Bannu, Pakistan – “I have no hope of going back,” says Farhadullah, 35, who fled Mir Ali with his five children last June ahead of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Pakistan’s offensive against armed groups in North Waziristan.
“They keep lying, they keep saying we have cleared the area, they keep saying we will get the [internally displaced persons] IDPs back as soon as possible, but they are lying.”
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About one million people were forced out of their homes by the offensive, described by Pakistan as a final push to eradicate the presence of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that has plagued North Waziristan for 14 years.
A year since the operation began, locals have little hope of returning home any time soon. Thousands of homes and businesses have been levelled by air strikes and bulldozers, aid from the federal government is being cut, and security forces are asking residents to sign an agreement taking collective responsibility for any militant presence in their areas before they return home.
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With journalists barred from travelling to North Waziristan, the principle source of information about the battle is a steady stream of press releases from the Pakistani military, which claims to have killed more than 2,000 “terrorists”, including hundreds described as “foreigners” and zero civilians. In November 2014, the military announced it had “cleared” 90 percent of the area, but official reports of soldiers being killed, now numbering more than 200, continue to be issued.
“I heard on the radio we had to leave, that we had three days to get out,” Farhadullah says, recalling the scene last June. “We left everything in our homes. There were not enough cars to carry people, so most of us came on foot from Mir Ali to Bannu.”
‘No work, no income’
Farhadullah counts himself among the lucky ones: a friend living in Bannu has enough space in their home to host him and his immediate family. But most of Farhadullah’s extended family lives in makeshift camps, groupings of tents scattered along the road between Bannu and North Waziristan.
“There is no work here, no income, I cannot even afford to send my kids to school,” he says. His 11-year-old son, Yasir, used to attend 5th grade back in their home in the Mir Ali, but he has not seen the inside of a classroom for a year now.
He stands nearby clutching the family’s ration card, a sheet of paper listing the names and ages of each member. On the back it is covered in stamps marking each month they have received rations from the government.
Farhadullah says the monthly ration has been cut several times over the last year, and now his household receives 80kg of flour, 5 litres of cooking oil, and 4kg of lentils, which he says lasts less than two weeks.
Soon after leaving Mir Ali, Farhadullah came across a video on Facebook of the city’s bazaar, one of the largest in the Pakistani tribal areas. “Someone had managed to get this video. The entire bazaar was levelled, first by air strikes and then by bulldozers.”
Along with his home, Farhadullah had about 60 commercial properties in the bazaar which he rented out – all of them now destroyed.
“Things were bad even before [the operation], our bazaar had been hit by air strikes twice, and we never got any compensation. For the last 12 years, our people have been getting killed in military operations,” he says.
|Pakistan’s displaced flee to Bannu|
Zarb-e-Azb is one of dozens of large scale military offensives Pakistan has carried out to clear the tribal areas of insurgents. While tens of thousands of troops have been based in North Waziristan for more than a decade, they were largely confined within barracks and checkpoints throughout the region.
The United States had long called for a ground operation in North Waziristan, but Pakistan had been reluctant to do so, in part because the area not only housed groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban, which target the local government, but also the Haqqani Network, a group focused on the insurgency in Afghanistan, whose presence was largely ignored by the Pakistani military.
In the absence of a Pakistani ground operation, American drones have struck more than 300 times in North Waziristan, killing thousands, many of whom human rights groups and locals have said were civilians.
In neighbouring South Waziristan in 2009, Pakistani troops carried out a large scale ground offensive, displacing hundreds of thousands, most of whom have still not returned home, leaving the IDPs from the North Waziristan operation sceptical of officials’ promises of a swift end to the war.
In other parts of the tribal areas, hundreds of thousands have been displaced on multiple occasions in the last decade, as claims of success by the military have turned out to be inaccurate.
This April, authorities announced residents seeking to return home to the handful of areas in North Waziristan where the military had announced victory would have to sign a collective security agreement accepting responsibility if Pakistani forces come under attack in their areas in the future.
Officials say about 2,000 families, a fraction of the more than 90,000 families that were displaced, have returned home so far, to areas of North Waziristan that saw little fighting to begin with.
“All our elders, all our tribes, as long as the Pakistani army remains in Waziristan, we are not ready to accept this agreement,” says Malik Anwar Baig, a tribal elder.
The security agreement not only allows for collective punishment such as the demolition of homes, blockades, and expulsion of tribes, but for the first time in more than a century, tribesmen would not be allowed to carry weapons – making the prospect of defending themselves against the Taliban a nightmare.
Tribal elders such as Baig have held several protests and sit-ins to draw attention to the security agreement, which they say is an impossible promise to keep. But authorities have showed no sign of relaxing the requirement.
“What will we fight them with?” asks Malik Atta Muhammad, a Wazir elder whose home and businesses were destroyed by the military twice. “Pakistan has 700,000 soldiers, a professional army that can launch missiles and all kind of weapons, even use jet planes.
“It was famous in the world that Waziristan is full of terrorists,” he continues, “so our elders and our people decided, okay, we will leave on our own feet only taking our children and our women, because we do not want to fight our own army.
“We did this so the world would know we are not terrorists, terrorists don’t run away from a fight.”