death gave rise to a series of PTM organized rallies throughout the country, later dubbed the "Pashtun Long March."
At PTM rallies, thousands of men, women and children hold aloft photos, ragged Polaroids and tattered birth certificates from their missing relatives, hoping that this young man's swaggering charisma can somehow bring their loved ones home.
The movement -- which is committed to nonviolence -- is demanding authorities confront accusations of involvement in the death and disappearance of hundreds of Pashtuns in FATA, and guarantee rights for the 30 million tribespeople that make up the minority group.
The PTM is also demanding the removal of checkpoints and land mines from FATA areas and compensation for property destroyed in the course of Pakistan Army offensives in the region.
"These demands appeal to a fairly broad section of the Pakistani population, as they are about fundamental fairness," says Barnett Rubin, a senior fellow and Associate Director for the Center on International Cooperation, where he directs the Afghanistan Pakistan Regional Program.
'We don't back down'
When CNN meets Pashteen at an undisclosed location -- he fears for his own safety -- he is, as ever, wearing his distinctive, embroidered red-and-black hat.
The headgear, which he exchanged with a shepherd for the one off his own head, has itself has become a powerful symbol, to the point where similar style hats have been banned from at least one university.
He eats walnut cake while quoting popular Bollywood songs to prove his points, and is direct when it comes to his convictions.
"I come from a family that sees through the things we begin," he says. "We don't back down halfway."