ISLAMABAD: It was 7 am in the morning. Around 5,500 law enforcers had surrounded Faizabad from all four sides.
The officers waited for the green signal to box in the protesters from all four sides and remove the protesters from the Faizabad interchange forcefully since they had ignored multiple warnings and ultimatums.
The personnel — from police and Frontier Constabulary (FC) — checked to see if they were maintaining their formation, the scratched plastic visor on their heavy riot gear impairing visibility a little. With around 2,000 protesters armed with little more than just sticks and stones and disorganised early in the morning, the law enforcers were confident they would be able to force the protesters off the road and complete the job in less than two hours.
As noon struck, the officials were dumbfounded over what had happened. How a small force of lightly armed men had managed to thwart well-equipped and organised law enforcers who ended up conceding more ground than they had gained.
At around 8 am, the order came to advance on the protesters. The plan was to simultaneously move on to the crowd from all four sides. Using a combination of standard crowd dispersal instruments including batons, water cannons and tear gas, the plan was to box the protesters in and then disperse them.
With the government already sending repeated warnings and ultimatums, the protesters had set up a security cordon around them comprising protesters, many of whom were teenagers. When this cordon spotted the security forces get too close for comfort, they got their slingshots out and started loading them with stones.
The police — which made up most of the forward line of law enforcers advancing on the protesters — managed to brave the barrage of stones and made light work of the protesters’ security line.
Overwhelmed, the security line retreated to the main bridge where the container carrying Khadim Rizvi and other leaders was parked.
After reforming their lines, the law enforcers advanced slowly and carefully. A clash at this point, they feared, could be violent and potentially fatal. Over the next few hours, they pushed few hundred protesters to the container.
By this time, the sit-in’s leaders were well aware of the police advance and took to their microphones to rally their supporters.
Officials say when they got close enough to pull the plug on the loudspeakers and wrap up the protest, they were ambushed by a section of the mob who fought fiercely and forced officials to retreat.
Accounts differ on what made the police and Frontier Constabulary retreat. Some officers blame herd mentality for the dramatic retreat of thousands of law enforcers. Others attribute it down to poor planning and lack of coordination between the various wings.
Several officers, The Express Tribune talked to said they were ambushed from behind by a few hundred men who emerged on the Islamabad Expressway from the Sohan side.
“It was decided that the protesters would be squeezed in on all four sides, but somehow the personnel from Sohan side could not advance even as we pushed protesters back on IJP Road,” said one officer who did not wish to be named. “Suddenly, around 200 to 250 men emerged from a mosque near Sohan and engaged the personnel on the Expressway.”
Another officer disputed the number of protesters who emerged from the Sohan side, estimating them to be around 800 to 1,000 strong. “They were not ordinary protesters,” the officer said, explaining, “The way they used their clubs, they appeared to be well trained. They attacked us from behind.”
The officer said they had no information about the presence of these men nearby and were caught completely off guard.
While the participants of the sit-in largely comprised a disorganised mob, the officer said that these security men were different.
“They did not appear to be under the control of the sit-in organisers.”
Police say these protesters were also armed with their own set of tear gas canisters and guns.
While the Faizabad crisis is now over, senior police officials are still trying to piece together how they failed on November 25.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 29th, 2017.
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