As the Pakistani army battles Taliban forces, civilians in North Waziristan face an arduous escape for relative safety.
Bakkakhel, Pakistan – The government-run camp for internally displaced people in the village of Bakkakhel, in Pakistan’s Frontier Region Bannu district, is a sight to behold.
There are rows upon rows of new tents, each equipped with electrical connections for lights and fans, as well as distribution points for several tonnes of daily food rations, a mobile hospital and dental centre, and a small dispensary.
There is just one problem: there are hardly any people, internally displaced or otherwise, in it.
Of the almost half a million people the Pakistani government has registered as having fled a military offensive against the Taliban and its allies in the neighbouring tribal area of North Waziristan, only about 340 have chosen to take the government’s offer to house them at the Bakkakhel camp, the only such camp that has been set up.
Instead, most have gone to the adjacent town of Bannu, a dusty town of about a million people, where they are either renting at twice or three times the regular rate, or staying with relatives, internally displaced people, or IDPs, told Al Jazeera.
“We cannot go to that camp because of our tribal customs,” said Ahmeduddin, 33, a shopkeeper and native of the town of Miranshah in North Waziristan, referring to strict social codes that govern life in Pakistan’s ultra-conservative tribal areas.
We cannot go to that camp because of our tribal customs.
Women and children, he said, could not be expected to live in a camp where there were no firm divisions to keep them separate from outsiders.
But while Ahmeduddin, and others, referred to “tribal customs” as a primary reason for staying away, Mohsin Shah, the commissioner of Bannu, has another explanation: a perceived threat to life.
“These people are preferring to stay in the city and not in the camp because they are conservative people,” he said, “But also because there have been threats made against them from the other side.”
“The other side” that Shah refers to is the Pakistani Taliban and its allies, who have warned people to stay away from army and government-run camps and threatened to target those who take aid from the state, and especially from the military, several IDPs told Al Jazeera.
But the danger to IDPs is not restricted to the camp at Bakkakhel, which is located about 10km outside Bannu, in an area where there is a constant curfew imposed by the army.
The flood of IDPs into Bannu has stretched the district administration’s ability to cope, officials say, and there are signs that the peace is beginning to fray.
At the city’s only aid distribution point, located within a sports complex, a long line snakes outside and onto the road, as thousands wait their turn to be allowed inside to receive basic rations, high-energy biscuits and a cash grant of $121.
Police and army soldiers attempt to maintain order, often in temperatures in excess of 40C, but with this many people, in desperate need, scuffles often break out, and the police have often had to resort to aerial firing and beatings to re-establish order.
“I have been standing in line all day yesterday, and have been in line for six hours again today,” said Inayatullah, 44, a native of Miranshah and owner of a small transport business.
There was violence yesterday, and again today. They are treating humans worse than animals.
“There was violence yesterday, and again today. They are treating humans worse than animals,” he said, as police fired automatic rifles into the air about 50 metres away.
Inayatullah fled along with his family of 13 – more than 192,000, or 42 percent, of the displaced are children – when the bombs began to drop near his home in Miranshah
While the military says that it had warned residents that a military operation was going to begin, residents of North Waziristan say the warnings – most delivered through pamphlets or local mosques – were not consistently delivered across the district.
“The only warning we had was when our local mosque and cemetery was destroyed by bombing from jets,” said Mustafa Khan, 55, a resident of the small village of Issori, near the town of Mir Ali.
The road to Bannu has been arduous for those who have fled their homes.
“There was bombing everywhere. We came here out of fear for our lives,” said Muhammad Shershah, 33, a pharmacist who is a native of Miranshah. Shershah said that his family undertook what was normally a three-hour journey by car on foot, due to the lack of vehicles.The trek with his family of 15 took three days, with frequent stops at more than a dozen military checkpoints.
At least seven other large families Al Jazeera spoke to, all including children and elderly members, reported the same journeys on foot. That list included Gul Rabib Khan, 45, a one-legged man from the town of Haiderkhel, who said his 20km journey to the camp in Bakka Khel, of which he undertook 14km on foot, took him more than 12 hours.
|Pakistan’s displaced flee to Bannu|
Doctors say many have arrived with major health issues.
“Most of the patients here are suffering from dehydration and acute respiratory infections,” says Dr Faqir Abdullah, 28, who treated many of those who arrived at the Saidgi checkpoint, on the border with North Waziristan.
“Most of them are confused and anxious, because many of them have travelled on foot. These people had left their homes, and we saw they were in a state of shock.”
Meanwhile the military operation in North Waziristan continues. On Wednesday, the military said that it had killed 13 people – all designated “terrorists” – in air strikes on Taliban hideouts near Mir Ali. The strikes brought the total official death toll since Operation Zarb-e-Azb officially began on June 15 to 330.
It is impossible to independently verify that figure, as entry to the area is strictly controlled. North Waziristan has been a hub for a complex network of armed groups, including the Taliban, the Haqqani network, al-Qaeda, the Uzbek group ETIM and pro-government militias for several years.
Ground attack imminent
With most of the population now cleared (North Waziristan’s normal population is about 700,000), the army says it is now preparing a ground offensive. Curfews have been reimposed, and no movement is allowed on the roads leading to and from the tribal district.
With the major influx over, the concern for the government now, says Commissioner Shah, is resettlement of the IDPs. Bannu has been forced to bear the brunt of the inflow, due to its proximity to North Waziristan and the lack of willingness of other provinces to take in the displaced.
“Bannu is a small, undeveloped town and right now it is absorbing hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. A police official said that matters had gotten to the point where one out of every three people in Bannu was an IDP.
“We didn’t want to leave our homes … we have left all our belongings there. We brought just the clothes on our back,” said Azizullah, 35, one of a handful of residents of the Bakkakhel camp. “When this is all over, we want to go back.”
It was a sentiment not echoed by his seven-year-old son, who accompanied him as the family fled on foot from their village near Miranshah.
“I was scared of the fighting there. I don’t want go home, because there is violence there,” he said.
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