South Waziristan, the largest of the seven tribal agencies, chronicles the telling symptoms of war. Modest schools that were once part of the rugged landscape have been reduced to dusty debris. Hospitals, roads and simple housing localities are skeletal remains of once inhabited spaces.
For displaced Mehsud tribesmen, who comprise 70% of the local population, South Waziristan is no longer a place they call home, but instead a safe haven for Taliban militants mired in a decade-long battle with security forces.
“Eighty per cent of Mehsud tribesmen have fled to other parts of the country,” Rustam Shah Mohmand, former chief secretary of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) tells The Express Tribune. Of the agency’s estimated three million population, Mohmand reckons nearly 1.6 million now live in camps for ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) – out of which three-fourths are Mehsud tribesmen.
“Many of them moved to earn their livelihood in Sindh – mainly Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur – while a considerable number shifted to different districts of K-P,” says Mohmand, who has also served as ambassador to Afghanistan and is a member of the government committee negotiating peace with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). While the displacement is owed largely to security operations and drone warfare targeting the Taliban’s central leadership and rank and file mostly drawn from the Mehsud tribe, Mohmand says the bloody strife has also destroyed sources of livelihood.
In part, he attributes the mass exodus to the breakdown of the Mehsud’s economic base because border trade with Afghanistan, which collapsed due to the volatile security situation, was the mainstay of local economy. “Militancy and the four major security operations that ensued in the stronghold of the TTP have caused colossal damage to the infrastructure and economy,” he says. With the agency in the grip of militants since 2004, Mohmand says numerous Mehsud businessmen and their families have shifted to Islamabad and Lahore.
Due to the absence of official records, the exact numbers of Fata IDPs is not known. But according to the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) country profile for 2014, more than one million people have been displaced owing to security operations in Fata and K-P, especially since the Pakistan Army launched the Rah-e-Nijat operation in 2009. The Centre for International and Strategic Analysis (SISA) puts the number of families that fled South Waziristan at an astounding 36,000.
According to the Fata Disaster Management Authority (FDMA), the total number of off-camp IDPs from South Waziristan, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram and Frontier Region Tank is 704,623, while there is no record of those who migrated to Sindh and Punjab. While Mohmand appreciates FDMA and UNHCR endeavours to provide assistance to the displaced persons, he declares the efforts ‘extremely insufficient’.
Chairman of the Qaumi Watan Party Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao also admits that the Mehsuds are the most unfortunate victims of this war, and describes their living conditions in IDP camps as deplorable. “No one knows how long it will take for their homecoming dream to come true,” he says.
Mohmand also rubbishes the FDMA’s report that hundreds of IDPs from Fata have been returning to their homes during the last two years. “They will never return to South Waziristan as long as the security agencies are there and the Taliban infighting is ongoing,” he says.
According to a 2009 report by the Planning and Development Department of the Fata Secretariat, the tentative infrastructure, social and environmental costs in the aftermath of the security operation run into hundreds of millions of dollars.
For now, struggling Mehsud IDPs are left to make ends meet in temporary homes. In Islamabad, Rawalpindi and adjoining areas, the displaced residents are desperate to return to their homes as early as possible. Recently, a large number of them gathered to protest against the governor of K-P, whom they say has failed to arrange their return to the agency. They say that they have been living in rented houses with little income since 2009 when the security forces launched operation Rah-i-Nijat against the TTP.
According to FDMA Director General Arshad Khan, 1,343 tribesmen have been repatriated to Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency from the Kohat camp in May this year. “Over 300,000 people have been displaced due to conflicts in Fata since 2008,” he said, adding that 150,000 are still displaced and reside in various camps.
Aftab Sherpao is sceptical about their repatriation. “I don’t see any likely return of these IDPs to South Waziristan in the near future. A few have returned to their homes but the majority is still waiting for a conducive atmosphere. They want to return due to the sense of insecurity that prevails in the IDP camps. I don’t think the security situation will improve in the coming days,” he says.
He also expressed doubt about the success of the peace talks. “All the IDPs were expecting that successful peace talks between the government and the TTP would pave way for their repatriation, but there have been no positive results.”
Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2014.
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