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North Waziristan: Falling skies

Updated Apr 10, 2015 10:46am

Slowly, as the bombs razed their homes, the displaced of North Waziristan lost everything: families are broken, houses demolished, even the colonnades are no longer cool sanctuaries

by Owais Tohid


Under the spreading apricot tree

Photo by Shabbir Hussain Imam
Photo by Shabbir Hussain Imam


Bubo’s memories are as beautiful and as haunting as her ancestral village of Anghar, which, tribal elders say, was once haunted and deserted. It is now a place of lush green fields, as if nature has rolled a carpet over the valley, broken only by the flowing waters of the River Tochi. Looming behind are the barren peaks of the black mountains, known as Tarakai in North Waziristan — where, legend has it, demons rule.

“My grandmother would warn us that no one should ever go to Tarakai. If humans trespassed, the demons of the mountains would in turn come down to the valleys in the guise of people and plunge us into darkness,” this old tribal woman narrates. Her son Umer Wazir, a known Pushto broadcaster with Mashaal Radio, remembers growing up with such stories.

“Just before sunset, we would sit under the trees in our family orchard eating apples, grapes and apricots. My mother, Bubo, and grandmother, Neo, would tell us stories, telling us that when darkness spreads, the demons on Tarakai whisper. Afraid, we would huddle close to them and go to sleep.”


In the blink of an eye, the legend of the ghosts and the darkness turns real in the village of Anghar, North Waziristan


But Bubo and other villagers had never imagined that these ghost stories would become real. “In the beginning there were only whispers amongst the women that guests have come from the mountains. When asked who and from where, I was told ‘from Tarakai after crossing the thick jungles of Shawal’,” she recalls. “I knew we should be worried then.” It was a bad omen.

Tarakai, the Black Mountains and the village Anghar
Tarakai, the Black Mountains and the village Anghar

From those very black mountains came Al Qaeda and long-haired Taliban militants, with a malign presence as dark as the night of Tarakai. The militants unleashed a reign of terror, executing tribesmen over the mere suspicion of spying, killing whoever was capable of dissent.

The militants grew older, more visible; their commanders driving speeding station wagons and Land Cruisers with tinted glasses. The Hilux twin cabs were usually driven by short-tempered Taliban, toting automatic weapons and with RPGs slung over their shoulders.


My grandmother would warn us that no one should ever go to Tarakai. If humans trespassed, the demons of the mountains would in turn come down to the valleys in the guise of people and plunge us into darkness


During those days, militants kidnapped a 16-year-old boy from Bubo’s family on suspicion of spying, a student of grade 8. When they released him after two weeks, his body was bruised, his skin blackened, one kidney had collapsed due to the ruthless torture he had been subjected to.

The stories ended; Bubo and the women from the neighbourhood would now sit silently in the orchard worrying about the safety of their male family members, especially the boys. “Sitting under the apricot tree, we shed tears and shared our pain. Much later, when my son took me to the psychiatrist in Peshawar, the doctor kept talking to me. She reminded me of my apricot tree,” Bubo recalls.

“When the shadows deepened, we (the women of the family) decided to send our sons away. Shedding tears in longing is better than crying over their dead bodies.” Bubo’s one son, Umer Wazir, was already in Bannu. He convinced the youngest, Javed, to try his luck in Dubai, but the eldest, Siddiq, was not willing to let go of his hardware and paint business in Miranshah.


In the beginning there were only whispers amongst the women that guests have come from the mountains. When asked who and from where, I was told ‘from Tarakai after crossing the thick jungles of Shawal’,” she recalls. “I knew we should be worried then.” It was a bad omen.


Demons claimed the land. From Miranshah to villages like Dandh Darpe Khel, they spread their shadowy tentacles on the stretch towards Ghlam Khan bordering Khost and Datta Khel towards the Shawal Mountain that overlooks Paktika province.

Around 5,000 foreign militants took refuge with the help of local militant commanders and clerics. Here, they found thousands of new recruits. They turned North Waziristan into what was considered to be the epicentre of global terrorism, shattering peace inside Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan.

During daytime foreign militants, especially Uzbeks, would roam around in Miranshah market wearing shalwar kameez and local woolen caps, some of them even chewing naswar like tribesmen, visiting underground internet cafes especially built for them in the basement of the markets. They were usually armed with a Kalashnikov, a pistol, two hand grenades and carried a wireless set each. They had local sounding names like Abdur Rehman, Abu Sufiyan and Mohammad. The Arabs were usually called “Sheikhs.”

After sunset when men would return home, elderly women like Bubo asked them questions, while the younger ones stayed out of such discussions. But women already knew the inside stories of the houses where the guests had been hosted, and shared those amongst themselves. “The Uzbek and Tajik women were shameless; they roamed around inside their house in T-shirts and trousers, but outside they wore burqas. The women used laptops all day. I heard the women were fantastic engineers, worked with wires and electronics and probably made explosives.”

The foreign militants would not mingle with the tribesmen. They didn’t send their children to local schools instead taught them at homes. However, their children would play with local kids and talk in Pushto. The tales of terror, of beheadings and killings, of drone attacks and bombing … these terrified Bubo. She was increasingly concerned about the safety of her son Siddiq, who ran his business in Miranshah market.

Every morning for two years, Bubo would walk with him to Tochi River and stand there till he crossed. Every evening she waited for him on the riverbank to bring him back home. “Sorrows deadened my mother from inside and she was reduced to half her size,” says Umer. “When we forced our eldest brother to leave for Dubai then she said she was very happy to see her sons safely away but we knew how pained she was,” he says.

For Bubo, leaving her village Anghar was as necessary and as painful as her sons leaving her. “She told us: ‘give me 10 minutes to collect a few belongings,’ but when she came out she brought only a few apricot pits from our family orchard,” recalls her son, Umer. She looked back to the green fields and the Tarakai and wished the demons went back to the Black Mountains.

“I wish happiness returns and that I celebrate Eid with all my children in my village,” she says. “And I will never speak of the ghosts of the Black Mountains to my grandchildren, so that the stories never become real.”


Trade of terror


When the twin towers fell, stock markets around the world shook and fortunes were lost. And as Al Qaeda fled from Tora Bora into North Waziristan, a small-time shopkeeper Sher Gul Dawar didn’t know he was about to become a rich man.

Sher Gul was an arms dealer in the Mir Ali Bazaar.

As the relentless US bombardment forced hordes of Al Qaeda and Taliban militants to move here for refuge, Sher Gul’s and other villages filled with these warriors looking to regroup and replenish. Local militant commanders and clerics helped them find new recruits, and traditional arms shops like Sher Gul’s offered them readymade weapons to fight with.

For over two decades this 42-year-old tribesman had traded in weapons, but the game and the scale had now changed beyond his imagination.


Speaking of the first order placed by the ‘new guests’ Gul narrates: “He was curly haired, tanned, Arab-looking. He came with three Uzbeks and two Moroccans. They looked around the shop and toyed with the weapons. They tried to talk in broken Pushto but when I couldn’t understand it, the interpreter spoke for them.’’


His shop soon showcased pistols, Kalashnikovs, rocket launchers, SMGs, LMGs and even anti-aircraft guns. Outside it were piles of bullets and stacks of hand grenades.

Speaking of the first order placed by the ‘new guests’ he narrates, “He was curly haired, tanned, Arab-looking. He came with three Uzbeks and two Moroccans. They looked around the shop and toyed with the weapons. They tried to talk in broken Pushto but when I couldn’t understand it, the interpreter spoke for them. They wanted 15 Klashnikovs, 10 rocket launchers, 100 hand grenades, three Light Machine Guns and many rounds of bullets,” Sher Gul recalls. “Each LMG was for Rs200,000 back then. The rocket launchers were Rs35,000 each.”

“I told them the price, they didn’t bargain, haggle or argue. The Arab nodded, the Moroccans handed me bundles of dollars, put the weapons in their four wheeler and went to the next shop.”

Gul’s shop was one of 70 in Mir Ali Bazaar that dealt in arms and ammunition. By that evening, the market was abuzz with news of the new ‘guests’ and their shopping spree in every weapons shop.


Injecting new life into the ailing arms trade, al-Qaeda and the Taliban breathed deadly fire from North Waziristan, reports Owais Tohid


With time, as the demand increased, the prices started soaring. The arms dealers of North Waziristan started buying in bulk from their contacts in the Khyber, Mohmand and Bajaur agencies and Darra Adam Khel, locally known for manufacturing arms.

Business boomed and prices soared. With regularity they saw new visitors with new faces, their clients now included Turkmens, Syrians, Chechens, Uighur Chinese, Muslim converts of German, French and American origins. The foreign militants were everywhere.

“But when the drone attacks began, the Arabs stopped visiting and instead sent Uzbeks and Chechens who used to bargain on every purchase unlike the Arabs who never argued,” says Gul Sher.

As an example of soaring prices, the Kalashnikovs that sold for 12k in 2002, were selling for 260k to 280k by this year. LMGs which were sold for 200k each a decade ago now cost between 400k and 500k. Anti-aircraft guns now cost almost half a million rupees. These were good days for Sher Gul and his fellow merchants.

The weapons available in the tribal belt were mostly bought from Mujahideen commanders and their fighters during the first Afghan War, when the CIA and ISI backed these holy warriors to defeat the Soviets. Be they the fighters of former commander Younis Khalis or Gulbadin Hekmatyar, these militants had bulk supplies to sell to the arms dealers.

“Anyone in the tribal belt who had money bought the arms dirt cheap during the Afghan War days, stocked them in massive godowns, and since then have been selling to arms dealers like us,” says another dealer of Mirali, Umer Khan.

The arms dealers of Mirali and Miramshah also had a nexus with traders operating in Ghulam Khan, which borders with Khost and the Afghan capital of Kabul.

The arms trade flourished until military strikes began early this year in February. Groups of ‘guests’, the main clientele, started packing their bags.

Gul Sher narrates, “Standing outside my house I could see groups of Uzbeks and other guests loading their luggage in Land Cruisers and Surfs, some with their wives and children.”

These foreign militants were carrying a Kalashanikov each, a rocket launcher over their shoulders, holsters around their waists with hand grenades and rounds of bullets, some carrying the weapons they may have once bought from Gul Sher.

“I saw them disappearing into the mountains. They would say, “Days are short and nights are long, but if the days belong to them then the long nights are ours,” he recalls. They could speak Pushto fluently by now.

Like the militants, within weeks Gul Sher and other arms dealers had to leave their valley, after burying and concealing their weapons as their elders did in the first Afghan War, stockpiling them in wait for another conflict to arise to see their deadly trade boom once again.

Photos by Umer Wazir


Dance on embers


by Iftikhar Mohmand

The queue is long, time is running out, but the wait is infinitesimal: it has been four hours since Haji Gul, a sexagenarian, has been waiting at a rations distribution point in Bannu, in temperatures that are crossing over 40 degrees Celsius. But Gul’s troubles do not sprout from the immediacy of the situation; they mark a deeper conflict within the conflict: Gul is worried about how to bring his family back from Afghanistan once the operation is over.

Gul’s family is one of the 120,000 people from villages located on the Durand Line that migrated to Afghanistan as a fall out of the operation Zarb-e-Azab in June 2014. Gul, who married twice, belongs to the Dattakhel village. His daughters and four sons all have gone to Khost, Afghanistan.

“One of my wives is from the Zadran tribe; it’s her family in Khost that is sheltering them,” says Gul, explaining how a few households collect food to serve them, keeping the tradition of “Melmastya” intact even in times of great distress.

The migrants from Pakistan vary from tribe to tribe, based on their movement of forced or ‘partially’ forced displacement, which is the largest cross-border migration between Pakistan and Afghanistan in little more than a decade. In the past, tribesmen in North Waziristan would threaten to migrate to Afghanistan whenever disputes with the government remained unresolved; these threats hardly ever materialized into reality... until recently.


As the bombs fell, tribesmen moved their families away from their homes in North Waziristan. Where did they go?


Gul’s house was flattened before his eyes, but luckily for him, everyone survived. “Khost was closer to us, and while there was intermittent bombing, I decided to take them to a safer place”.

But now, Gul too is anxious. He has heard of greater scrutiny of people who shifted to Afghanistan, and he has become adamant about bringing his family to Bannu. “If I don’t bring them back now, this might be a difficult task in the future” Gul says.

While some families have returned to Pakistan into Kurram Agency, the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) says that the influx of the internally displaced has stabilized at around 0.1 million. This surmounts to around 10,000 families living in Khost, while 36,000 families are residing in Paktika. The majority are living with relatives in their homes, adding a strain on available resources. Then there are 15,000 people are living in Gulan Camp in Khost.

North Waziristan consists of three subdivisions and nine Tehsils. The migration towards Afghanistan has mainly taken place from within sub-tribes of the Uthmanzai Wazir, the main tribes in North Waziristan living on both sides of the border. However, interviews held with elders of tribes reveal that a large number of Mehsud and Bhittani tribes that had shifted to North Waziristan after the operation in South Waziristan in 2009 had also shifted to Afghanistan. Tribal elders say that there are militants who have also slipped through along with the people fleeing.

Based on a number of interviews of tribal Maliks, local sources, and officials from Fata, it becomes clear that members of the following tribes living in the three subdivisions of North Waziristan have gone to Afghanistan, because of the proximity of Khost and Paktika to their abodes.

Mirali Sub-division

Spinwam Tehsil: Turi Khel, Hassan Khel and Titi Madaa Khel

Shewa Tehsil: Miami Kabul Khel

Mirali Tehsil: Tori Khel and Bora Khel

Miranshah Sub-division

Ghulam Khan Tehsil: Saidgai and Gurbaz

Datta Khel Tehsil: Mada Khel, Manzar Khel and Khader Khel

Razmak Sub-division

Shawal Tehsil: Kabul Khel

However, the politics and security parameters surrounding such a migration seem to be hovering over the whole operation. While the purpose is to cleanse the area of militants, the dynamics of tribal attitude in Fata and particularly North Waziristan has wider implications. The internally displaced during a military operation are considered to be a “by-product” but in the case of this terrain, “concerns runs deeper” as a security expert put it.


Gul’s family is one of the 120,000 people from villages located on the Durand Line that migrated to Afghanistan as a fall out of the operation Zarb-e-Azab in June 2014. Gul, who married twice, belongs to the Dattakhel village. His daughters and four sons all have gone to Khost, Afghanistan.


In August of 2012, a Jirga at the Islami Madrassa Nizamia, Eidak in Mirali sub-division of North Waziristan declared it would renounce its Pakistani nationality and move to Afghanistan since “there are no drone strikes there.” But nobody went anywhere, permanently at least; the jirga declaration was just another threat in a series of such threats previously orchestrated from South Waziristan and Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency, claimed officials.

In subsequent years, however, families did move to Afghanistan. In early June, the Ahmadzai tribes, living in South Waziristan, were also warned against moving across the border. With changing geo-political realities, the tribals who move freely across the border might now feel the ache of an international boundary. The Disraelian dream of a “scientific border” to demarcate borders to protect the “interest of British India” remains a contentious issue between the Pakistan and Afghanistan.

While the Pakistani security establishment views such movement in a historical context, the resolution of the Afghan National Assembly in 1949, repudiating all treaties’ with the British India Government, formally rejects the Durand Line. The 1955 resolution of the Loya Jirgah argues for the ‘non-recognition’ of Pakhtun territories as part of Pakistan, and the issue of Pakhtunistan and its supportive elements. However, in recent times, cross-border attacks, insurgency and statements from both the countries of shelling across the borders have put the IDPs to be viewed in the context of a security parameter rather than a humanitarian one.

But supporters of a “xenophobic” policy argue that there is much reason to believe that Pakistan’s porous borders are more volatile than ever. A veteran politician who enjoys considerable influence in the tribal belt, particularly Waziristan, and wished not be named, says that the problem is that majority of the militants have managed to run across the border and those that were able to, have taken refuge in urban areas.

“The IDP crisis is not as straightforward,” he says, since the Wazirs have a history of vengeance. Those that have come down to Bannu and elsewhere need to be shown through practice that they belong in Pakistan. “There are

elements that might try to take advantage of the situation” he claims, alluding to the rise of groups such as the ISIS, who could be an inspiration for those elements who do not respect international boundaries. If the tribesmen are supportive of it, this could be another front opened, he says in a warning tone.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 13th, 2014