More than 434,000 people remain displaced from South Waziristan, more than six years after a military operation was launched in the area to clear it of militants, officials and displaced families have told.
Interviews with the internally displaced people (IDPs), state officials and political leaders from the area, which is part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), reveal that thousands of the displaced continue to live in miserable conditions, hoping to one day be able to return to their homes.
On March 8, the FATA Disaster Management Authority (FDMA) began the process of registering some of the IDPs to return home later this month, but the vast majority remain displaced with no clarity on when they might be able to leave their makeshift homes in camps across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Most of the IDPs live in areas adjoining South Waziristan, including Tank and Dera Ismail Khan, but others have gone as far afield as Quetta, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and even Karachi. So far, authorities say that 2,800 families – or about 19,600 people – have been repatriated to the areas of Chagmalai, Sararogha, Sarwakai Shahoor, Mandana, Siplatoi, Spinkai Raghzai and Kotkai.
The Rah-e-Nijat military offensive began in October 2009, triggering a mass exodus from South Waziristan, the birthplace of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and home to several other militias.
After the initial flood of IDPs first left the tribal area, the FDMA had promised they would return within two weeks. Today, six years on, the vast majority remain displaced.
In those six years, IDPs say, they have lost everything: their businesses, livestock, access to education, and even their homes, many of which have either been washed away in flooding, or destroyed by shelling.
Moreover, many told that they were regularly discriminated against by law enforcement and state officials, who alleged that they had links to militant organisations, in their areas of relocation.
According to Said Umer, the FDMA’s co-ordinator for South Waziristan, Rs69 million has so far been spent on those IDPs who have returned in 2010 and 2011. Those funds came in the form of a Rs10,000 transportation grant and Rs25,000 cash grant for every family. In addition, the FDMA says it has provided returning IDPs with shelter, non-food items (such as hygiene kits, blankets, etc), and has helped in the reconstruction of homes and businesses in the areas declared cleared in South Waziristan.
“As they go back to their homes, the FDMA is ready to serve them in the same way,” says Umer.
Hussain Mehsud is one of the lucky few who have been able to return home to his village of Sarwakai. Although even returning has its costs, he says.
“I have 14 family members. I’ve been repatriated to my ravaged home. I don’t know how to feed my family. I lost two of my cloth shops and a booming business. I never received the promised Rs 25,000 cash [grant from the government].”
‘Our blood is cheaper’
One of the least-reported aspects of the ordeal of displacement is the neglect for education amongst those government agencies catering to the IDPs.
The literacy rate in South Waziristan was estimated to be around five percent before the displacement, with only 0.5 percent of that being accounted for by the women of the area.
While most NGOs have ignored the education sector, IDPs told, a few have been working in the field, trying to make sure that children do not lose these crucial years in their education. The Khewndo Koor [Home of Sisters] NGO, for example, had set up three schools, catering to 165 displaced students, in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank.
As the years have worn on, the funding, however, has not. Asmat Kamal Mahsud, the regional director for Khewndo Koor, said that the NGO was forced to shut down their schools because they had only been given enough funds to run the project for a year.
“It is the prime responsibility of the government to provide us with education, health and financial support because we have lost everything we have before the military operation,” said Hujat Khan Mehsud, another IDP. “NGO’s are only minting money by exploiting IDPs. Our blood is cheaper and is for sale everywhere. Earlier, my younger brother was studying in class 4th but now his education is only a dream for us.”
Government officials, meanwhile, blame the IDPs for not sending their children to schools set up by the local education department.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a district education department official in Tank said that the FATA secretariat had issued an order to open schools for IDP children and to provide them with tents and books.
“We have established 60 centers in district Tank and Dera Ismail Khan but the process has been halted after one month because of lack of interest from the parents to send their kids to those educational facilities,” he said.
He acknowledged there were no proper educational facilities for the young IDPs, which was a matter of serious concern.
‘Sacrificing our today’
According to the FDMA, around 28,000 families (or 196,000 people) are currently living in Tank and Dera Ismail Khan districts without access to a regular source of income. Many have established their own small businesses to make ends meet, including tea stalls and kiosks. Others drive rickshaws or work as daily wage labourers.
“We have sacrificed our today for a prosperous tomorrow of the country. But we are shocked to see the behavior of our officials toward us. We have sacrificed everything but in return we are facing with only humiliation,” said Awal Khan Mahsud, who runs a tea-stall in Dera Ismail Khan.
Life was difficult for him, Awal Khan said, stressing that between paying Rs10,000 rent and his household expenses, he was barely able to make ends meet.
“We are leading refugee lives in our own country,” said Rehman Gul, another IDP. “Why have the authorities concerned left our area neglected for years and why did they not develop the region at a time when it is part of Pakistan?”
Gul’s voice chokes as he recalls the sacrifices he and his family have given for the country.
“I lost my 10-year old son the day when I left my village and my father suffered serious injuries in shelling fired either by the Taliban or by military forces.”
According to Gul, his tribe in the Chagmalai area of South Waziristan had been left to deal with militants on its own, with the government refusing to support them in their hour of need. His village, of Ghwandakai, remains a no-go area, as the army has not yet declared it cleared. The story is little different when speaking to lawmakers from the area.
Maulana Jamaluddin, (JUI-F) a member of the national assembly from South Waziristan, says that the Mehsud tribe has been going through unspeakable challenges, and that it was the government’s responsibility to address their concerns as quickly as possible.
“I want early repatriation of my tribe. The displaced people are in chaos,” he said. “Those families that are being repatriated will need to start their lives from scratch because they are left with no business and education options.”
He said the issue of rehabilitating the Mehsud tribe had been raised on a number of platforms and efforts were underway to address their grievances.
“I know about the plight and the subsequent anger among the tribesmen. I will do whatever I can to remove their grievances. The government should adopt a comprehensive strategy to allay the reservations of the tribesmen otherwise their hate and anger will intensify further,” Jamaluddin warned.
Kherullah Mehsud, from the village of Dwatoi, drives home that point.
He said that if the people from his area were not rehabilitated, both mentally and physically, then the inevitable result would be “a state of extreme hatred and rage.”