Into Thin Air

What happened to a Pakistani journalist who exposed a U.S. missile strike?

Update, June 19, 2006: Hayatullah Khan was found dead on Friday, June 16. He had been shot in the head.

The night before Hayatullah Khan and I drove to Shawal, Pakistan—the 15 square miles of Waziristan that spans the Afghan border, where woodcutters were said to be sheltering Osama Bin Laden—we climbed onto his rooftop. This was more than a year and half ago, when Waziristan was dangerous but not as lethal as it is now. From above, the little town of Mir Ali looked like a medieval French village. Barefoot women in bright kerchiefs shouldered sheaths of freshly cut wheat. “Look, the men carry nothing,” Hayat pointed out, as a cluster of men with guns slung across their backs walked beneath us. A journalist who first came to international attention for reporting on al-Qaida’s presence in the tribal areas in 2001, Hayat has been threatened by al-Qaida, arrested by the Pakistani government for exposing Waziristan’s growing militancy, and detained by U.S. Special Forces in July 2002 while reporting in Afghanistan.

On Dec. 1, 2005, when Egyptian-born Abu Hamza Rabia, a suspected al-Qaida member, and four other people, including a 7-year-old boy, died in an explosion in North Waziristan, Hayat reported that they had been killed by a U.S. laser-guided Hellfire missile—not in a munitions explosion, as the Pakistanis had claimed. Four days later, five men with AK-47 assault rifles forced Khan’s car off the road, his brother Mohammad Ehsan, who was in the vehicle, told the Committee to Protect Journalists. According to the Los Angeles Times, unnamed Pakistani intelligence officials first told his brother Ihsanullah that Hayat “was fine and we should not worry about him. But now they say Hayatullah might be in U.S. officials’ custody.” CPJ has added Hayat to its list of missing journalists and fears that he has entered the netherworld of U.S. secret detention. He has now been gone for almost four months. The Pentagon says no reports can be confirmed.

It’s especially ironic that Hayat could be caught in the growing net of U.S. detention in the war on terror, because he is a staunch opponent of militancy. Hayat built a mosque on his roof where anyone of any faith can pray. He also installed a loudspeaker, so if he were in danger or had something to say to his fellow tribesmen, he could shout it from the rooftop the way the conservative religious teachers do. In Waziristan, where many Deobandi mullahs have forbidden any kind of access to learning besides reading the Quran, they use loudspeakers to collect money from poor Wazirs.

“Why should only the mullahs have loudspeakers?” he asked, as knelt to wash his hands, face, and feet before praying. From the roof, he indicated how the wealthiest madrasahs were the only oases of green in the otherwise clay-colored landscape. Funded by the Gulf states, local Taliban leaders dug the only wells within hundreds of miles. Anyone who wants water has to go through them. Hayat disliked the mullahs’ hypocrisy—lining their pockets while their flock starved. He also hated the newfound presence of foreign militants, sheltered by the mullahs.

But Hayat, who is 32 and has four children, is primarily a fair-minded journalist reporting for the Urdu-language newspaper Ausaf, as well as European Pressphoto Agency, among others, on what’s happening in one of the most clandestine corners of the world. Despite his arrests and death threats from the militants, he has followed the story, no matter the personal cost.

The next morning, before Hayat and I set off in his pickup, he gave me his wife’s only pair of shoes and her burqa. Then, for safety’s sake, he sat his 2-year-old daughter on my lap for the journey so we would look like Wazirs. We set out on the newly paved road paid for by the U.S. government and passed convoy after convoy of Pakistani special forces heading for the Afghan border. Hayat pointed out the hillside where a sign made of white rocks that read “Long Live Mullah Omar” had recently been demolished. He showed me the hills where the Pakistani military had buzzed the local population with helicopters to frighten the Wazirs into allowing the military to build roads for the first time in history. According to the local people, the Pakistani military said if the Wazirs didn’t grant the army permission to enter the region, American paratroopers would drop from the sky.

By then, there was already an active U.S. military presence in North and South Waziristan. Both Special Forces troops and at least two Predator drone bases were operating there, according to firsthand accounts from the team that had built their compounds, as well as from tribesmen who had seen the U.S. soldiers on rare appearances outside the compound walls. Although the issue of America’s military presence on Pakistani soil is highly sensitive, President Pervez Musharraf has quietly acknowledged that U.S. “advisers” are on the ground. That’s why Hayat’s reporting of a U.S. Hellfire missile was so controversial.

Hayat is also the most generous investigative journalist I’ve ever known. He continually put himself out to report on the hidden war in Waziristan and to help others—including me—do the same. That afternoon in Shawal, after driving for several hours, Hayat and I were alone on a fresh mud road blasted into the hillside. As his little daughter fed herself fistfuls of almonds, we counted newly installed power lines and saw where the Pakistani military had clear-cut entire hillsides. Shawal is the only wooded area of Waziristan—and since wood is extremely scarce, the Wazir woodcutters depend on it for survival. Deforestation was one more reason the tribesmen have turned against the Pakistani government. Finally, we passed a couple of local tribesmen squatting by the roadside watching every car. Sentries, Hayat said, but we couldn’t tell if they worked for the military or the militants, so we turned around, left Shawal, and returned to Hayat’s house.

“I think one day I’ll be killed for my reporting,” Hayat told me that afternoon. As a colleague and friend, I’ve worried about Hayat ever since I met him, especially as al-Qaida has become increasingly powerful in Waziristan. He never stopped reporting on their presence, or on clandestine operations by the Pakistani and U.S. military. Hayat has always known the potential consequences of his reporting and been prepared for them. But of all the scenarios in which Hayat could come to harm, no one imagined it would be at the hands of United States, which may have disappeared him for telling the truth.