TANK, Oct 7: Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf’s (PTI) peace march came to an abrupt end after the party leadership stopped short of leading the caravan into South Waziristan, allegedly after the Pakistan Army cited “serious security threats” were Imran Khan to force his way in. The decision to turn back, along with earlier news and rumours of security threats from local militants, prompted participants and journalists to question the nature of the party’s relations with the Pakistan Army, and why the party would agree to turn back so quickly despite their claims to hold a “historic jalsa” in the tribal agency.

Around 500 participants — including Imran Khan, his family, friends and party colleagues — congregated at a guesthouse in Tank on Sunday morning, to set off for South Waziristan. Many arrived late the night before, after an almost 14-hour drive from Islamabad to Dera Ismail Khan. But despite plans to “march to Waziristan”, everyone seemed tentative after stories about threats from local organisations reached the ear of participants.

“These are all rumours, spread by the government and Zardari in an attempt to stop this rally,” an ardent PTI supporter said, before he sprinted to the other end of the courtyard, where participants were meeting accompanying journalists. PTI coordinators were less sure — some seemed to expect, and hope, that the authorities would stop their entrance into South Waziristan. That way, they would not have to pull out of the rally themselves. Even Imran Khan made clear that he was interested in a peaceful protest. “This is just a peace march,” he said to several hundreds of people bunched together under a red canopy before he invited Code Pink onto the stage for their final public protest and the march took off.

The unexpected U-turn

A turned-over container convinced some driving towards the border that PTI might just push through to South Waziristan. But only 10 minutes later, silver Prados with the PTI leader, family, friends and senior members of his party, were seen driving in the opposite direction. Confused PTI members — many of them vying for provincial or national assembly tickets — rolled down their windows and asked each other what happened. Rumours started circulating of a blast. Some said that the army had threatened to shoot if Khan tried to force his way through. And others merely stated that the road was blocked, and that it was impossible to continue.

As cars parked at a clearing at some distance from the original blockage, Imran Khan crawled up on a truck to address the crowd. Thousands filled the clearing, to hear the “historic Jalsa” — which despite its presence in Tank was still addressed to “Waziristan”. The crowd — electrified by Khan and his party — waved their flags and chanted his name. Many of them were tribals from South and North Waziristan, displaced because of fighting at home. And as Khan stepped up on the stage, they listened to his speech about peace and against drones. And his explanation for why they did not proceed: the Pakistan Army had said it was too dangerous.

“This is typical of the Pakistan Army. They stop such things from happening,” said one Waziri who stood in the crowd and listened to Khan. A PTI activist agreed. “The fauj does not want anyone to know what they are really doing in South Waziristan.”

Khan stayed clear of accusing the Pakistan Army — focusing his efforts on drone strikes and the importance of ending them to bring peace to South Waziristan. His lacking criticism against the army — a force widely believed to be in control of South Waziristan — seemed to fit oddly with a crowd frequently displaced by military operations. That did not stop some from appreciating his visit. “No-one ever comes. At least he is speaking out against drones,” said a local refugee.

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