BANNU, Pakistan — First Al-Qaeda bombs, Taliban suicide attacks, Uzbek assassins, U.S drone missiles, and Pakistani airstrikes and artillery barrages haunted them for more than a decade.
Now unwieldy security procedures trouble civilians in a northwestern Pakistani tribal region as they attempt to pick up the pieces following years of exile and harsh extremist rule.
Residents of North Waziristan, one of the seven districts in western Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, are sick of long queues, unending questions, lengthy paperwork, and long delays to visit their homeland or even leave it.
Every day, scores of men, women, and children throng in Saidgai, a stony scorching desert, north of Pakistan’s northwestern Bannu city.
They are either trying to return or visit their homes and villages in neighboring North Waziristan or are returning or visiting Bannu, where many have lived since a 2014 military offensive in their homeland forced more than 1.5 million North Waziristan residents to flee.
“Our suffering is unending. We have to wait at least three hours to get through the Saidgai checkpoint,” Hanifullah, a young man from North Waziristan’s Ghulam Khan village, told Radio Mashaal. “Our women and children are forced to sit under the blazing sun for hours.”
Hanifullah, who goes by one name only, says that even after crossing through Saidgai, he is often stopped and grilled at 11 additional checkpoints that dot the nearly 60-kilometer road from Saidgai to Ghulam Khan, a border crossing with neighboring Afghanistan.
“We are stopped everywhere and frisked, despite carrying Watan [ID] cards,” he said. “If peace has truly returned to our homeland, they should have a little mercy.”
What makes the wait and humiliation at the checkpoint particularly painful is the fact that all North Waziristan residents are required to obtain Watan or Homeland cards even before attempting the journey to their homeland.
Obtaining these cards involve lengthy waits, paperwork, and biometric details such as fingerprints. Locals say authorities only issue the cards to those who are cleared after background checks.
Still, the Watan Card, locally nicknamed the Waziristan Visa, is no guarantee of a smooth journey to the beleaguered region.
Gul Aslam, another North Waziristan resident, attributes the delays to the presence of fewer security personnel to deal with the movement of travelers in Saidgai. Currently, only two security officers check and register each individual in Saidgai. They are mandated to match the cards with records on computer databases.
“They can simplify the procedure by simply looking at the Watan cards,” he said. “There used to be eight computer operators here, but now few are available. A delay here stretches my one-hour journey to three.”
Noor Islam runs a local charity, Youth Of Waziristan. He, too, wants the authorities to add people and employ more technology to ensure quick transit though Saidgai.
“The holdover in Saidgai really ruins a whole day,” he says. “It is really painful for women, children, and the elderly. Authorities need to act soon.”
An army official involved in overseeing the security arrangements in Saidgai says they are taking steps to address complaints. The official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, says they will soon triple the number of security personnel in Saidgai.
“It will take only 15 minutes even in peak rush hours,” he said.
From 2004 to 2014, North Waziristan was the epicenter of an Islamist insurgency that saw Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their Central Asian allies from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan effectively rule the region.
Their terror campaign and the ensuing Pakistani military offensive killed more than 50,000 civilians in North Waziristan as well as in other parts of FATA and across Pakistan.
Hundreds of U.S. drone strikes killed scores of senior militant leaders in North Waziristan but were also alleged to have killed civilians.
A Pakistani military offensive in 2014 dislodged the militants from North Waziristan but also displaced an estimated 1.5 million civilians.
While a large number have returned with some government assistance, rebuilding their lives and livelihoods is expected to take decades.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Radio Mashaal correspondent Umar Daraz Wazir in Bannu, Pakistan. (Courtesy Gandhara)
THE PASHTUN TIMES