Thousands flee Pakistan’s Waziristan conflict

As the Pakistani army battles Taliban forces, civilians in North Waziristan face an arduous escape for relative safety.

Islamabad, Pakistan – An ongoing military operation against Taliban fighters and their allies in the Pakistani tribal areas has triggered a mass exodus of residents from the area, with internally displaced people braving bombs, curfews and blocked roads to make it to the relative safety of neighbouring districts, residents and officials have told Al Jazeera.

“When we set off to flee to Bannu [a neighbouring district], we were unable to find transportation. At first, we walked for three hours on foot, and then we rented a car at three times the regular rate,” said Muhammad Naseem Khan, 50, a resident of Mir Ali whose family of 30 is now staying with relatives in Bannu.

“There are five rooms and already 25 people living in the house. We are 30 people in our own family, and we are facing many difficulties,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he had received word from neighbours in recent days that his home in Mir Ali had been destroyed by bombs.

On Thursday, the local disaster management authority told Al Jazeera that it had registered more than 76,623 people fleeing the conflict since a curfew was loosened in the past 48 hours. The total number of civilians and others to have left the area, a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and other armed groups, has now risen to 137,856, local official Haseeb Khan told Al Jazeera. Most of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) have headed to the Bannu district, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, he said.

Pakistan’s military said that it has killed at least 228 – all designated “terrorists” – in the military operation, dubbed “Zarb-e-Azb”, so far. Most of those killed have been targeted in air strikes, with a large number reported to be foreign fighters associated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

‘No terrorists in my family’

Civilian casualties, however, have also been a concern, and the Islamabad-based FATA Resource Centre, which has done extensive work in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), reported that at least 100 civilians have been killed since regular air strikes began in North Waziristan two weeks ago.

Thousands of Pakistanis flee to Afghanistan

“There are no terrorists in my family, and yet my whole family has been killed,” Noor Daraz Khan, a resident of the village of Mosaki, told Al Jazeera. Three missiles, apparently fired by Pakistani fighter jets, hit his home on May 21, killing 24 family members, including 19 children, he said. 

A Pakistani military spokesperson denied that any civilian deaths occurred in the air strikes on May 21.

“There is no point in living in Pakistan,” said the 45-year-old labourer, who now lives and works in Dubai. “All of my property there has been looted, my 10 cows have also been killed. It was even difficult to say the funeral prayers for my family, because there is shelling from the morning until night every day.”

Khan’s family was reportedly killed in a preliminary wave of airstrikes against targets in North Waziristan, but military operations have been continuous since June 15, when the operation officially began. Those who left North Waziristan after the commencement of those hostilities say they faced many difficulties in escaping.

Muhammad Sajjad Khan, a 21-year-old university student from Mir Ali, said that the operation has “ruined” his education.

“I had given two exams when the curfew was imposed in the area, and then the bombing started. I was unable to return home and stayed with friends for about eight days. On the eighth day, after not being able to find a vehicle I borrowed a motorcycle from a friend and left Mir Ali,” he said. The journey normally takes a few hours, but today he said he spent nine hours making the drive. 

“There was a severe shortage of food and water, and I saw several people killed in an accident along the way. I saw three kids being brought to Bannu in a wheelbarrow.”

No prior warning

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a military official with knowledge of the operation said that residents of North Waziristan had not been provided advanced warning before the military operation officially began on June 15, as air strikes had been occurring for several weeks beforehand. The army is holding off on a full scale ground offensive until civilians are able to evacuate the area, he added.

The army said that it has loosened a 24-hour curfew in North Waziristan since Wednesday, and opened up selected roads, in order to allow those looking to flee to leave the area. The military said it has also established areas where fighters can lay down their arms.

Residents looking to flee need to pass through multiple checkpoints, however, and they say that severely slows them down.

“Our concern is that with the outflow of IDPs some [Taliban fighters] might also attempt to escape, but we have a very detailed verification system in place to ensure that does not happen,” a military source told Al Jazeera.

Amir Rana, the director of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), said there is a risk that members of the TTP or its affiliates may escape in the exodus, but that there was a low probability that any high-ranking members of the group would attempt to flee.

People are busy trying to get out, but there are no cars or routes open to take them.

by - Khan Wazir, Mir Ali resident

“It’s always a threat. We saw it happen in Swat [after a 2009 military operation against the Taliban]. Many Taliban fighters [were] left there [when IDPs fled], but often it is not high profile people,” he said. “Affiliates or the low ranked people might be able to leave and they will also try to detach themselves. Those who are fleeing are coming out of fear.”

Strict security checks, a partial curfew and closures on certain routes make it difficult for many civilians to leave the areas under threat, residents said.

“People are busy trying to get out, but there are no cars or routes open to take them,” Khan Wazir, 33, a native of Mir Ali who has been living in Bannu for several years, told Al Jazeera. “Some of [my family members] have come, but there are quite a lot of them who are stuck there. It is difficult to find vehicles for them. We sent a car to get them, but they turned the car back from the checkpoint.”

With the roads closed and a full curfew imposed, even during the first few days of airstrikes, many North Waziristan residents chose to flee to neighbouring Afghanistan’s Khost province, officials said. On Thursday, Pakistan’s Foreign Office said in a press briefing that the Pakistani military was coordinating with Afghan authorities to ensure that fighters were not able to avail themselves of that escape route.

Government-run IDP camp empty

Officials with the FATA Disaster Management Authority (FDMA) said that they have set up a camp for the displaced in the area of Bakkakhel, along Bannu’s border with North Waziristan, but that so far few have used its facilities.

“There are not so many people at the Bakkakhel camp, because they are preferring to stay with the host community at the moment. They prefer that option because they have homes and relatives in Bannu,” said Haseeb Khan, the FDMA official, explaining why only four of thousands of available tents were currently occupied at the government’s camp.

There is no need to request UN and other humanitarian organisations for help.

by - Pervez Khattak, chief minister for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province

Registered IDPs will be provided with tents, dry rations, clean drinking water and a monthly allowance of $71 per family for food, he said. The FDMA is also providing vehicles to the political administration in North Waziristan to aid those attempting to flee, he said. Health officials say they are also providing polio vaccination drops to children leaving North Waziristan, the world’s worst-affected district for the debilitating disease.

“Right now, the lower numbers of IDPs is because of the curfew and the closed roads,” said Mansur Khan Mahsud, director of the FATA Resource Centre. “Once the roads open and the curfew is lifted, that number will double or triple.”

Pervez Khattak, the chief minister for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, said on Wednesday that $9.7m has been allocated to aid IDPs fleeing the conflict.

“There is no need to request UN and other humanitarian organisations for help. The federal and provincial governments have sufficient resources to fulfil the needs of affected people,” he told the media on Wednesday. Pakistan is already home to more than 2.2 million IDPs from previous military operations in the tribal areas, according to the FDMA.

Analysts said that it remains unclear if the military operation will be able to achieve its objectives. North Waziristan is home to a complex network of armed groups, including the TTP, the Haqqani Network, ETIM and others, as well as to local commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who has historically supported the government over the last 10 years.

“It will be successful in regaining territory,” said Rana. “Physically they will control the territory, but we cannot translate that into completely defeating the militants and TTP there.”

The TTP, for its part, has promised to carry out retaliatory strikes against civilian targets in Pakistan’s cities, and Rana said that its operatives in major urban areas remain a threat, despite the operation in North Waziristan. Security has been stepped up in the major urban centres of Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, the capital Islamabad and elsewhere, authorities said, in anticipation of such attacks. On June 8, Taliban fighters launched a brazen attack against the Karachi airport, resulting in 29 deaths.

“If they want to launch attacks in Pakistan, they will do so by their affiliates who are already present elsewhere… It is important that they do not have the kind of territory in Pakistan to challenge the state,” said Rana. “But you cannot say that you are going to completely end terrorism with this operation.” 

This story was updated at 17:45 GMT on June 20 to reflect the Pakistani military’s denial of civilian deaths due to air strikes on May 21.

Minhaj Uddin contributed reporting from Bannu.

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera