December Issue 2014

By | News & Politics | People | Q & A | Published 5 years ago

“The army started conducting small-scale operations in South Waziristan in 2003. Now it’s 2014 but they still haven’t cleared the area, and there is no hope that we will ever return home,” says Hassan.

Forty years ago, Hassan took up work as a labourer in Karachi, making frequent trips back home to Ladha, South Waziristan to visit his wife, children and extended family. In 2008, when the army began increased aerial shelling and bombing in an effort to eliminate the various militant organisations that were operating in the region, primarily the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Hassan decided to temporarily relocate to Dera Ismail Khan for a month or two. He thought the situation would settle down by then. “We didn’t take anything with us expect for the clothes on our backs and a few suitcases. It’s been six years since that day, and we haven’t gone back even once.”

When it snows in South Waziristan, the wooden roofs absorb the snowmelt and eventually cave in. For families like Hassan’s, who left their homes to escape the war in Waziristan that has left at least 800,000 innocent civilians displaced, there is no hope that they will find it in habitable condition should they ever return. Most of the young, able-bodied men in the area have left for the cities where they can get jobs as drivers, shopkeepers and labourers. Settling in Waziristan is no longer an option because there is no work there, Hassan explains. And yet, he dreams of going back some day: “Waziristan is where we grew up; it’s where we spent our childhood.”

Del87983But people like him will only go back, “on the condition that the army isn’t stationed there,” he says. The fear of the militants aside, the Waziris have to deal with the troops, that have set up check-posts in towns and villages at “every 10 feet, and people entering their own hometown are subjected to a full body search.” In an atmosphere riddled with tension and mistrust, every Waziri, it appears, is suspect. “The soldiers catch people, force them to sit like hens, kick them with their heavy boots, and accuse them of being terrorists. They stop cars, force people out, blindfold them and say they are spies. Eight thousand young men are still missing from South Waziristan today, and we have no idea of what has happened to them. My own nephew has been missing for two years now after army personnel raided his house one night and accused him of being associated with the Taliban.” Hassan says the army’s presence has made life very difficult for the local people. With strict curfew hours in place, no one is allowed to leave home after sundown and work has to be completed before nightfall. If anyone breaks curfew, the soldiers beat and ridicule them. Despite this treatment, however, Hassan’s own son recently joined the army. “I told him not to, but he is young and naïve,” he says.

In order to leave this life behind and start afresh, Waziris have to face the hardships of relocation. In 2008, the cost of a van ride from South Waziristan to the nearest city was about 5,000 rupees. But when the bombing and drone attacks increased, there was a frenzy to get out of there. “Drivers saw an opportunity to make money so they looted the fleeing people by charging them up to 20,000 rupees per ride,” Hassan recalls. “My cousin and her husband just left North Waziristan a week ago, and they had to travel from Cadet College Razmak to Bannu — a journey that takes four hours by car — on foot, through the jungles and deserted areas.” Most people have relatives in other parts of the country whom they stay with initially before renting houses of their own. But Hassan was lucky to have bought a house in Dera Ismail Khan before the situation in Waziristan began to deteriorate. Living in a rented house is nothing but trouble, he says, because the displaced families are forced to move every few months when the landlord gives them notice. And those families who cannot afford to buy their own houses or rent one, have to turn to IDP camps. And according to Hassan, conditions at the IDP camps are terrible. “God forgive us,” he says in horror, “there is no water, no proper living arrangements and no bathrooms. Whatever you read in the newspapers about how much aid the government is providing these people with, if you actually go to the campsites you will realise how much of this is actually true and how much of it is a lie.”

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When Hassan and his family went to live in Dera Ismail Khan permanently, they signed up for three ration cards. At first they were given a 100-kilo package of rations per person, but now this has been trimmed down to a 50-kilo package, which includes 10 to 15 kilos of what is supposed to be ghee, but is actually oil. “The rations we get are of the worst quality possible. The wheat is extremely coarse so it’s very hard to make atta (dough) out of it. The dough doesn’t come together and isn’t edible either. So we have to buy our own flour and add that to the poorer quality flour to make it work.”

Hassan recalls how peaceful life in Ladha was in the early 2000s, even though the army had already begun operations in the region. He attributes this to General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf. “While Musharraf was president, even though he was the one who initiated this process by allowing US intervention in Pakistan, our daily lives weren’t affected. This is because Musharraf himself was a general and held the army in check. But it appears that now Nawaz Sharif, like Zardari, is also in no position to say anything to the army, without rocking the boat.”

Nevertheless, Hassan says that separation from Pakistan is not something the Waziris are even considering — a possibility some analysts have recently hinted at. “When East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan the people had a leader in Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman who took up the cause of independence. But who is there to lead such a movement in Waziristan, even if it did exist? And suppose that we did have a leader, what factories or natural resources or transport networks do we have that will help the region survive if we broke away? There is nothing but wilderness over there.”

For now, Hassan can only reminisce about the days gone by. “I spent 17 peaceful years in my village,” he recalls nostalgically, “but now I am a traveller, with no home to go back to.”

This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue

Hiba Mahamadi was an Editorial Assistant at Newsline