IN calling for a suspension of the military operation in North Waziristan until all civilians have left the area, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chief Imran Khan has spoken sense. The exodus from the conflict zone has, understandably, had an air of panic about it. Bannu has been flooded with people, and thousands of families have literally walked miles since transport was either not available or available at too jacked-up a price. So far, according to the Fata Disaster Management Authority, over 400,000 of the internally displaced have been registered, which indicates that the bulk of the population in North Waziristan has already evacuated. Yet that is not every single non-combatant man, woman and child, and while the loss of civilian life in such situations can never be acceptable, the contours of this particular conflict demand that all-out effort be made to ensure there is no collateral damage, for that would foster further disaffection. The army has said that it has laid siege where militants are present, which means that fighters can be weeded out; given that, there is no reason why a few days should not be allowed for citizens to depart with their preparations in place.
The fact that Pakistan in general fails to see — partly because it, too, has suffered so grievously — is that these people are already victims of a conflict not of their making. Those affected by earlier military operations in other areas, such as Swat, returned to devastated homes and villages, and had to rebuild their lives from scratch. All that can be done, should be done, now, to ensure that the impact of displacement on the North Waziristan IDPs is mitigated as much as possible. This includes financial and food-related assistance but most of all, it requires an attitude of accommodation. The stance taken by Sindh and Balochistan towards their compatriots is unsavoury, and should change through putting in place mechanisms whereby the provinces’ legitimate concerns are addressed while people fleeing conflict face no closed doors.
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2014