September 23rd, 2020

By Hamid Riaz 


In the aftermath of the murder of lady health worker, Nahida Gul, a protest was held in the Mirali area of North Waziristan. Nahida was shot dead at point-blank range, two days ago, according to reports.

The protest which was organized by the Pushtun Tahaffuz Movement was a massive demonstration, where slogans were raised against the criminal negligence of the local administration and swift justice for Nahida Gul was the main demand. Protestors claimed that despite the military’s “grand security operations in North Waziristan”, the security situation in the area remained volatile.  They blamed the lady health worker’s murder on increasing militancy in the region.

“Militants have been deliberately targeting the educated youth of the area because our ideas pose a threat to their extremist world view,” says Adil Dawar, a senior member of PTM North Waziristan and one of the organizers of the protest. “In the past, two or three years alone at least 100 or so educated youth have been targeted and killed by different militant groups in North Waziristan, at least three of them were women,” he estimates.

Other leaders of the PTM have been warning about increased militant activity in the area, for some time now.

“The saddest thing is that there is a complete information blackout of these events because security forces do not release information easily and mainstream media organizations are generally not interested in our deaths,” explains Adil. “We are protesting so that Nahida’s case does not suffer the same fate.”

Protesters in Mir Ali gather to demand for justice for Nahida

Nahida Gul was a 25-year-old resident of Maski, Mirali, North Waziristan, and a Master’s graduate from Bannu. Technically though she was an ‘Assistant Nutritionist’ working on a project to reduce malnutrition amongst children of the area since 2018. According to a First Information Report (FIR) of the incident filed by Nahida’s father on September 21, Nahida Gul was traveling back home from her shift at the local Basic Health Unit (BHU) when two masked men “targeted, shot and killed her”. Locals informed the family at 1 pm after which the family approached the police.

While the rickshaw driver’s name has been cleared of any involvement in the crime, sources close to Nahida’s family have revealed that the two masked men forcefully boarded the vehicle she had been travelling in, took it to a desolate place and then shot her twice, leaving her there to die.

Militant activity a major cause for concern

The FIR claims that the route which Nahida took to and from work was a hotbed of militant activity yet no provisions were made for her security. When probed about the matter a police official at the Mirali Police station, admitted that, “The Basic Health Unit (where Nahida worked) is in a remote area and because of the current security situation the police force is already stretched thin, so providing dedicated personnel to protect the BHU and its employees are out of the question”.

Surprisingly, the local police station distanced itself from the investigation of the murder saying that the Counter-Terrorism Department (Bannu Unit) had taken over the investigation. But CTD officials failed to provide any details about the ongoing investigation.

Shockingly this is far from being an isolated incident.

Senior officials from the Eradication of Polio Initiative (EPI) on condition of anonymity revealed that “There has been a marked rise in the targeted killings of ‘health workers’ since the killing of Osama Bin Laden by American troops in May 2011. Everyone thinks that we are American agents.” He approximates that 72 personnel associated with the EPI KPK alone have been killed in the line of duty since 2012”.

The situation appears to be very dire particularly in the context of the recent launch of a wide-scale polio-eradication drive by the government. Since 2019, there have been several high profile cases of health worker teams being particularly targeted by militants in KP. In two recent incidents, health worker teams were targeted by gunmen in Swabi and Dir resulting in the deaths of two lady health workers and two police escorts, respectively.

In many of these cases, justice was not meted out to the family and the government refused to learn lessons.

“Time and time again we have requested our higher-ups to ensure the security of our employees but to no avail,” says a senior official at the North Waziristan DHO office, working on the “Mal Nutrition Program” Nahida was associated with. “Unfortunately, the local police do not have sufficient training or even the will to protect health workers.”

Apparently, even though Nahida had never officially requested security small scuffles were a part of her routine work. “People would threaten violence over who would get access to the supplements she was giving out. We had to intervene several times to resolve these issues. Ultimately, owing to the extremely poor security situation of the area she deserved protection,” continues the official.

For Nahida, this was more like social work than an economic opportunity.

“We did not need the money. She just enjoyed helping people,” says Muhammad Farooq, Nahida’s father. “Even when we were displaced from our home and were living in Buner as IDPs my daughter was working on a project just like this for children …. all she wanted to do was help people…” he breaks down, sobbing. The loss has been too much to bear.

Once in control, Muhammad Farooq denies reports of a ‘cash hand-out’ by the government.

“Even though the District Commissioner, CPO, SHO and other senior officials have visited our family, they have promised no such package. And I don’t need their money,” he says. “What I am now concerned with is the safety of the other daughters of the nation who worked alongside Nahida…there may be 12 more other young women.”

A bleak future

Meanwhile Atif Khan, Nahida’s cousin does not believe that Nahida’s killers will ever be brought to justice and is not very hopeful about the future.

“In cases like these, no one never truly finds out who the killers were,” he says matter of factly. “It’s as if someone does not want us to find out. I am a student of Masters and Nahida was my role model. I wanted to complete my studies and work for the uplift of Mirali, my home town, inspired by her work. But now I dont see myself doing it. I think I will leave Mirali at the first opportunity I get – this place is never going to be safe for us,” he says.

Atif says that a social media post that has gone viral has mentioned a ‘Khalid Khorasani’ who has claimed responsibility for the attack, but there has been no verification of this. “The core purpose of their action was to create an atmosphere of fear in the area and their purpose has been fulfilled.”

Meanwhile the KP chapter of the Lady Health Workers Union (LHWU) has announced a protest outside Peshawar Press Club a couple of days later.

“We’ll be working with black arm bands in solidarity with Nahida Gul. Even though she was not a member of the Lady Health Worker’s program as such but still she was a member of the health worker’s community,” says Ayesha, the President of the LHWU-KP chapter.

In addition to the death of Nahida, lady health workers of KP will be protesting against two other incidents of violent assault against polio teams in the province.

“We all know who these unknown people are. Why has no one been caught so far?” cries Ayesha. “We demand that the state fulfill its responsibility of providing safety to health workers regardless of their program”, explains Ayesha. “If this is how it will be, no matter how ‘determined’ the government is, its grand goals of polio eradication, plan to provide maternal health services and reduction in child malnutrition will never be fulfilled.”