Although it’s been several months since this event happened, I want to dive a little deeper into a protest in the Khar Qamar area of Pakistan’s North Waziristan region. Depending on who you believe, Pashtun protesters either violently attacked a Pakistani military post or were massacred during a peaceful gathering by a hail of army gunfire. Both sides agree that civilians were undoubtedly shot and killed following a protest near a Pakistani army base.
However, this narrative leaves important questions unanswered: what sparked the gunfire? Did the military suffer casualties? Which figures were involved in the protest? After reviewing the available information, it is impossible to say what, if anything, caused the shooting. However, open-source evidence clearly shows protesters turning away from the soldiers prior to the military opening fire on the crowd.
The protest began in two separate locations several hundred yards apart. At the first location, protesters were confronted by soldiers armed with batons and rifles near a barbed wire checkpoint, as seen in this video:
At the second protest location (skip to 0:46), a few hundred yards down the road, demonstrators were doing much the same as at the first location: shouting slogans, arguing with soldiers at the checkpoint, and filming the events of the day.
Geolocation reveals the two sites to be on a road near the entrance to a small Pakistani military base. The base sits on a bluff overlooking the Tochi River, a large bridge, and the main western approach to the North Waziristan town of Boyya:
As the protest continued at the first location, the protest at the second location rapidly intensified. A large crowd gathered to whistle, yell, and throw rocks at the soldiers, although the majority of the protesters remained peaceful. A few stills from a video posted to YouTube show rocks lobbed towards the soldiers’ positions at the front of the protest:
A few seconds later, protesters begin turning around, away from the soldiers and away from the checkpoints at the front of the protest:
At this point, some context for the protest is necessary. The military claimed that the protest began after Pashtun activists demanded the release of terror suspects detained at the nearby base. Conversely, the Pashtun activists claimed that they were protesting the military beating a woman the day before the protest. Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, two local politicians and activists involved in the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, led the protest.
The Pakistani military claimed that Ali Wazir had been inciting violence at the protest; however, after demonstrators started turning around, a large group composed of Ali Wazir and his entourage also turned around. At least two videos clearly show him and a large group of companions walking away from the soldiers and the rest of the protest immediately before the shooting.
(Ali Wazir is the heavyset man draped in a multicolored garland, wearing a brown hat and blue shirt, with a thick, dark mustache)
In the Twitter video, the crowd is seen walking away from the soldiers for at least 20 seconds before the shooting starts. Here, the crowd begins to turn around:
Later, another still gives a good view of the size of the crowd, proving that dozens, if not the majority, of the protesters had turned around before the shooting started:
Finally, the shooting begins in this frame, 22 seconds into the video, after many of the protesters had already turned their backs on the soldiers.
In both videos, gunshots can be heard snapping through the air behind Ali Wazir and the protesters who had turned around. As the crowd begins to sprint away, the shots crescendo into an automatic rattle and continue unabated for at least 50 seconds.
Since the group turned around so soon before the gunfire started, a connection between the two events seems likely. Did Ali Wazir and his entourage realize the soldiers were about to start shooting and try to get as far away as possible before things went south? Did, as the military said, the group really incite other protesters to attack the soldiers? Or did a jumpy, nervous unit simply open fire after protesters threw a few rocks at them?
Meanwhile, demonstrators at the first location took cover behind cars to film the shooting at the second location. Before long, soldiers began firing at them too, as shown in this YouTube video.
This video in particular calls into question the Pakistani military’s claim that the soldiers were attacked prior to the shooting. At the beginning of the video, the soldiers are seen standing calmly, with their rifles pointed down, while gunfire from the second protest location echoes in the background. If the army had truly been under attack, wouldn’t these soldiers either have been aiming their guns or taking cover from the alleged attack?
Protester at first location begins running after soldiers start shooting:
In the aftermath of the shooting at the two locations, the Pakistani military released a statement saying three people had been killed and 15 injured, including five soldiers. They also published a fairly generic photo of a soldier that had purportedly been injured in the “attack”:
We need more evidence to determine what prompted the initial shots – more photos or videos of the moment soldiers opened fire on the protest would certainly be welcome. Nonetheless, the existing evidence indicates that not only did the soldiers at the checkpoints fire into the backs of the protesters, but they also failed to use less than lethal crowd control measures like tear gas or batons. Once the decision was made to open fire, the shooting continued for an unreasonable amount of time and (judging from the videos) included both automatic and heavy machine gun fire.
Unfortunately, we can’t determine exactly why the soldiers started shooting, due to a lack of media showing the front of the protest in the few seconds before the gunfire. However, the aftermath of the shooting certainly raises concerns about the Pakistani military’s handling of the situation and ability to peacefully respond to protests in the future.