Pakistan election 2024: A perilous journey to vote

While law enforcement authorities have increased security provisions for polling stations, there is no additional security for voters making the journey to vote

Reuters
Published : 8 Feb 2024, 04:58 AM
Updated : 8 Feb 2024, 04:58 AM

Rehmat Ullah Mehsud, 59, and three of his relatives are taking a perilous road journey to the most dangerous place in Pakistan to cast votes on Thursday in the general election.

Mehsud said he and the others will travel over 150 km to his hometown in the South Waziristan region from Dera Ismail Khan city, where his family moved 20 years ago to escape an area that had become a hotbed of Islamist militancy. Tens of thousands of other residents have also fled the region, because of the militants and harsh military crackdowns.

"There is fear in the whole country, which place is safe?" Mehsud told Reuters as he boarded a sedan on Wednesday for the three-hour journey to the area where the family is registered as voters. He said the family would stay overnight, vote early on Thursday and return immediately.

"I will vote because the conditions and policies that have been going on for 20 years can change if a good candidate is elected," he said.

South Waziristan, with its rocky mountains and sparse forests dotted with dry creeks and ravines, was the destination for global Islamist militant groups such as al Qaeda after the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan drove them into Pakistan's tribal areas.

They have now been joined by home-grown militants who are making Waziristan and other areas bordering Afghanistan the epicentre of an insurgency that has spread across the northwest province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

Pakistan's general election is being held amidst a resurgence of violence by Islamist militants, particularly the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and rising concerns over security for the process.

Ethnic militants in Balochistan province in the southwest have also stepped up attacks, and at least 26 people were killed there on Wednesday in two bomb blasts targeting political party offices.

Dera Ismail Khan, from where Mehsud was travelling, is also in KP province and not much safer. A TTP attack near the city earlier this week killed 10 policemen. In December 2023, a six-man suicide squad drove an explosive-laden truck into a military camp nearby, killing 23 soldiers.

'ALLAH WILL PROTECT US'

There have been more than eighteen attacks on political leaders and workers across Pakistan since elections were announced in November, with ten of them in KP alone, data from the Pak Institute for Peace Studies showed.

"We don't have any security, Allah will protect us. We are just taking some necessary medicine and dry food with us," said Amjad Khan, a resident of Dera Ismail Khan also on his way to South Waziristan. Like Khan, many others are going without any additional protective measures.

While law enforcement authorities have increased security provisions for polling stations, there is no additional security for voters making the journey to vote.

Over 91,000 policemen will be on election duty in the province on Thursday, along with 18,000 military and paramilitary personnel, backed by over 1,000 members of the army's Quick Response Force, the province's home ministry said.

The TTP militants say they do not believe in democracy and are fighting to impose a system in line with their version of Islamic teachings.

Ahead of elections, in January, the TTP said in a statement said that they would target the army and other security forces, warning political parties and people to stay away from places where the armed forces and security forces have any presence.

But despite the threat, many others like Mehsud are also planning to travel back to their conflict-struck hometowns to vote.

Maulana Raheem Ullah, 39, said many of his friends and family were going to make the trip in vehicles rented specially for the day.

"These vehicles include buses, high-roofs, wagons and pickups, some people will go in their own cars and motorcycles," he told Reuters.

With tens of thousands displaced from the tribal regions, most candidates vying to represent constituencies there have campaigned in other cities such as Dera Ismail Khan.

"Due to the war, people's houses were destroyed," Moulana Jamal Uddin, a candidate from South Waziristan, told Reuters by phone.

He said his team was arranging food and accommodation for voters coming from other areas. "I appeal to the people of South Waziristan to vote," he said.

Khan Ullah, a 42-year-old shop owner, said he has avoided political gatherings in Dera Ismail Khan because he feared an attack on them was a real possibility.

"But," he said, "I will go to vote."