IT has not gone unnoticed that ever since Operation Zarb-i-Azb was launched, details emerging about the operation are completely one-sided. Few details are appearing from the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and those trapped in the area. The ISPR has been constantly issuing press releases making various claims, such as killing scores of militants, on a daily basis. But my clandestine trips to Mirali and Miramshah and the ordinary people that I met in Bannu show a different picture.
I met 65-year-old Zahir Shah from Miramshah in Bannu who was with his family in a truck. He had one of the most heart-rending stories to narrate about his difficult journey. “It feels like the Day of Judgment. I may seem alive to you but inside I am dead. No warnings were given about the impending operation. The bomb attacks started suddenly and I had to leave two of my sick children behind. I handed them over to Shawwal Scouts belonging to the Afridi tribe requesting them to bury my children should they die.”
Shah’s version appears to have some basis because some local journalists and I had managed to slip into Dattakhel, a village west of Miramshah in North Waziristan Agency, and were present on June 15 when a curfew was imposed unexpectedly and the operation was launched without a proper announcement. The aman jirga and the tribal maliks had been meeting officials for nearly a month to delay the operation. However, this did not happen.
According to Shah and other IDPs, Miramshah Bazaar, a source of livelihood for many, has been completely destroyed. “Air strikes have killed many civilians including women and children and hardly any terrorists. Ordinary civilians have also been shot at sight,” claimed Shah. Though Shah said this with authority, his claim — like those of the military — cannot be independently verified.
I was in Mirali nearly 20 days ago. There I saw a house reduced to rubble and I could smell decomposing human flesh. A bystander claimed that the house was bombarded at 1:30am in which 24 members of a family were killed. A girl of about seven to eight years of age survived. Noor Behram, a journalist friend, also undertook an arduous 26-hour journey from Miramshah to Bannu with his family when the operation began unannounced. “There was no way to get out. Roads were closed. We walked all the way to the Sadgai checkpoint on the Bannu-Miramshah Road. My wife and children traversed hidden paths; climbed mountainous tracks all day and night to somehow reach the checkpoint, which is a mere 25-minute drive by car from Miramshah. But it took us 26 hours to reach the checkpoint.”
Behram also spoke about the ordeal he and the other IDPs have faced at the hands of security forces during registration. First is the seemingly never-ending wait with thousands of men, women, children, senior citizens and invalids waiting for their turn. Then, everyone goes through a body search, their CNICs are checked, they are cross-questioned and are handed chits which basically say that they are not Taliban and are going to Bannu.
And there are numerous such tales. Mohammad Saiyyid said that air strikes nearly flattened his house. “I was picking bits of rubble when my wife screamed at me and said leave all this, let’s take whatever remains of our essential belongings, grab the children and get out of here. We thought we were the only ones but when I turned to look at my house for the last time I saw a sea of people behind me with their belongings and their families. We went uphill and covered a path of many kilometres. Women in our households observe strict purdah, to see them like this in the open…,” Saiyyid couldn’t speak further.
After hearing everyone’s stories, I cannot help but recall Operation Rah-i-Nijaat launched in 2009 in South Waziristan. At the time, the army claimed that within two months the operation would end. It has been five years and the operation is ongoing. Thousands of Mehsuds were displaced and are now living a difficult life in Tank, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan with some of them subsisting on leftover rotis. The Taliban are present in South Waziristan where they are engaged in an insurgency against the state.
A Taliban commander Gilamand Mehsud called me up and admitted that their men have been killed and injured but not in the hundreds as claimed by the army. “So far nine men have been killed and five injured,” asserted Mehsud.
However, my sources tell me that four days ago, six bodies were found lying in Mirali Bazaar and by their appearance they seem to be Taliban. So far neither the army nor the Taliban have claimed them.
—As narrated to Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui
Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2014