Life is tough but returning to normal in former Taliban stronghold


Khaisoor (South Waziristan): With overwhelming jubilation, I tread the soil of my hometown in South Waziristan after spending a decade displaced from the place of my birth. I returned to celebrate Eid with my relatives, only to find profound changes in everything from the people to the infrastructure.

On 18 July 2007, I left Toorwam village, a dusty hamlet situated in the heart of South Waziristan, in the face of fast-spreading militancy and violence. I lived in displacement in many districts such as Tank, Murree and Abbottabad, like thousands of other tribal families.

At that time, I was under immense pressure to support my family and I was working as a journalist with local and foreign outlets to eke out a livelihood.

When I returned to my hometown on June 24, 2017, I felt as if everything from the jagged mountains to the waterfalls took me into their embrace.

My four-hour journey from D. I. Khan began in scorching 39 C-degree heat, but ended with a comfortable 22 C degrees in Waziristan.

Our sprawling village is made of mud-built houses, surrounded by barren mountains and a gently flowing stream. Most of the houses have been damaged but I also noticed that the area is marching on robust path to progress and development.

Through a government program, people get $4,000 for fully damaged homes and $2,000 for a partially smashed house. The tribesmen complain this is a meagre amount, with which a single bathroom couldn’t be built.

As a number of mud-built houses are either damaged by shelling or rains, the newly repatriated families have to install tents inside their houses’ boundary walls because they are unable to build their houses.

The repatriated families prefer to live in their shattered houses instead of living in rented facilities as displaced people in other parts of the country.

Apart from their national identity cards, the tribesmen need a special kind of permit known as Watan Card to enter to their homeland.

There is enhanced security in and around the village. I had to stop at seven security check posts established by the security forces on way to South Waziristan, where we had to establish our identity and go through strict searches.

When I entered my damaged home, my 65-year-old mother hugged me for 10 minutes, and burst into tears of excitement. She had been the last person to bid me goodbye when I fled a decade earlier, weeping uncontrollably because of my looming separation. I only saw her twice in this whole decade.

The tribal peoples have a tight-knit social system that connects tribesmen to each other.

However, because I had lived in the settled areas of Pakistan for almost a decade, I was unable to recognize some of my immediate relatives. Kids who had been five years old when I fled in 2007 are now teenagers on the verge of manhood to whom I needed an introduction.

Soon after reaching our village, the kids and I took a swim in the stream where I saw other joyous faces. Having no Internet or mobile phone facilities, life in South Waziristan remains tranquil and free from the clutches of social media. People have hours to chat with their relatives and friends.

For a month leading up to our departure, my five-year-old son kept asking when we would return to our homeland, since he was born in Islamabad and has never known Waziristan, the Taliban, or militancy. He has no knowledge of the military operations in Waziristan that led to our displacement.

I left my hometown at a time when the area was rife with militants who enjoyed full authority over the area. They had established their own courts and imposed their own rigid brand of justice, and ran a parallel administrative authority in the region.

The Taliban’s excruciating rule caused thousands of families to migrate to other districts in Pakistan, often spending years living in miserable conditions.

When I fled, the Taliban had banned music and most education as un-Islamic. The militants had blown up most of the schools. By sunset, most people were locked inside their homes due to widespread banditry and insecurity. Tribesman had to carry assault rifles to ward off any untoward incident.

Youngsters dance on drum beat on the eve of last Eid : Photo by News lens Pakistan

So my return 10 years later felt like a dream. I saw youngsters and elderly people enjoying late night music parties and dancing to drum beats for four consecutive days amid Eid celebrations.

Even a renowned local religious scholar, Senator Saleh Shah, joined local tribesmen and army officials to dance in the chorus of the drum beats.

“I joined the cultural dance to encourage other tribesmen to join because we have experienced unspeakable hardships during the past 10 years without seeing a single day of happiness,” he said.

A newly opened public school in South Waziristan : Photo by News lens Pakistan

Meanwhile, children and teenagers dressed in proper uniform were attending the Army Public School (APS) in Shakai—a scenic town in South Waziristan where the Pakistani government inked its maiden peace agreement with Taliban in April 2004.

Weapons and guns were common in the tribal areas even before the military operation against insurgents, since people used to hunt dangerous wild animals in the forests.

However, people are now facing high risk of attacks from wild animals including wild boar and hedgehog because the military has disarmed the populace, leaving villagers defenseless.

Mir Nawaz, a man in his early 40s who owns a small farm, told me: “A boar attacked a woman and a child in Makin hamlet, leaving them badly injured. They were rushed to a hospital in critical condition.”

Another problem of concern among the tribal people is the prevalent of unexploded IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), leaving many people paralyzed.

In spite of the obstacles, people now enjoy late night gatherings along the stream, bearing torches in instead of guns and rifles.

However, when I looked at damaged homes, the weed-strewn pastures, and the contaminated water channels, I felt like Waziristan is a bride robbed of her virginity.

With the exception of military built schools and colleges, most government-run schools remain in a dismal state, while the government still does not provide basic services such as electricity, sewage treatment or clean drinking water.

I ran into my childhood friend Muhammad Shah, 45, who lost his teenage son to the brutal wave of insurgency.

Muhammad Shah told me that he feels as though he has died and gone to heaven. He had no need for the trappings of modernity.

“Here I’m leading a serene life without paying utility bills such as electricity, water, gas, rent, mobile and other government taxes,” he said. “This was difficult when I was living in displacement with my seven-member family.”

A number of other tribal families said they would not return home, having established good businesses in other parts of the country.

“We have a passenger van service and a roadside eatery in D. I. Khan,” said Muhammad Ameer, 46 who is father of three. “We are not willing to permanently live here because we have no personal business here.”

There remains some dissatisfaction among some young men who want the Frontier Crimes Regulations — a separate set of laws prevalent in the tribal region — to be abolished and replaced with the laws of the land.

A number of tribesmen I talked to offer similar grievances over neglect by the government regarding basic facilities such as health, education and communication.

“Our persistent negligence by the past governments with their failure to provide us with full rights has pushed the tribal masses toward the vicious cycle of violence,” said Rahim Khan, another tribesman, who works in the United Arab Emirates.

Still, noted another tribesman, Noor Muhammad: “The central government is not interested to bring the war-ravaged region at par with other districts of the country because huge chunk of corruption money by local political administration goes to the top officials.

“We know the local officials have a hand in promoting violence indirectly because tribal people face hindrances to do their legitimate work in government offices.”

People weren’t talking much about the harsh days under Taliban, but they were concerned that this time Daesh (ISIS) is making inroads in Afghanistan. They fear the group’s fighters will infiltrate the tribal region as well.

Editor’s Note:

This story was made possible by generous donations from 20 individuals to the Pakistan Shift project. For more information, or to contribute to coverage of important issues in Pakistan, please see the project page.



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