Pakistani protesters want to go home - but organisers won't let them

Supporters of Imran Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party, taking a nap on his campaign banner during what has been dubbed a "freedom march" in Islamabad on August 25, 2014. Mr Khan and cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, who co
Supporters of Imran Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party, taking a nap on his campaign banner during what has been dubbed a "freedom march" in Islamabad on August 25, 2014. Mr Khan and cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, who controls a network of Islamic schools and hospitals, have been leading protests in the capital, Islamabad, trying to bring down Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Mr Arshad Shah, a Pakistani protester, feels trapped: Worn out after weeks of street demonstrations against the government, he wants to go home but protest organisers will not let him.

Like many other protesters led by cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, Mr Shah said organisers had taken away his national identification card to prevent him from leaving the protest site outside government offices in the centre of the Pakistani capital. "Some (organisers) will make up excuses for why they can't return out cards yet, others will just say directly that we can't leave until the sit-in is over," said Mr Shah who joined the rallies from the central Pakistani city of Sargodha. "I just want our cards back so we can leave."

Others said they were instructed to turn in their cards on a daily basis, get paid to spend the day at the rally and claim the card back at the end of the day. "I come in the morning and submit my CNIC (Computerised National Identity Card) to Qadri's people who then give us our daily wages of 300 to 400 rupees (S$3.70 to S$4.90). We then sit around here all day," said Mr Niaz Ahmed, a daily wage labourer. "After Dr Qadri makes his speech in the evening, we get our ID cards back and off we go. The next day we come back again. I'm making almost the same money sitting around here all day as I did working hard all day."

Anti-government demonstrations erupted in Pakistan last month, with protest organisers saying their supporters will not leave until Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resigns - a month-long stand-off that has destabilised the South Asian nation.

Several attempts by Mr Sharif's aides to find a negotiated solution have failed, with protest organisers refusing to back down from their demand for his resignation.

The confrontation briefly turned violent at the end of last month, with thousands trying to storm Mr Sharif's house.

But since then, the protests have dragged on listlessly, with weary protesters huddling inside their tents or sleeping on the grass verges of the capital's grandest avenues.

Dr Qadri's camp categorically denied allegations that it was paying its activists or taking their identity cards away. "Dr Qadri has openly allowed people to leave if they have to. He announced this in public as well," said Mr Shahid Mursaleen, a spokesman for Qadri's party. "I strongly reject this accusation. This is untrue and those who are saying this are probably not Dr Qadri's protesters."

Dr Qadri's activists have rallied alongside protesters led by another opposition politician, former cricket hero Imran Khan.

Unlike Mr Khan's supporters who tend to gather in the evening, Dr Qadri's protesters are camped out outside government offices all day, sleeping and sheltering from the scorching sun or monsoon downpours in tents.

The protest site, within walking distance of many embassies and ministries, is in a sorry state, littered with rubbish, with the stench of human waste hanging in the air.

On the edge of the protest site, men line up every day near a burst pipe and take showers one by one. Women complain that they have hardly showered more than a few times in the last month. Some fear an outbreak of mosquito-borne dengue fever among the protesters.

"The disease can rapidly spread," said Dengue Expert Committee Chairman Javed Akram. "There is no proper sewerage facility in the area. The vulnerability of the sit-in participants has increased because of the unavailability of a waste management system."

At least three female protesters, all of them domestic workers, said they had been paid to come to the rallies when they were first launched. One of them, with three children under the age of six, said mothers were paid 2,500 rupees of more.

"You got paid more if you have a child," said Ms Rukhsana Bibi, one of the women. "They wanted more women with children to join the rallies so the pay for that was higher."