When Mohammad Ayub Khan heard his nephew had been picked up by Pakistani security officials in Karachi, it brought back painful memories of another nephew who had gone missing in familiar circumstances years before.
Khan, an ethnic Pashtun, says he had been calling at army and police officers searching news of Haji Akbar since his nephew was ordered off a bus by uniformed soldiers seven years ago during a security alert in the northern Swat Valley. Then last year his second nephew, rickshaw driver Abu Ghurera, was detained by plainclothes men as he waited for a fare in the country’s biggest city, according to witnesses.
“I have knocked on every door but have not gotten any answers,” said Khan, who blames government security agencies for both men’s disappearances.
“Tell us where our children are so we know if they are alive. And if they are dead, at least return their bodies.”
Rights groups say such cases have been common for the past decade. But the simmering resentment of the Pashtun community boiled over in January, when a young Pashtun man was gunned down by police in Karachi in an incident an inquiry has since ruled to be an extrajudicial killing.
The killing, initially described by police as a shoot-out with terrorist suspects, sparked peaceful protests across the country by members of the 30 million-strong Pashtun community, who say hundreds of their young men have been “disappeared”.
The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), which organised the protests, has compiled a list of approximately 1,200 missing persons after speaking to families.
A preliminary list of 315 names has been seen by Reuters. Relatives of 20 of those listed were contacted and confirmed their family member was missing.
Amnesty International said on Monday that a UN working group on enforced disappearances had 700 pending cases from Pakistan and urged the authorities to do more to resolve them.
PTM leaders say stories of Pashtun disappearances have been largely ignored until now, especially ordeals suffered by families from the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, including thousands who moved to major cities to escape a near-decade long insurgency by Islamist militants.
The Pakistan Army’s public relations department did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the military has in the past said it does not detain individuals without evidence. Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior did not respond to requests for comment.
Scared to speak out
Many relatives, including Khan, say they had been too scared to speak up, fearing security forces would act against them and their remaining family members.
But protest leaders say that changed with the January killing of Naqibullah Mehsud in Karachi, and the demonstrations that followed that swelled to several thousand strong.
“Naqib’s blood has given the rest of us a voice,” said Alam Zeb Khan, one of the protest organizers.
Pashtuns say that the insurgency raging in their homeland has led security forces to treat them all as potential militants.
The killing of Mehsud, an aspiring fashion model, received nationwide attention because his widely shared social media profile, laden with pictures of him posing in fashionable clothes, cast doubt on police assertions that he was a violent Islamist.
A police committee of inquiry has since ordered the arrest of the officers responsible for his death and termed the incident an extrajudicial killing.
Meanwhile, the January protests snowballed, with demonstrators camping out in the capital Islamabad, denouncing the disappearance and extrajudicial killings of young Pashtuns.
No time to be young
Several of the Pashtun protest organisers say they have been activists since their teens.
“We have to grow up early. It’s because of the lives we are born into,” Alam Zeb said.
Student activist Manzoor Pashteen, 26, says he has waited years for this moment.
Last year he was organising small 100-person protests in the northern town of Dera Ismail Khan, where he has lived since leaving conflict-ridden South Waziristan to pursue an education in 2005.
On March 15, Pakistani authorities filed a case against Pashteen for “provocation with intent to cause riot”, carrying a maximum sentence of five years.
“I am angry because I am asking for my constitutional rights from the government,” Pashteen told Reuters. “And the state calls me treacherous.”
A senior police official said a case had been lodged against Pashteen over anti-state comments he made during the protests.
In 2009, the army launched an offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan. The war reduced entire villages to rubble and turned nearly a million people into internal refugees.
The leadership of the Pakistani Taliban hails from the region and the group controlled large swathes of territory in both South and North Waziristan until they were pushed out by the military in separate operations in 2009 and 2014.
The region is still affected by media restrictions limiting the ability of journalists to travel there, and activists say that has contributed to the portrayal of the Pashtun population as wedded to backward tribal customs and maintaining close ties to militant groups.
“If your name is Mehsud and you’re from South Waziristan, then immediately people associate you with militants,” human rights lawyer Jibran Nasir said.
Missing without a trace
Organisers say their protests have had some impact. Eight missing persons have returned in the past month, Alam Zeb told Reuters, adding they were detained by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.
“I have spoken to the families of all eight and they were with the intelligence agencies,” he said.
Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the main spy agency, did not respond to a request for comment.
One such case is that of Sohail Ahmed, who was taken by security officials in plainclothes in July 2016 and finally returned earlier this month.
In another case, a man who was arrested by security forces in the northern town of Bajaur turned up in police custody 150 km (80 miles) away on charges of possessing weapons and bomb making materials.
“He hated militants,” Mohammad Zahid said of his cousin, Kaleemullah, whose arrest he witnessed.
Protesters say such stories are common.
Mohammad Bilal has not seen his son since he was taken by security officials eight years ago.
“He was working as a bus conductor in Karachi when the coach was stopped by security officials and Hazratullah was taken away,” Bilal told Reuters, holding up a large picture of his son.
Bilal says he has asked police and military officials about his son, but has received no answers.
“I am alone,” he said. “He is my oldest son, how can I forget him.”