Waziristan refugees suffer from official neglect

Developing Just Leadership

Waseem Shehzad

Shawwal 04, 1435 2014-08-01

Special Reports

by Waseem Shehzad (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 6, Shawwal, 1435)

Nearly a million people have been made homeless in the Pakistan military assault on North Waziristan. The campaign is launched at the behest of the US to serve imperial interests. It will cost Pakistan dearly.

With the world’s attention focused on the suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza—quite rightly because of the Zionists’ indescribable brutality—the plight of refugees from Pakistan’s tribal agency of North Waziristan has gone largely unnoticed. The latter is a self-inflicted wound. Even with the experience of the military operations in Swat in 2009 that resulted in millions of internally displaced persons (IDP), the operation launched in North Waziristan in June once again showed the inadequacy—indeed total incompetence and indifference—of the government and its state machinery.

It was known for weeks that the military planned to launch an operation in North Waziristan in what was billed ostensibly to target militants, both domestic and foreign. A media campaign was launched in which secular anchors on the payroll of foreign and domestic agencies waxed eloquent about dealing with the terrorist threat with an iron-fist. The government also played a charade of talks with the Taliban starting in March but this was never meant to be serious. On January 28, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, who is a member of the ruling party, said “decision to launch a military operation in North Waziristan has been taken. Its timing is for the military to decide.” The subsequent claim that it was launched after the June 9 attack on Karachi airport is, therefore, clearly untenable. Residents of North Waziristan have also confirmed that military operations were launched before June 9.

It was natural that such a large scale military operation would result in forcing people to flee their homes. When the refugees poured out of the rugged region, the government was found badly wanting. It does not even know how many people have been affected. The military operation was also haphazard not in terms of bombing large parts of North Waziristan but how it dealt with people.

It warned people to vacate their homes and relocate to other areas within three days before military operations were launched yet the entire region was placed under curfew. How could people move out under such conditions? There was no transport available. The few transporters that risked the hazardous journey from Bannu, the nearest city in the settled area, into North Waziristan demanded exorbitant prices for carrying people to safer areas. This is one of the poorest regions of Pakistan and people have few resources even at the best of times. They were left abandoned.

The entire experience has left them badly traumatized; a people steeped in conservative tradition having to drag their women out of homes and putting them with relatives and friends in other parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPP) has caused them deep anguish. The vast majority of people refused to seek shelter in government-run camps; it is against their self-respect and dignity. Besides, they do not want their women left in the company of non-mahrums (men to whom they are not related by blood or marriage). This may not be a big deal in the rest of the country where people have adopted many western values but for people in the KP province and especially those in the tribal belt, they still hold on to some Islamic values, among them the honor and respect of women.

There have been harrowing tales of military personnel going about humiliating people. And such humiliation is not limited to ordinary people that are routinely abused anyway. Nobody should be subjected to such mistreatment, poor or rich. Even highly respected families have been abused. In one particularly insulting episode, family members of a former minister from North Waziristan were ordered out of their house in the early morning. All the men ordered to take off their shirts and then lined up against the wall. To compound the insult, the women were also ordered out of the house.

As the soldiers went about abusing the men and women, an army major arrived on the scene and recognized the son of the former minister whom he had met many times before in Islamabad. It was at this stage that the family’s humiliating ordeal ended, at least temporarily. The family has since been forced to leave their ancestral home while the army has occupied their house. If this could happen to the family of a former federal minister, how much worse it must be for ordinary people?

There are other tales of horror narrated by people that have managed to flee the area. All 27 male members of a single family—brothers, cousins, nephews etc—were shot execution style in their house compound. Only one family member survived because he had left Miran Shah, the agency capital, to try and find accommodation for the family in Bannu. He returned to a horrific scene and has since lost his mental balance wandering aimlessly unaware of what has happened. What was the family’s crime to be summarily executed? The army said their house was in a locality from where some militant activity had been detected. Does this justify the execution of an entire family whose members were not involved in any such activities?

This is hardly the way to win hearts and minds. Is everyone in North Waziristan a terrorist or criminal? If not, why is the military conducting itself as an army of occupation? The Pakistani government even called upon the Afghan government to seal the border and not allow the “terrorists” to escape into Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of refugees from North Waziristan have already fled to the neighboring Kunar and Paktika provinces of Afghanistan. Would these people have any sympathy left for Pakistan? Why are the Pakistani government and army creating enemies out of ordinary citizens, and at whose behest?

For the overwhelming majority of people in Pakistan, the government exists only in name. The government’s only contact with the people is the manner in which it places problems in their way. The social contract that should exist between the state and people is unheard of. Most people’s experience with the government is through the steel-tipped club of the policeman or through the corrupt bureaucracy. Their function appears to be not to serve and protect the people but rather to serve the elite and their rapacious lifestyle. It is not surprising that the elite live in fortified homes behind massive concrete barriers in urban centers. They have ample reason to fear the people.

The police and by extension the feudal lords and industrial barons that rule Pakistan are still second fiddle to the military that are the real masters of Pakistan. It is the military that dominates the security and foreign policy of Pakistan. It must also be stated for the record, that many of the militant groups currently being targeted were nurtured by the military itself. If the government’s policy has changed, why do the people of North Waziristan have to pay the price?

Separation of family members means virtual isolation, especially in the month of Ramadan with summer temperatures hovering around 45 – 50 degree Celsius.

They have been forced to flee their mud homes and villages on foot or aboard rickety trucks packed with bundles of clothes, sacks of flour and cattle. Many have been separated from families. There are many families whose members have been scattered between Bannu, Peshawar and Kohat. Bannu is 80 miles south west of Kohat while Peshawar is an additional 40 miles away to the north. The single road between Bannu and Kohat is in poor condition; buses are also not very comfortable in this depressed area of the province. Separation of family members means virtual isolation, especially in the month of Ramadan with summer temperatures hovering around 45 – 50 degree Celsius.

Medical personnel in the province say the overwhelming majority of these people are badly traumatized. Their ordeal did not start with the latest military offensive; they have been at the receiving end of such brutality since the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. The price is being paid by these poor people whose life in any case exists at a very rudimentary level. In the tribal belt, there are few government services. It seems their only contact with the government appears to be through the F-16 planes dropping bombs on their homes and helicopter gunships firing missiles at them.

The exact number of people affected is difficult to determine but estimates vary from 800,000 to 1,000,000 internally displaced persons. Doctors at the Khyber Teaching Hospital in Peshawar say they examined about 300,000 patients at the psychiatry wards of the KP hospital in 2013. Of these 200,000 belonged to the tribal area. Dr Muhammad Wajid, a psychiatrist at the hospital in Peshawar, said these included “145,000 women and 55,000 children.”

The KP province has borne the brunt of the refugee burden since 1978 when the first communist coup occurred in Afghanistan on April 27, 1978. The coup and the subsequent uprising resulted in some 4 million Afghan refugees flooding into Pakistan, most of them into the KP province. The Soviet invasion of December 27, 1979 made the situation worse. Over the decades, the Afghan refugees melted into the local population. They occupied empty lands while successive governments turned a blind eye to this development for political reasons.

Unfortunately not every Afghan refugee returned home when the Soviets left in February 1989. There are still an estimated 2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan causing an enormous strain on the fragile economy of the KP province. Since 2005, more than two million internally displaced persons from the tribal area have also flooded into the province. There have been several waves caused by natural as well as man-made disasters: the October 2005 earthquake that devastated most of the northern areas of the province; the 2009-2010 floods that affected other countless millions. In-between, there was the Swat operation launched by the military that also resulted in displacing three million people. Most of those from Swat have since returned but their lives have been turned upside down. Now a fresh wave of refugees has flooded from North Waziristan.

In all these cases, the government has provided little or no support to the displaced persons. In fact, there were many instances during the 2005 earthquake when government and military personnel actually commandeered trucks full of goods donated by private charities and took them away. This shameless theft of donated goods was carried out in broad daylight. Donations of medicines from abroad, including those by Muslims in Canada were similarly stolen. The story of theft and grand larceny by the government and its various agencies including the military is shameful. The military likes to present itself as clean but facts present a different picture.

In Pakistan, the military takes great offence if its misdemeanors are highlighted. Those that dare to say anything are given a stern lecture about the great deeds the military has performed; perhaps, but military personnel are not angels. They are products of the same soil as everyone else. Some people have even been killed for exposing their wrongdoings.

These are not allegations or second hand information; these are is firsthand experiences of this correspondent. Events are simply bearing this out once again with tragic consequences for the poor people of North Waziristan. Both the government and the military have much to answer for.

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