Back in March 2015, I was in Bannu to investigate ‘missing persons’ cases. On this particular day, I had to go to the nearby town of Mir Ali – where Zarb-e-Azb was in full swing – but did not reach there since we were stopped on the road. The operation had displaced an estimated 700,000 civilian tribals who were now scattered all over FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and other parts of the country as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Many of the tribals who had chosen to stay near Bannu had grievances against the state, which most of the local media was under reporting. During one of these trips when I was on the ground with a local news channel which was reporting on the massive destruction of farms by hail and rain, a crew member got a call from the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) in the middle of the transmission. “You know you are not supposed to be here” said the voice on the phone. Such was the hold of the military over the region – even the weather news was being restricted. At this point, I had already been speaking to families in neighbourhoods and villages congested with IDP’s in different parts of FATA.Their frustration and misery was clearly discernible. One tribal man from South Waziristan whose 21 year old son had gone missing called the Pakistani state worse than the Taliban. “They torture their own people, because they are afraid we will reveal the real situation to the world”, he had said. Some complained the operation selectively pardoned certain dangerous terrorist elements that partly worked in Afghanistan. They had witness accounts of what they saw, and who they saw. But to verify these details, I had to investigate their claims, and at times some of these claims were confirmed by reliable contacts I had both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So I started coordinating with tribals who could take me to those areas and arrange to meet with people willing to speak. As ab woman, it had been reasonably feasible to travel in unfrequented areas wearing the ‘shuttle cork’ burqa, women wear traditionally in these regions on both sides of the Af-Pak border. “You come at your will and go at ours. Don’t you know who rules here? This is our territory”, he went on. He continued to talk about how he could take me somewhere where no one would find me or find out about what he would do to me. My translator and I sat still, in the echo of their intimidating laughs Then one day, all the work on this story ended. With my translator Mehsud, (I can’t use his first name for security) I was visiting villages on the outskirts of Bannu, where I met families of tribals who said their men were being abducted, often beaten and tortured into silence. Many simply disappeared. According to rumours, these ‘disappeared’ persons were put in secret prisons in other parts of the country. This was all a part of the crackdown on militants. As we were returning to Bannu city late that afternoon, two men who identified themselves as Intelligence Bureau officials stopped our car on Mir Ali road and took us in for interrogation. “Those tribals are greedy liars… they are loots,” one of them in his 40s with a black moustache and tanned face said loudly, referring to the IDP families I had been speaking to. “We have been listening to your calls,” he told my translator, telling him, he will be “dealt with” later. These were usual tactics they used to intimidate local journalists who attempted to go un-embedded and I decided not to take heed. “I’m a citizen of this country and this is my job”I protested, vigorously waving my press pass when the moustached man abruptly took my hand and gently caressed it. “What else do you do other than this? I have better ideas for you.” His threats, infinitely malleable, came with a warning that I will be treated like an ‘enemy’ of the state if I wrote against the military, to later offering me to entertain him that evening. “You come at your will and go at ours. Don’t you know who rules here? This is our territory”, he went on. He continued to talk about how he could take me somewhere where no one would find me or find out about what he would do to me. Mehsud and I sat still, in the echo of their intimidating laughs. The fear finally became a force and shoved itself into my body; I resisted panic. I was allowed to go, but they kept Mehsud for ‘further questioning’. The experience changed the story I had gone to Bannu for completely. Now both Mehsud’s and my safety were on the line. I stopped “investigating” or “verifying” the disappearances, and started focusing on staying away from the story. Many sources in FATA kept contacting me to share details, and many others who had engaged with me to share details before, stopped responding to calls, to stay away from the mess. This is how many journalists in Pakistan have come face to face with consequences of covering the Pashtun issue. I left the country soon after, and went to cover the wars in the Middle East, where I had worked before. I deliberately avoided looking at any coverage related to Pakistan, because I knew as a journalist I would itch to cover those stories, but the country was not safe for me. Occasionally, people like Manzoor Pashteen — the valiant young man who started the recent Pashtun Long March — contacted me online, and would send me new stories of disappearances. I ignored all of them, for my own safety but at times I asked other journalist colleagues to cover them. No one did, because for most journalists, FATA is the red line, and red means deadly. While the Pashtun march this February brought some media coverage to the plight of FATA’s tribals, it was not until some notable individuals got involved in the march that mainstream media began to cover it.I know friends who are head of news content at TV channels who said they had sent their vans and reporters to the spot, but didn’t feel it was ‘safe enough’ for them to cover the march. Nonetheless, most coverage of the issues Pashtuns face are in print media, and not the electronic media, which is far more popular. Pakistanis in most parts of the country have no idea about how the people of FATA and Waziristan have literally sacrificed their lives and livelihoods for this country’s so-called counter-terrorism operations. This is what media blackouts do. Keeping nations blindfolded by mean of those who can see. The Pashtun Long March has brought the issue of unexplained disappearances to the fore. I am now compelled to reminisce about how I was taken off this story, and never returned to my investigation. How many Pashtuns have disappeared since Zarb-e-Azb is still unclear, because like journalists, rights activists are also not allowed in the tribal regions. Looking back to 2015, I can’t help but regret how much we have overlooked as journalists, as we have stayed away from stories that cross the red line. The writer is Co-Founder Coalition For Women in Journalism and tweets @kirannazish | @CfWiJ Published in Daily Times, March 24th 2018.