As the government of Pakistan and the Pakistani Taliban continue to discuss conditions for a peace dialogue, thousands of refugees have fled the tribal belt that sits alongside the Pakistan-Afghan border, especially the North Waziristan area where the terrorist organization commonly known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is based. The refugees have made their way to safer areas in the settled areas of the Khyber Pakthunkhwa province.
The mass exodus happened when the Pakistani army carried out airstrikes in the region last December on suspected militant hideouts.
The refugee crisis has yet to be acknowledged by the government of Pakistan, because it has not formally announced any operation in the North Waziristan region, even though there have been a wave of airstrikes by the country’s armed forces in areas occupied by the TTP and other foreign terrorists.
Most of these terrorists have been hiding in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt since they escaped from neighboring Afghanistan in the aftermath of the U.S.-led attack following 9/11.
The military’s media wing has been claiming that it has killed scores of militants in these strikes, the first of which took place four months ago. However, since journalists from outside are not allowed to visit the North Waziristan area, there is no independent verification of these claims.
Refugees who have fled the area have another story to tell. “The bombardments happened near our homes in the market area and the army was not precise in these airstrikes so many civilian homes were targeted too,” says Javed Iqbal, a 31-year-old who comes from North Waziristan’s Mir Ali area and is currently living in Bannu city, next to the Waziristan’s tribal region.
Mr. Iqbal who fled in the middle of the night with more than forty members of his family after the December air strikes had to pay exorbitant sums to transporters in his hometown to shift them to a safer area.
Even now, he and his family have received no help from official authorities. “No one is registering us or giving us any aid. Our children are not going to school anymore. There are no medical facilities being offered to us either. We are left entirely on our own,” he adds.
According to independent estimates by local non-government organizations operating within the region, more than 40,000 people have been displaced by the ongoing troubles.
“We sent out appeals to foreign and local donors to help us out with the refugee crisis but they said unless and until the government issues an official notification about an operation, they cannot help,” Nizam Dawar, a social worker based in Islamabad but originally from North Waziristan, tells The Diplomat.
Dawar, who recently met with the refugees in Bannu and has been trying to help them on his own, complains that many of the displaced families are living in the open on vacant Bannu land. They do not even have the money to buy food.
“In turning a blind eye to this influx of refugees, the government is also unwittingly allowing terrorists to flee the area under the garb of refugees. If they would acknowledge the exodus, and register the refugees or anyone escaping the area, there is a good chance that it will help the government in identifying militant elements and apprehending them,” Dawar adds.
Other refugees agree with Dawar’s assessment.
“We want an operation against those terrorists hiding in our homeland, but the government needs to plan it properly,” says Mohammad Imran, who fled North Waziristan in January with fourteen of his family members, and is currently living in Bannu in a rented house.
“There is an air of uncertainty and confusion now,” he tells The Diplomat. “The government should be clear about what it wants to do. It should ensure that common people like us are given safe passage and rehabilitation afterwards like in Swat Valley or South Waziristan operations in past.”
In past years, the Pakistani army conducted military operations in other parts of the tribal belt and also in Swat Valley, successfully driving the Taliban out of those areas. In contrast, the current Pakistani government, which came to power in May last year, has been a proponent of peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, after a consensus to do so was developed at an all parties conference last September.
The government then announced a peace committee that was able to settle on a ceasefire earlier this month between the government and the TTP. However, within the TTP there are now breakaway offshoots that have vowed to continue the attacks.
“What we have seen is that as these groups, which to my understanding are still connected to the parent TTP organization, carry out terrorist acts. And then the government retaliates too. Its a tit for tat kind of a response,” says Safdar Hayat, former head of the tribal union of journalists, who hails from North Waziristan.
Hayat feels the government has been held hostage to the security policy of the state. “The Pakistani military establishment expects the Afghan Taliban to go home soon since the Americans are pulling out. So it cannot launch a full-scale operation in North Waziristan since the Afghan Taliban occupy the same space as the Pakistani Taliban,” Hayat explains, adding that until then the government will continue to carry out what it calls targeted strikes.
But for the refugees these strikes and no visible strategy from the government means many more months of misery.
“The people are turning against the Pakistani government and the military,” warns Imran, the refugee in Bannu. “The tribal belt was already neglected, even constitutionally we have no rights. And now in times of conflict, the state is not coming forward to help us,” he adds. Indeed, the Pakistani constitution does not apply to the tribal belt.
Divided into seven different agencies, the tribal belt is governed by the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), an early 20th century draconian law introduced during the British colonial period of South Asia. Even after independence in 1947, the Pakistan government continues to govern the area through FCR, which does not allow basic constitutional rights to the citizens of the tribal belt.
For this reason, most of the region has remained impoverished and neglected, and often used as an experimental backyard for Pakistan’s military’s security policy.
It was here the Americans and the Pakistanis trained the Mujahideens in the eighties to fight the Soviets. And it is here today that the Pakistani state is accused of providing safe havens to Afghan insurgents.
Islamabad has come under international pressure to act against these hideouts. Since 2004, the CIA has carried out its own secret drone strikes.
Now Islamabad has apparently asked the Americans to halt the drone strikes, yet has started its own air attacks using fighter jets and gunship helicopters.
“At least when there were drone strikes, we knew they would be more precise and very targeted. But ever since these airstrikes by the Pakistani army have started, many civilian homes have been damaged and locals killed because they shell and hit the villages indiscriminately,” Imran, the refugee who escaped in January says, adding that even though the drone strikes created a lot of mental stress, it did not force them to flee, as they have had to do now.
“No one knows when we will go back home. All we want is peace. The government should fulfill its responsibility to take care of its citizens,” he concludes.
Taha Siddiqui is an investigative journalist working with various local and international media outlets focusing on terrorism, politics and minority issues in the country. He tweets @TahaSSiddiqui