Bannu: A shock awaited us we arrived in Mirali in North Waziristan for the first time since leaving our villages in the wake of Zarb-e-Azb, the military operation that was launched in June 2014 to root out militancy in the tribal district. For me and my fellow Jirga members, it was a terrible moment to see our markets at Mirali completely razed. Like our lives, shattered pieces of glass winked at us from the debris of the once busy bazaar where we spent the best part of our days, mixing with the rural community.

“I can hardly believe my eyes,” said Bostan Khan, 55. He owned several markets in the Mirali Bazaar, the second biggest in North Waziristan after the one in Miranshah, the agency headquarters. The marketplace that once had more than 7,000 shops was now a plain littered with debris of those shops.

Later that day, Khan told a group of officials at Bannu, the town in mainland Pakistan that borders North Waziristan, “Two of our Jirga members fainted when they saw the market turned to rubble. It took all my will to try and stay composed.”

“These markets would provide employment to no less than 35,000 families and they are now jobless due to the destruction of the markets,” Khan told News Lens Pakistan.

When the Pakistani forces announced the military operation in NWA on June 15, 2016, more than 1.5 Million people were displaced from the agency. They left behind all of their belongings, their homes, cattle, fields, businesses and properties, including their shops in the sprawling bazaars of Mirali and Minashah. They returned early this year to find the shops and markets demolished in the operation.

According to the Market Owners Association of NWA, more than 19,000 shops were demolished in the bazaars of Mirali and Miranshah.

“7642 shops and business centers are destroyed in Mirali and 11,000 in Miranshah,” said Bostan Khan. He said the minimum cost of reconstruction of a shop was Rs. 800,000. According to him, the total cost of rebuilding the markets is no less than Rs.16 billion.

“These markets provided employment to no less than 35000 families that are now left without any source of earning a livelihood,” said Khan.

As the operation ended, the government declared the area as “cleared” but those who returned to their homes say their lives are greatly reduced in absence of work and markets to conduct business.

“Though we fulfill our daily needs from elsewhere [the IDPs returning to Waziristan and elsewhere in tribal areas also get food and financial assistance from government] it feels rather strange that we have no bazaar like Mirali and Miranshah anymore,” said Attiq Khan who is from a village close to Mirali.

More than 60,000, families have returned to Waziristan and many more are going back but there is no big market where people can carry out business and transaction as was the case before operation Zarb-e-Azb.

The Government has built small marketplaces at various spots in Mirali and Miranshah but the local say they have little interest in setting up businesses there for one reason or another.

“The rules and regulations for setting up business in the newly constructed markets are very tough but above all the spots where markets are built are not feasible,” a local businessman told News Lens Pakistan on condition of anonymity.

The government recently revealed a plan for rebuilding the destroyed infrastructure in the tribal areas, including the markets in North Waziristan but owners of the main marketplaces disagree with the conditions and modalities.

“The businessmen and shopkeepers own small landholdings in the markets but the new map ignores the ownership claims and consideration which will cause conflict among the owners,” said Hafiz Ihsan who owns about 80 shops in the Mirali Bazaar.

He said the map was drawn by someone who was totally unaware of the culture and community dynamics of the area.

“This is not government land [for it to map],” said Hafiz. “We inherited it from our forefathers. It is mentioned there in the government land record.”

While there is no proper data available on how many of the local people have shifted their businesses elsewhere in the wake of operation and displacement, the Shop Owners Association says it is very few. They say most of the displaced people have come back to their homes and lands, hoping to find jobs but in absence of economic activity they find themselves stranded. Most of the displaced people, says Bostan Khan, have found themselves jobless on return and they don’t know how to cope.

“I used to have a shop in Mirali Bazaar but I can’t rebuild my business as all of my merchandize was in the shop destroyed in the operation,” said Abdullah Jan, a resident of Mirali who owned a grocery store in the market.

While the government has provided the returning IDPs food supplies six months, they are not allowed to cultivate their lands. Cultivating the lands was the primary livelihood activity and source of sustenance for many families in the largely agrarian society.

“We cannot allow them to cultivate for reasons of security,” a security official told News Lens Pakistan on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media. “When all of the displaced people are rehabilitated, they will surely be allowed to return to routine as it was before the operation. Till such time they are all back, people will have to be restricted to their own villages.”

But the market owners are not happy about the way rehabilitation is carried out, restricting their lives, livelihoods and mobility to their homes and villages. They want the government to pay for their losses or leave things be.

“What they (the government) wanted to do, they have done it,” says Noshar Khan, another market owner at the Mirali Bazaar. “They should leave us to our own fate instead of creating feuds among the landowners.”

He said the people could accept it if the government doesn’t want to help them. But forcing them to build markets as per the government’s plan would be a blow to the people’s idea of rebuilding their lives. “Everything is on record and if the government is really keen to rehabilitate us, then let us sit together and find a viable solution to the issue.”

However, arriving at a solution that finds a mutually agreeable location for rebuilding markets is only part of the problem for many of those who lost their business and properties in the operation. The government will still have to compensate those who left behind their stocks and supplies in the nearly 19000 shops destroyed in the military operation.

A member of parliament who hailed from FATA and wished to stay anonymous said that a sum of Rs. 16 billion was allocated for rehabilitation of the people of FATA but it was “a meager amount considering the losses of the people in the region in military operations since 2005.”

An official document from the Fata Secretariat in Peshawar reveals that construction of markets in NWA is under consideration and  Rs.29.900 m have been allocated to build  “need based markets” at various spots including two at Boya Tehsil, one in Miranshah and the rest in Mirali area. The local traders have however rejected the plan already.

“For centuries, we have carried out business in the locations where markets were based in Mirali and Miranshah,”said a trader who didn’t want to be named. “No other spot is feasible for business activities. We will rebuild them on our own but we need the government’s permission.”


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