Bannu, Pakistan – The town of Miranshah, in the heart of the Pakistani Taliban’s stronghold of North Waziristan in Pakistan’s largely unstable tribal areas, is probably the last place you’d expect to find a community of Christians.
And yet, for several decades, about 500 members of this Pakistani religious minority say they have been living in peace with their hardline Muslim neighbours.
“We have been living there since the partition of the subcontinent [in 1947],” says Khalid Iqbal, a Christian community organiser in Miranshah. “We live there peacefully […] the Taliban have never done anything to us. In fact, when there is an issue, they are the ones who help mediate it.”
But since June 20, about 100 Christians and Hindus have been taking refuge at the Pennell High School, a missionary school established in 1865 in the district of Bannu, to escape the military offensive against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), church officials say.
Having left most of their belongings at home as they fled aircraft bombarding areas around their homes, the school and its associated church have made makeshift arrangements to house the IDPs, many of them children, in four classrooms, and on charpoys under the open air.
Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim majority country, with Christians representing just 1.6 percent of the population.
The TTP, which is based in North Waziristan along with several other armed groups, has claimed responsibility for several attacks against the Christian community in recent years. The most brutal in recent times was a double church bombing in Peshawar in September last year, which killed 81 people.
But it seems that the TTP’s targets in the rest of Pakistan are not mirrored by its behaviour at home.
“The Taliban do not bother us in North Waziristan,” says Mishal Emmanuel, 16, one of a group of about 100 Christians who has fled an ongoing military operation against the TTP in her native North Waziristan. “Our family has been living there for more than 60 years. It is our home. [The Taliban] treat us as locals.”
Nek Daraz Khan, 33, a Muslim human rights activist from the area, says that he himself was surprised at the Taliban’s behaviour towards the Christian community since the armed group’s formation in 2007.
“I used to tell my friends to leave several times,” he told Al Jazeera. “But they say they are from here, and that the Talibs do not bother them.”
‘We didn’t have any food’
The area is home to a smaller community of Hindus, too, who say the Taliban have never threatened them in North Waziristan, either. Or, perhaps more precisely, as Iqbal puts it, the minority communities are “no more under threat than anyone else”.
|The Pennel High School, currently home to more than 100 IDPs, was established as a missionary school in Bannu under the British Raj in 1865. [Asad Hashim/ Al Jazeera]|
“Neither the government nor the Taliban harass us, but we do feel scared of the Taliban,” says Jamila Mai, 80, who fled the current military operation along with more than 20 family members. “When it is five in the evening [in Miranshah], everyone goes home. Every place there is completely abandoned.”
Like most of the almost half a million people to have fled the conflict in North Waziristan since the government warned them that a military operation against the TTP was due to begin, these people narrate harrowing tales of hardship as they abandoned their homes for the relative safety of Bannu, an adjoining district.
“We came loaded into a truck, and had to walk some of the way,” says Robby Naeem, 8, of the 80km journey. “The first time we ate was when we got some food at an aid camp at one of the checkpoints, after 18 hours of travelling.”
“When we left our home in Miranshah, we were hearing blasts every 20 minutes. It was scaring all of us. We didn’t have any food, or supplies,” said Emmanuel, who, along with her family, undertook much of the journey by foot, and the rest in the back of a garbage truck.
Waseem Ayaz, the local priest, says the biggest challenge for his church – under whose ambit the community in Miranshah falls – has been finding the funds and logistics to house and feed more than 100 people on the school’s limited premises.
|Waseem Ayaz, the local priest, says that it is a sign of “clear prejudice” that the Christian IDPs have not yet received government aid. [Asad Hashim/ Al Jazeera]|
“Right now we’re doing this on our own, but we cannot sustain this for months,” he said. “We have given them a place to stay, electricity, medicine and basic supplies, but we need help in feeding them.”
Ayaz says it is a sign of “clear prejudice” that the Christian IDPs have been having trouble accessing food aid.
Since June 15, the Pakistani government has been setting up aid distribution camps for registered IDPs, but local officials in Bannu told Al Jazeera that they are simply being overwhelmed by the numbers.
At the end of the day, church official Younis Pervez Gill concedes, those among the Christian community to be registered as IDPs still have access to the aid, but have been facing the same issues as all other IDPs: overcrowded aid distribution centres, with wait times stretching into days as people wait in temperatures in excess of 40 degrees C.
“Today, as Pakistanis, we all have to help these IDPs,” says Frederick Das, the principal of the school housing them. “This is not a matter of just one religion.”
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim