Previously a little known tribal agency of Pakistan, North Waziristan is now one of the most infamous places in the world. Sadly, this fame is not connected to its raw, rugged beauty, but rather its reputation as a global pit-stop for terrorists.
The region became home to the Afghan Taliban as well as organisations like Al Qaeda and other foreign militant groups. This nightmare scenario led to over a decade of drone strikes and military operations, culminating in the ongoing Operation Zarb-i-Azb.
The operation's objective: the complete eradication of militancy in the agencies.
With the combat aspect of the operation entering its final phase, ISPR Peshawar arranged a visit for journalists, granting us a unique opportunity to cover Independence Day activities and track progress in North Waziristan, specifically in Mir Ali and Miranshah.
As the convoy of media vehicles and DSNGs (satellite-carrying vans) escorted by the army headed towards North Waziristan, the first thing that struck me was the impressive work done by the army engineers and the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) despite the harsh climate and the remoteness of the tribal areas.
The road we traveled on was carpeted and well maintained. Colonel Nadeem, in-charge of Inter-Services Public Relations' (ISPR) Peshawar chapter, later informed me that this road had been recently constructed by army engineers as part of the establishment of the Pak-China economic corridor.
Emotions ran high on our way to Mir Ali. Nasir Dawar, one of the senior journalists travelling with us, says he was originally from the area but had been forced to leave with his family in 2006 when the insurgency was at its peak. This was the first time he was returning to his hometown and seeing his face light up at all the development schemes underway around us was heartwarming.
Along the way we also made a little bit of history. As we crossed Khajori check post and entered North Waziristan, Nasir told us that we were the first people to take a DSNG to North Waziristan to provide live coverage.
As we entered Mir Ali, rows of derelict, deserted houses dotted the side of the road, ghosts of a once-thriving area.
This was the real consequence of 9/11 and the nightmare that gripped this region. We saw the brutal impact war can have on a town — a fact all too often forgotten by those further away from ground zero.
The army operation against the militants had destroyed everything.
Gone were the thriving bazaars of Mir Ali and Miranshah; they were leveled for having served as militant hubs.
Schools were reduced to rubble. There was nothing left; no hospitals, no clean water, no electricity.
Everything required for a functioning society had been decimated. But perhaps the biggest, non-quantifiable impact that the military operation had was on the civilian population that had to flee North Waziristan.
More than 700,000 people had left their homes during Operation Zarb-i-Azb, living in camps elsewhere as Internally Displaced People (IDPs).
While the ruins around Mir Ali and Miranshah did project a sense of foreboding, there was also an unmistakable sense of progress in the air and it looked like peace was finally returning.
According to a security official, about 90 per cent of North Waziristan had been secured — including populous tehsils such as Mir Ali, Miranshah, Speen Wam, Shewa and Razmak. As a result, more than 25,000 people had returned home — a small but positive start.
Reconstruction efforts in the agency were also underway. In Mir Ali, a plush, modern market was being constructed to replace the old bazaar.
According to Qaiser Khan, an additional political agent of the North Waziristan civil administration, the new market, which is expected to open in October, will consist of 120 shops, and will be allotted to those who had lost their shops in the previous bazaar.
The old headquarter hospital of Mir Ali is also being renovated with plans of reopening it by October. Its capacity is being extended to 120 beds replete with modern laboratories and other essential technologies.
Information obtained through the civil administration of North Waziristan illustrated the vast scale on which reconstruction efforts were being carried out.
In the first stage of rehabilitation works, which had started in March and were almost complete by the time of writing, a total of Rs1 billion had been spent. This included 47 water supply schemes, renovation of 11 schools, improvement of existing health facilities and construction of eight new ones, and reconstruction of the main markets in Mir Ali and Miranshah.
Similarly, Rs1 billion has also been allocated towards the second stage of rehabilitation works which is expected to end by 2015. This includes 42 water supply schemes, 84 new schools, 6 health facilities, and 11 markets in different tehsils in North Waziristan.
An Internally Displaced Person (IDP) we encountered, Nowroz Khan, of Bobali area, expressed his satisfaction at returning home and finding peace as well as basic facilities such as clean drinking water, roads, and electricity.
The peace that greeted us in our travel corresponded with the official narrative; that North Waziristan is secure. Yet, when it came to the official line of the agency returning to prosperity, interviews with locals on the ground revealed a more complicated picture.
Chief among the concerns of the local population was the inadequate nature of the rehabilitation works. While some progress had been made in providing essential services, the slow pace of the reconstruction efforts had frustrated and caused tremendous hardship to the locals.
One local, Riaz Khan, complained that life for him could not be considered “normal” when there was no clean water supply for his household and no schools to send his children to.
Another resident, Tasleem Khan, who returned to his home in the Edak area of North Waziristan from an IDP camp in Kohat at the beginning of Ramazan, had similar concerns about the quality of life in his hometown.
“Yes (medical) dispensaries have opened up but there are no emergency facilities. There are no proper surgeons in the area or even any gynecologists who my wife can go see.”
The closest proper medical facilities are in Bannu, but the military only allows people from Miranshah to go to Bannu once a week on Mondays.
In case of an emergency, people are helpless.
This restriction of travel to Bannu not only violates Pakistani citizens’ freedom of movement but also causes tremendous hardship to North Waziristan residents who, in the absence of proper food provisions, household supplies and infrastructure, rely on the markets and facilities in Bannu for all their needs.
One of the many IDPs who have not returned home is Haji Bazeer, previously a Miranshah resident but now living in Peshawar. Bazeer laments that due to the lack of shops and other means of economic sustenance in North Waziristan, he would rather stay in Peshawar.
Locals estimate that before the operation, the bazaars in Mir Ali and Miranshah used to have 3,000 and 5,000 shops respectively. The new Mir Ali bazaar, however, will provide only 120 shops. Even if the 11 new bazaars under construction provide space for 1,100-1,200 shops (which is an optimistic estimate), it would not even remotely compensate for the shops that have been destroyed.
To make matters worse, the places where markets previously existed had their leases cancelled by the civil administration, which means that other than the tiny, new markets, there is no way for traders to engage in legitimate economic activity.
Safiullah Gul Mehsud, a local interviewed for this piece, was genuinely puzzled about what people were expected to do once they did return home.
Yet, even the problems being discussed in North Waziristan now come from a certain level of autonomy and opportunity.
While previously, under Taliban rule, people in the area feared for their lives if they tried to escape; now they just suffer from a relative lack of mobility.
Previously, parents were not allowed to send their children to school; now they can afford to complain about not enough schools being constructed.
Independence day was a strong reflection of this drastic change that has taken place in North Waziristan. During the days of the insurgency, Independence Day used to be accompanied with somberness and gloom. Waving flags and singing the national anthem was banned; people were not allowed to express their love for Pakistan.
This year was a far cry from those days. Fervent celebrations were seen across various parts of North Waziristan as people took advantage of their new-found freedom. At one such celebration in a local school in Mir Ali, hundreds of locals enthusiastically participated in a flag-hosting ceremony, singing the national anthem with pride and waving Pakistan flags.
In one particularly poignant moment during the ceremony, Zahid Noor Jan, a disabled person from the area, said he had not known August 14 was a day of celebration, till now. Sitting on his wheelchair and cheering through the ceremony, an enthusiastic Zahid vowed he would celebrate Independence Day every year.
Chief Guest of the event Major General Numan Mehmood raised the Pakistan flag and then made the intentions of the army clear in no uncertain terms; the insurgency that had plagued North Waziristan for years was over.
It was now time for the locals and the military to work together to build a better, more prosperous future.