A mobile phone tower in Landi Kotal of Khyber tribal district. — Dawn
A mobile phone tower in Landi Kotal of Khyber tribal district. — Dawn

Mumtaz Khan, a young resident of Para Chamkani in central Kurram, had to travel to Sadda Bazaar in Lower Kurram, some 20 kilometres from his hometown, to convey Eid greetings to his relatives working in Gulf by mobile telephone on the third day of Eidul Azha.

“No mobile phone service is available in the entire central Kurram region while the land line PTCL service was disconnected some nine years ago when security forces launched an operation against outlawed militant groups,” he told this scribe.

Mr Khan said thousands of displaced families hailing from Para Chamkani, Masuzai, Zeemusht and Ali Sherzai tribes of central Kurram had no access to either mobile or landline telephone service.

“The mobile phone service disappears when we cross the Badama hilltop, some six kilometres from Sadda Bazaar towards Para Chamkani. No mobile phone company has so far extended its service to the militancy-affected areas of central Kurram,” he said.

The situation is not different in Jutt Darra and Luzakka Darra of the adjoining Tirah valley of Khyber tribal district.

Wajid Khan Afridi, a resident of Jutt Darra, situated on the border with central Kurram, told this scribe that most of the local people also had to either travel to Sadda or Dogar to convey telephonic massages to their relatives, friends or business partners.

Nearly 1,200 Qambarkhel tribesmen of Khyber tribal district have only recently returned to their homes after remaining internally displaced persons for more than six years.

“Our family members, friends and business partners still live in other cities of the country while a large number of our co-tribesmen have gone abroad in search of jobs so it is imperative that we keep in touch with them by telephone to enquire about their wellbeing,” said Mr Afridi.

The residents of Ghalju area of Orakzai tribal district are faced with the same dilemma as the landlines were suspended during military operations while the mobile phone service has not been extended to the region.

Qari Naurang of Luzakka Darra in Tirah valley said that it troubled them a lot when they took female members of their family to talk to their relatives, who worked abroad, by telephone.

“Taking our women to markets is considered a violation of the tribal customs. It is always an inconvenience for us to take our women to a public call office operated by a stranger,” he said. He added that the women too had problems discussing family matters by telephone in the presence of strangers.

Sources in North and South Waziristan, Bajaur and Mohmand tribal districts also complained about lack of mobile and landline telephone services in some far-flung or militancy-affected areas.

The government had in June 2016 suspended mobile internet service in the entire tribal region comprising seven districts and six frontier regions.

The restoration of mobile internet (3G-4G) service was one of the main demands of people of tribal districts, especially youth, when prime minister visited North and South Waziristan, Bajaur, Orakzai and Khyber where he addressed big public rallies in the recent past.

The prime minister had ordered restoration of the mobile internet service on almost all the occasions he addressed public rallies during his visits to tribal districts and had rather instructed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Mehmood Khan on two occasions in Khyber and Bajaur to personally look into the matter but the issue still stands unresolved.

Qari Naurang said that they had become so accustomed to the use of mobile phone during their displacement, while living in a rented house in Peshawar, that at times he had to climb the Haider Kandaw hilltop, some eight kilometres from his eight-decade old house, in the middle of the night to convey an important massage to relatives or friends living outside Tirah.

He said that the PTCL authorities failed to restore the landline service to his area, close to Dogar Bazaar in central Kurram, despite several complaints.

“The Dogar telephone exchange provided over 300 landlines to our area prior to the start of military operation in 2012 but it had not restored the service after restoration of peace and completion of IDPs return in 2014,” he added.

Ali Gohar, a student of Bachelor of Business Administration hailing from Landi Kotal, contended that his studies were badly affected by the suspension of mobile internet service as he regularly required an internet service for timely completion of his assignments and its submission to the relevant authorities.

“I had to rent a room in a bachelor hostel in Peshawar to utilise mobile internet service as it is not available in any part of Khyber and rest of the tribal districts,” he said.

Zikriya Khan, 19, from Khar in Bajaur, also had to make frequent visits to Peshawar and Timargara to avail the mobile or PTCL internet service for his college courses.

The mobile and internet service suspension also impacted the professional activities of nearly 500 journalists working for various media organisations in the seven tribal districts.

Saleh Din Orakzai, the president of Orakzai Press Club, told Dawn that despite the inauguration of the newly built press club in Ghalju, he along with his colleagues had to travel to Hangu Bazaar for sending news stories by email to their respective media organisations as the facility was not available to them in Ghalju.

“The correspondents of private television channels are the worst affected as they have to send their video footages on time while having no internet facility in Orakzai tribal district they have to frequent between Hangu and parts of Orakzai,” he said.

Wahid Afridi, another journalist from Khyber, said that social media had off late become an important and powerful tool for sharing of information and news.

He runs his own Facebook page, covering news and events from Bara, Jamrud and Landi Kotal tehsils of Khyber.

“At times we could not upload our stories timely due to lack of internet service in the region from where our reporter is assigned to report and thus we miss the opportunity which no one in the media organisations could afford,” he said.

The limited mobile service and suspension of the mobile internet service had also rendered most of the candidates handicapped during the recently held elections for 16 provincial assembly seats in tribal districts.

Shah Faisal, a candidate from PK-107, said that mobile phone was an important and essential tool to reach out to maximum number of voters. The suspension of mobile service in various parts of Khyber, he said, greatly hampered his election campaign. Officials in the district administration, when approached to comment on the restoration of mobile and internet service, said that the services could only be restored once they were given security clearance by the relevant institutions.

Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2019