As I walk through this relief camp in Bannu, the midday sun emits fire, the heat waves are palpable as they rise off the concrete road, adding a haze to the scenes of desperation among thousands of tribesmen who escaped from the mountains of North Waziristan.
Standing in queue for rations wearing woollen Chitrali caps, turbans, some even with coats and waistcoats, they seem either oblivious to the searing weather change or, perhaps, surviving through the dance of death has numbed their bodies and souls.
They look haggard.
I saw Ziaullah Dawar standing in the long line, holding a small girl’s hand. I called out a greeting to him. Dawar turned, left the queue and walked away. He did not want to meet me.
I vividly remember our last meeting over a decade ago. It was at his wedding.
Also read: 'IDP = Internally Disowned Pakistanis'
I was in North Waziristan to report for the BBC, covering the raid on Haqqani’s madrassah reportedly by FBI sleuths in Dand Darpe Khel along the Afghan border. My tribal journalist friend Nasir Dawar advised me to spend the night in the village because of the possible danger in trying to make my way back at night. He took me to Mussaki, a village on a nearby mountain, for a celebration. It was Ziaullah’s wedding.
In the bone-piercing cold, young and elderly tribesmen sat around a bonfire, busy roasting sheep, others dancing in half circles, jerking their heads to the drumbeat, the popular Attanh dance. From inside Ziaullah’s huge fortress-like house, women could be heard singing traditional Pushto tapay.
Ziaullah, once a transporter, someone who arranged feasts for hundreds back in his village, did not want to be seen in queue for food.
I met Ziaullah again that very night through a common friend. We embraced and neither of us mentioned seeing each other at the relief camp early that morning.
Ziaullah’s smiles had been replaced with dark circles under his eyes.
“We have lived and died every day.”
“My young cousin whom you saw dancing like crazy at my wedding has been killed. Militants driving a Land Cruiser with tinted glasses stopped in the middle of the market, dragged him outside his shop and whisked him away.
“A fortnight later, his mutilated body with chopped hands and bullet holes was thrown on the road.”
Mussaki village and nearby hamlet Hurmuz were littered with foreign militants; and the locals called it the “Uzbekistan of Waziristan.” Some of the shops even had signboards in Uzbek language.
Ziaullah tells me his father Siddiqullah and mother, Adde, are both dependent on anti-depressant tablets, called ‘tension ki goli’ by the tribesmen.
As Ziaullah and I sipped qahwa, his children who were with him drew on the paper I gave them. Brishna, his daughter drew a burning mountain and a man with an ugly face holding a gun and a dagger. His son Abdur Rehman didn’t draw anything; instead, he made a paper plane.
These children have seen beheadings, target killings, drone attacks, bombings, shelling and the closure of their schools. I pondered upon how these innocent children have spent their entire lives witnessing terrible violence that adults my age have not seen.
These memories will haunt them. Thousands of such children of Waziristan will carry these psychological wounds for the rest of their lives.
All the tribesmen I met choked up when talking about their motherland.
“My forefathers would narrate ‘if you leave your motherland then you will be cursed to wander like gypsies — Kochies — who are always in search of their homes,” says Zia’s elderly father.
“When I was away from my homeland, I would see my mountains on fire. Now, whenever I think of my Waziristan, I see a picture painted with blood.”
Ziaullah himself recalls the day when they had to leave their home in a rush. His wife and four children were seated in the tractor trolley, waiting for Ziaullah’s father. “When I went inside to call him, he said "let me water the plants and trees of the hujra, otherwise they will die."
"I held him from the arm and made him walk out of the house in spite of his tears.”
His mother took out a Pashmina shawl from the wooden box, a wedding gift from her grandmother.
Like half a million displaced tribesmen, their toughest journey began from their village to Bannu. It took 22 hours to traverse 33 kilometres filled with grief and sorrow. I bid farewell to Ziaullah that night with a heavy heart.
The next day as I walked though the relief camp of Bannu, the midday sun again emitting fire, through the heat haze, I saw Ziaullah Dawar standing in the long line, holding his daughter Brishna’s hand.
She smiled at me.
I turned around and left the relief camp so Ziaullah wouldn’t have to greet me. I didn’t have the heart to face him either.
Photos by author