Footprints: Fleeing home

Updated June 10, 2014

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Women and children sit by a road, while fleeing from a military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, on the outskirts of Bannu located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province January 28, 2014. Thousands of villagers have fled their homes in Pakistan's North Waziristan region, fearing a major military operation by armed forces after they said dozens of people had been killed in air strikes targeting Islamist militants earlier this month. -   Reuters
Women and children sit by a road, while fleeing from a military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, on the outskirts of Bannu located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province January 28, 2014. Thousands of villagers have fled their homes in Pakistan's North Waziristan region, fearing a major military operation by armed forces after they said dozens of people had been killed in air strikes targeting Islamist militants earlier this month. - Reuters

Night: 10pm and we are just shadows in the dark, all contours no features, sitting here reminiscing about home. Through the inky night, headlights from occasional motorcycles speeding down the distant road come to us like eerie, disembodied lanterns, winking through the dark column of trees. The sputtering motorcycle engines grow louder as they approach nearer, shattering the silence and waking up the dogs into a frenzy of barking, before receding into the distance.

Around me men sit on carpets thrown on dry, dead patches of grass, others on a portable pipe bed. The night is airless, heat rises oppressively from the plains of Bannu. We pass around a plastic bottle of red carbonated drink that could be strawberry or cherry or both. No Summer Wine, this. It’s sweet as treacle so I give it to the little son of my host who has lodged himself possessively between his father and the guests. He smiles back. It only makes me guilty because his teeth are going bad from consuming too much sweet.

More men arrive, ghosts out of the dark. We stand up to welcome them, exchanging greetings. When we sit back, small talk soon gives way to reminiscing about home. Everyone has a story to tell, a past to share. I get the sense we could sit here the whole night and no one would want this conversation to end, to get up and shuffle back to their beds, their mosquito-bitten bodies finding no rest in the long night of their displacement. And the eternal loadshedding that follows wherever we go.

The home in our conversation is North Waziristan. These people are IDPs, forced to leave their villages and lands. Some have been here for years but more are coming in every day, and they bring news and stories of home missing from the lives of others displaced before them.

Among us is a former warden at a boys hostel in Miramshah. He sings now. “Chay moong zwan pa Miramshah kay woo, somra pa araam kay woo” (When we were young in Miramshah, such peace it was). Somewhere along the song, the timbre leaves his voice, making it sound lonely.

From schoolboys whose mischief was the bane of the warden’s existence to bad food in a hostel’s mess, it is a shock that the problems of people in Waziristan are as mundane, as human, as the rest of Pakistan. We, in the settled, urban Pakistan have grown used (calloused?) to the notion that Waziristan is where things get weird, without questioning it like other stereotypes about the tribal areas.

The mood shifts when my host says his daughter, appearing in board exams, has not been able to study due to the ongoing operation and displacement. “Despite months of curfew, the education authorities give deadlines for migration to other colleges knowing that the people cannot leave homes,” he says.

A phone call interrupts the conversation. My host’s friend in Mirali wants to know if they should leave, if the operation is happening. He wants my host, a journalist, to call Islamabad and find out if a full-blown operation is in the offing. My friend tells him if everyone else is leaving, so should he. To us, he says: “Call Islamabad? What does he think — I have a hotline to the interior minister?”

Morning: Out in the narrow corridor by the gate of the passport office in Bannu, men sit on long wooden benches, their attention momentarily averted from their papers as someone familiar walks in, someone they know from the village back home. Inside the office, where a rattling window AC keeps the mercury down, the officials are hard at work to process applications for passports. Men mill around the hall, out in the yard and by the photostat, filling forms, getting photographed. My friend the journalist is here to help expedite the passport application for one of his villagers.

The villager, a student who has a brother in Al Ain, tells me: “The people here are all going to the Gulf states.” And are they all from Waziristan? “Mostly.” Why are they going? “What is there to stay back for? My village has a population of 3,000 families, 2,000 have already left. Air strikes happen in the middle of the night, there are no warnings, no announcements. People say, “Waziristan pray da, khpal khair ghawara” (Leave Waziristan, go find yourself a safe place).

And so where are the people going? “To Bannu, to D.I. Khan, Bhakkar and Peshawar. To Afghanistan.”

Afternoon: One look at the Bannu-Mirali highway under the burning sun and that old soft-drink advert with a man with parched lips asking for “one more for the road” makes sense. Out here, thirst lurks in the barren, baked landscape, the desiccated lumps of wild grass. We stop at an army checkpoint where we don’t tell where we are going — a photographer for AFP warned us the army doesn’t allow anyone to go to the IDP camp in Bakakhel. They check our IDs and let us go. On the next checkpoint, a proper military post, we know we can’t just wriggle through so we tell the tall, dark soldier we are journalists going to the IDP camp. They take down our ID details and ask us to wait while they get us permission.

It has been 45 minutes and the hot water in our bottles tastes of plastic, of dioxin perhaps, if it has a taste. There is no shade, just the long concrete wall built in the plain across the army post. They tell us they are still reaching out to authorities when we get impatient. Relief, when they tell us we can go with a colonel about to leave for the camp. We wait some more and they tell us the colonel has left by the back door and no, we can’t go to the camp.

Late afternoon: When they can’t go to the camp, the intersection at the Do Sarak Chowk on Bannu-Mirali road is where journalists go. There is a constant stream of IDPs, on trucks, tractors, coaches, coming in to Bannu. They speak of uncertainty, of confusion, of fear and military operation. Why don’t they go to the camp? Some don’t know if it exists, others say there is nothing there, no water, just tents and the blazing heat of plains. An old man, frail and exhausted from the heat in a coach where travellers are packed like sardines, holds a copy of the Quran in his lap. He didn’t want to leave it behind to be destroyed in the operation.

Evening: My host’s brother has just arrived from Mirali in NWA. His wife has blood cancer and he needs to take her to a doctor in Peshawar. It took them four hours to cover the 25 kilometres between Bannu and Mirali because of military movement. He speaks of the impending operation, of displacement. But there is no operation, I say, at least not one that has been announced. “Why is the army not stopping people from leaving Waziristan then?” he says. “Why are they not telling them to stay back, not telling them that their fears are misplaced?”

Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2014