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The cold emptiness of South Waziristan

Updated April 22, 2018


THE rocky hillsides of South Waziristan, the birthplace of the Pakistani Taliban, are littered with mines and IEDs left behind by a bitter war.—Photo by writer
THE rocky hillsides of South Waziristan, the birthplace of the Pakistani Taliban, are littered with mines and IEDs left behind by a bitter war.—Photo by writer

THERE is a curious stillness to the streets of South Waziristan, and it pulls at your sense of reality. At first, you think it is the intense quiet — absolute silence, but for the gentle wind through the shabeluth trees and the soft gurgle of the Zam river. As you drive into the remote tribal district, once the headquarters of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the countryside opens up in front of you. The dusty earth of Tank gives way first to rocky gravel, and then to the hills of the Suleiman range, rising up all around you.

Each village along the way has a story.

“They murdered 35 people here, for standing against them,” says a local, as we pass through the village of Kiriwam.

We slow for a speed breaker down the road. In 2005, Faridullah Khan, a former senator, was killed as he stopped at the same bump, Taliban gunmen emerging to ambush him from a vehicle blocking the road.

The deeper into South Waziristan you go, the further into the past you seem to travel.

In Jandola, it could be 1918. Scattered mud and stone homes look out over the stream that passes through the centre of the town, once home to slain TTP commander Asmatullah Shaheen. Many of the buildings continue to bear the scars of damage sustained during Pakistan’s bitter war to retake the area. Above many, a small guard tower peeps out: each home here is a castle, to its family, a fort against invasions, or enmities from within the village.

Here and there, a few mud homes fly the Pakistani flag. Sometimes, it is a sign of patriotism, a declaration of allegiance. At other times, such as in the village of Dowatai, where the flags fly over the former homes of TTP commanders Khan Said ‘Sajna’ and Shehryar Mehsud, they are signs of conquest.

After a while, you realise that it is not the quiet, after all, that has been tugging at your sense of reality. It is the sense of isolation. Where is everyone?

Driving through ghosts

In 2017, the government said that all of the more than 600,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who fled when the military operation was launched in 2009 had returned.

The cold, quiet roads of South Waziristan’s Mehsud areas, where the bulk of the displacement occurred, seem to belie that claim.

“We thought that we would return after ten years and it would be a joyous occasion. But... we are currently experiencing challenges just as bad as when the operation was ongoing,” says Abdul Wahid Mehsud, 30, a native of Sarwakai.

“Those living there right now, they are extremely poor, those who cannot afford to pay for rent in Tank [or] Dera Ismail Khan.”

Islamuddin, 25, a labourer from the remote village of Badr, is one of those people.

“The road is destroyed; there is no electricity, no gas, no water, no doctor or veterinary surgeon. We get our drinking water on donkeys,” he says.

Others, too, speak of the devastation they returned to, and the difficulty of rebuilding.

“There were four rooms in the house, but there was nothing left of them. There wasn’t even a place to tie your goat,” says Khan Rasool, 55, a farmer from Sarwakai. “All of our belongings were gone.”

They spent six years away from home, living in Zhob, before returning to Sarwakai in 2015. I asked him what difference he saw between life outside the tribal areas and within it.

“What can I tell you?” he says, confused at the ludicrousness of the comparison. “In my own area… there are no doctors, no medicines, no schools. And we are afraid to leave our homes.”

His words are borne out by the emptiness as you drive through the district, passing through the ghosts of villages, empty shells echoing faintly with the shadows of the lives once lived within them.

The military, in a statement, said that it is doing its best to help residents rebuild their lives.

The district, which was once ruled by the TTP and has since seen a hellish war, is definitely now back in military control. Along 80km of the road snaking through the agency one passes through 19 checkpoints manned by soldiers and paramilitary personnel.

For residents, however, the work being done to clear the landmines is simply not enough.

“It is absolutely not safe,” says Saeed Anwar, an elder from Ladha. “As far as peace is concerned, today… no one has a knife, a pistol or anything else. In this respect, it is safe. But these mines, these explosions make people feel very unsafe.”

Anwar, a leader of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-F, warns that it was a deprivation of rights and basic services that first drove people towards radicalisation in his area. He fears that if the redevelopment of South Waziristan is not managed right, history could repeat itself.

“[The Taliban] did not come from outside. They were from within us — they were our brothers, our sons. I believe that we have cut the trees’ branches, but we have not cut their roots.”

Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2018