Khan Wazir, a general practitioner based in North Waziristan, had a thriving clinic in the tribal area before militants belonging to the Pakistani Taliban and allied groups forced him to treat their war wounds by threatening him and his family. Newsweek’s Aamir Iqbal spoke to the doctor, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, at his home. Excerpts:
How did the militants first approach you?
They just appeared at my clinic one day and told me to abandon all my patients and administer to them first. They warned me that I should know how they treat people who don’t listen to them.
Did you try to resist them?
The first day, I thought it wise to just do what they say, as there is no point in arguing with such ignorant people. I thought that if I treat them now, I would not have to deal with them ever again. Unfortunately, they started treating me like their personal slave—they would never pay any medical expenses and would often break my equipment while I was treating their injured. They would also threaten to kill me if I ever tried to refuse them. They acted like barbarians—once they broke my office phone and laughed for several minutes.
What kind of militants would visit you at your clinic?
All kinds. There were locals, Arabs, Tajiks, Chechens, Uzbek—usually in groups of 50 or more. They mostly had long beards and wore turbans. They would bring their weapons with them and a lot of them wore jackets with grenades attached to them. They would always shout for me to treat them immediately or be killed. I don’t think there was any militant in the region—local or foreigner—who didn’t come to my clinic at least once.
Were you the only doctor the region’s militants visited?
No. The militants visited almost every medical practitioner in Waziristan at least once. Our lives were miserable. They mostly sought us out when they needed emergency care and the only viable options were either in Afghanistan or in Waziristan. Being closer to their base of operations, they would usually opt for us over trying to cross the border.
What kind of emergency care did the extremists need?
Bullet-riddled bodies were a common occurrence. A lot of the militants also had burn injuries caused by being too close to explosions. There was one patient in particular whose skull had been completely fractured. The militants forced us to treat him at gunpoint.
Did you ever treat any senior militant commanders?
Yes. I grew up in Waziristan and knew several men who went on to become the local commanders of the Pakistani Taliban. They used to be such nice boys. But they had become very cruel. I don’t know what happened to them, but they only saw benefit in killing people. I remember [former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman] Shahidullah Shahid, [Uzbek commander] Abdul Rehman, and Hafiz Gul Bahadur visited my clinic many times. The families of several prominent Taliban commanders were also among my patients.
Is there any specific incident that still haunts you?
One day, 10 Uzbek militants rushed into my clinic and asked me to treat their colleague, whose leg was wounded. When my nurse came to help me sedate him, their leader got riled up and shouted at us: ‘Why is this unveiled female working in your clinic?’ I was terrified for her life and told him it was a mistake and I would ensure she wore a veil from now on. He merely pointed his gun at us and told me to make sure I did, because he had “ways” to make her understand.
Did the militants ever try to extort money from you in addition to the medical treatment?
Once, a large group of Pakistani Taliban came to my clinic and demanded I come outside and meet them. When I rushed out, they told me to pay them “charity.” After I told them I had no idea what kind of charity they meant, they told me they ruled this region and if I wanted to continue living and working here, I had to pay them. We only had Rs. 20,000 with us at the time and had to give them all of it. One of my employees urged me to hide some of it, but I knew the militants were watching and surviving was much more important than cash.
Did any security personnel ever try to stop these militants?
These men acted like the kings of Waziristan. In fact, whenever the militants clashed with the Pakistan Army or with NATO forces across the border [in Afghanistan], they would seek refuge in government offices. I often saw them using the government hospital to hide from security forces or U.S. drone strikes. If anyone ever tried to resist them, they would just behead them. They were too cruel to care about the psychological impact of this. There was one incident I still remember: a drone strike had hit a militant compound, killing five terrorists. Shortly after, over 100 militants, including foreigners, hid inside the government hospital. They were lying two-to-a-bed to hide from any security forces that might come by. None of us dared to say anything because we knew what the consequences were.
Why did you never go to the authorities?
All of us [doctors] were afraid of what the militants might do if we went to the police or Army. Those extremists would leave beheaded bodies on roadsides with warnings that anyone who tried to act against them would meet the same fate. They were so insidious. When they first appeared, they paid good money to buy up large tracts of land. Many of them forcefully married our sisters and daughters—leaving them widows when they were killed in military strikes. They bombed our education centers and extorted large sums from anyone who had any money. Our lives were hell but at least we were alive.
How did your family feel about you serving as physician to militants?
They didn’t know at first. But one day I took my 12-year-old son to the clinic with me after school. We had barely even entered the clinic when a militant grabbed me by my hair and accused me of coming to the clinic late so that an injured militant would die before I could treat him. My son started crying but the militant would not stop shouting. Once they left, I went back home and told my family to pack up. The next day, my wife, three sons and two daughters moved to a major urban city and started living with some relatives.
Did the Taliban notice your family had left the region?
Yes. They sent a written warning to me. It said: “We have learnt that you are planning to leave the area without our permission. You have already sent your family to another city, but let us remind you that we can find you in any city of Pakistan.”
Is that when you fled the region?
I immediately contacted some friends in Karachi and urged them to get me out of Waziristan as my life had been threatened. They got in touch with some security officials who then helped me leave Waziristan. A few weeks after that, the Pakistan Army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb.
Would you be willing to return to North Waziristan once Zarb-e-Azb has been completed?
Definitely. If terrorism were defeated from Waziristan, I would not hesitate to return for even one minute. I want to serve my people. That is why I studied medicine and became a doctor. The people of my region are currently living as exiles in their own country but we are willing to sacrifice our homes and very lives if it means peace can be restored. We are loyal to our homeland and just want it to be the way it once was.
Can Waziristan ever hope to recover from the damage caused by the Taliban?
Waziristan was once a heaven on Earth. There were flowers and greenery everywhere. The Taliban’s actions made all of that go away. A lot of doctors used to work here, even making house calls to ensure that cultural constraints were met and women who did not wish to leave their homes had access to medical care. Even people from Afghanistan would come to our facilities because we had better training and equipment. I hope that with the help of the Pakistan Army, Allah will allow us all to return to our homes and resume our lives in the same peaceful manner that our forefathers used to enjoy.