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Life will never be the same again for Waziristan people

June 23, 2014
A displaced child sleeps on the ground in Bannu. —White Star
A displaced child sleeps on the ground in Bannu. —White Star

PESHAWAR: “The decision to take whom and leave what behind was difficult,” says Khalil Wazir, the last man standing in his Dattakhel village of Miramshah.

He had been reluctant to leave because he cared for those, who could not get out during the three-day evacuation period. The elderly people were the ones whom he was worried about.

Children and women were just put in the trucks like chicken. Many people left behind their elderly parents since they could suffocate to death in the truck, Mr Wazir said while narrating his ordeal.

The residents of North Waziristan Agency who had to rush to get out of their troubled homeland left behind their cattle and stored grains, the year’s food supply. But the elderly people, who were unable to walk for long, faced much of the pain as they had to either separate from their children or bear the heat in the suffocating truck.

Mr Wazir, a social worker from North Waziristan, having a 120-member family, always sounded optimistic about the restoration of normalcy in the area. He is president of North Waziristan Action Committee, a welfare body having over 1,500 volunteers and blood donors to help ailing people. Till recently, he used to help others in need, but now he himself needs help.

He would squint at any suggestion to shift the family somewhere else, saying their departure from the area would create panic among the residents of Dattakhel village, a hamlet of around 80 houses. Finally he had to compromise with the situation.

He had never been so much demoralised in life as he feels now with the dislocation of his family from the native area. He decided to leave but unlike others first he arranged for his 60-year-old diabetic mother to safely go to Afghanistan with some relatives.

A driver of a mini truck charged him Rs80,000 to take his family from Miramshah to Bannu.

Leaving everything behind, Mr Wazir locked the main gate of his fortress like house and left Miramshah at about 1pm on Friday and arrived at Saidgi checkpost at 9:30am on Saturday. His family members spent sleepless night on the road.

“Many aged men and women are still there. They either can’t travel or stayed back for guarding properties and cattle or simply because they are too old and weak to travel,” said the traumatised Wazir.

He shifted his ailing mother to Afghanistan, but could not evacuate 10 lactating cows and other belongings because of logistic problems. Harvesting season has just ended and the granaries stocked with year’s food have been left behind. He knows in his heart that life is never going to be the same after this one tragedy is over.

Observers and some senior government officials have termed the current displacement a ‘human tragedy’. Military operations have resulted in wanton destruction in the tribal area.

The situation, after this ‘human Life will never be the same for Waziristan people tragedy’ is over, is what no one has tried to measure so far.

Before launching operation Zarb-i-Azeb on June 18, security forces had bombed Matchis Camp village near Miramshah on May 22. Officials claimed that several terrorists were killed in the action.

However, local and independent sources said that elderly people were killed in indiscriminate shelling. Some people, who had stayed at their homes for protection of properties, were apprehended, they claimed.

Security forces have an experience of battling militancy, spanning over a decade in Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as they carried out nine major operations against militants in the region. Two operations -- Sherdil in Bajaur Agency in 2008 and Rah-i-Nijat in South Waziristan Agency in 2009 -- had caused widespread collateral damage.

Army has been in North Waziristan since 2005, having huge network of human intelligence and aerial surveillance system. There are reports that militants have already left Miramshah, Mirali and surrounding areas before the launch of Zarb-i-Azb.

A senior official said that security forces might not face resistance in Miramshah and Mirali, which were hotbeds of local and foreign militants. Forest-covered Shawal mountains, adjacent to the Afghan border, are believed to be a sanctuary of militants.

Sources said that track record of security forces on the humanitarian side in militancy-affected areas of Fata was not satisfactory despite the fact that International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) arranged courses and workshops for military officers since the beginning of militancy in the region.

Over 60,000 houses of civilians have been damaged in the ongoing insurgency only in four tribal agencies of Fata. Many non-combatants have been killed in air strikes and shelling. Small bazaars had been dismantled. Officials of Fata Disaster Management Authority (FDMA) said that rehabilitation and reconstruction of private properties required approximately more than Rs35 billion in tribal areas.

Collateral damage can’t be averted in both internal and external conflicts. Attacks that are expected to cause collateral damage are not prohibited but the laws of armed conflict restrict indiscriminate attacks.

Widespread collateral damage occurs in the conflict when principle of proportionality is ignored. Under the law of the armed conflict, parties to an armed conflict must always distinguish between civilians and civilian objects, because civilian population enjoys immunity.

People of North Waziristan have already suffered a lot. Ruthless militants on the ground, retaliatory action by the security forces and US drones have turned Waziristan into a living hell. The people have lost self-esteem, perhaps even identity, in this elusive conflict. Yet it is not too late. The authorities can still win the hearts and minds of the people of North Waziristan Agency if principle of ‘proportionality’ is followed in Zarb-i-Azb.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2014