BANNU: Khozabat Khan, a middle-aged father of six, sees no logic in being forced to leave his village in western Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal district yet again.
As a member of the Pashtun Mehsud tribe, the goat farmer has suffered enormously after being forced repeatedly to leave his home during the past decade.
After his scenic mountainous homeland became the headquarters of the Pakistani Taliban and their Central Asian and Arab militant allies, Khan was forced to leave his village in South Waziristan’s Ladha area in 2008.
For nearly nine years, Khan endured scorching summers, frequent family illnesses, and hunger in makeshift shelters and temporary housing in the nearby districts of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan.
Thousands of Shabikhel families, all members of Khan’s clan, joined tens of thousands of Mehsud families to return to their villages last year. Shabikhel is one of the several clans that make up the Mehsud tribe.
The Pakistani military finally declared their South Waziristan homeland free of insurgents following a series of large-scale military operations involving long-range artillery barrages, air strikes with infantry advances, and special forces operations.
Yet early this month, military authorities in South Waziristan ordered Khan and his relatives to join more than 1,100 Shabikhel families in leaving their homes once again. The displaced families were residents of the Shaktoi, Smaal, and Bobarh villages in Ladha.
He says they were told to leave their homes on November 3 just before lunch. After an arduous two-day journey of walking and waiting, they were finally brought to Bakkakhel, a displacement camp on a stony waterless plain near the northwestern city of Bannu, some 130 kilometers from Ladha.
“We don’t know why we were brought here or what we did wrong,” he said. “Now we live under curfew in this camp, and we are barely allowed to leave our tents.”
Khan says life in the displacement camp is miserable. His family of eight now lives in two tents but have to share four beds. While they are provided cooked food, they share a toilet and a bathroom with six others families.
Khan is worried about his goats and cows, which he says were grazing in the open when they were told to leave. He says the sudden forced displacement has divided many families.
“Some women and children are living without fathers and husbands because they left South Waziristan to work in Pakistani cities like [the southern seaport city of] Karachi.”
Activist Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen says an estimated half-million members of the Mehsud tribe are prepared to look after the Shabikhel displaced if the authorities allow them to return to their homeland.
“There are 1,170 families, many of whom have been torn apart when the authorities forced them to leave suddenly,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Our tribe is now determined to not let its members languish in displacement camps.”
The displacement is the latest episode in a long history of suffering.
Nearly 3 million residents of South Waziristan and six more districts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have been forced to leave their homes since 2003. Forming a 600-kilometer arch along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, more than half of FATA’s 5.5 million residents were displaced by insurgent violence and military sweeps after a host of Islamist militant groups retreated into FATA following the demise of the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001.
“These [FATA] tribes have suffered enormously and have repeatedly been forced to leave their homes,” Pashteen said. “Like people everywhere, they just want to be able to live peacefully.”
Almost all of the estimated half-million members of the Mehsud tribe have enduring displacement, and resentment and angers runs high.
“Since Rah-e Nijat [in 2009], our communities have endured tremendous losses. We suffered during displacement and lost our houses and livelihoods,” Alamzeb Mehsud, another displaced resident of Bakkakhel, told Radio Mashaal.
Despite repeated efforts, the Pakistani military and civilian officials refused to comment on the issue. Senator Maulana Saleh Shah represents South Waziristan in the Senate or upper house of the Pakistani Parliament. He visited Bakkakhel over the weekend but refused to comment on the situation there.
In what appears to be the only official acknowledgment of the displacement, the FATA Disaster Management Authority (FDMA), a government agency dealing with displacement in tribal areas, reportedly acknowledged on November 8 that some 200 families left South Waziristan after security forces launched an operation.
Quoting locals, the Tribal News Network reported that the Shaktoi region, home to an estimated 50,000 Shabikhels, had not been “cleared” in the earlier offensives.
According to the FDMA, more than 90 percent of FATA’s displaced have returned home. The agency’s latest statistics show that more than 320,000 FATA families have gone back to their homes in South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Khyber, Bajaur, Mohmand, Orakzai and Kurram tribal districts.
In Bakkakhel, Khan is eager to return to his homeland. “We just want to go back to our village,” he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Mashaal correspondent Umar Daraz Wazir’s reporting from Bannu, Pakistan.