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'Why are we being punished?': We Meet Pakistan's Latest Terrorism Refugees

At least 800,000 people have fled their North Waziristan homes to avoid government crackdowns and US drone strikes on Taliban strongholds.

by Mustafa Hameed
Jul 15 2014, 6:20pm

Photo by Mustafa Hameed

Just before midnight on June 8, ten young men dressed as security guards broke into the hangars of Jinnah International Airport in Pakistan’s balmy port city of Karachi.

In the five-hour siege that ensued at Pakistan’s largest airport, 27 people were killed, including the 10 militants — two of whom detonated suicide vests under their disguises. The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) took responsibility for planning the attack; ethnic Uzbek militants carried out the assault.

About 1,100 miles away, retribution was swift: within three days, the United States launched the first drone strikes of 2014 in North Waziristan, the rocky region bordering Afghanistan where the TTP bases most of its operations.

One week later, on June 15, the Pakistani military announced Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a full-scale operation in North Waziristan meant to comprehensively root out the Taliban and its foreign militant affiliates.

After the first set of strikes, the military announced a three-day deadline for local citizens to get out of the region, generating Pakistan’s latest wave of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the newest set of homeless refugees from the violence in Pakistan’s northwest.

More than 450,000 civilians fled North Waziristan in the week following the military’s first evacuation notice. Since then, that number has ballooned to about 800,000, a figure that accounts only for those IDPs who have officially registered with the government.

While many went to other frontier towns like Dera Ismail Khan or to larger cities like Peshawar in search of fellow Pashtun friends and family, no city took in as many IDPs as Bannu.

And Bannu — a city in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering North Waziristan — has been buzzing with nervous energy since the IDPs began arriving. They’ve almost doubled the city’s population over the last three weeks. Bannu’s streets, usually quiet after Maghrib prayers at sunset, teem with groups of young IDPs with nothing in particular to do and nowhere in particular to go while they wait for news and rations.

“Things are really bad,” Shahrzad, a tall, bearded bus driver from Mir Ali, North Waziristan’s most populous district, told VICE News.“Where’s the water, where’s the food? People talk about kids dying in their mother’s laps from hunger. That’s how bad things are.”

The frustration has occasionally turned into small clashes with the military personnel policing the city. In a June 24 incident on Bannu’s Peshawar Road, young men blocked off traffic and set a pile of tires on fire to protest what they described as mistreatment by the soldiers and the slow pace of ration distribution.

'If the beating continues, we won’t even take the rations.'

The rations themselves, administered by the military, are distributed at a converted soccer stadium not far from Bannu’s central bazaar.

On the morning of June 25, more than 1,000 young men gathered outside the stadium just after dawn, crowding around the colorful trucks loaded with supplies of flour, cooking oil, and lentils, as they lined up to enter the stadium grounds. When they got too close, soldiers with batons beat them back to clear a path for the trucks.

Noor Riaz, waiting outside the stadium, kept his distance. “They’re beating us every day with sticks as we wait in line,” he told VICE News. “If the beating continues, we won’t even take the rations.”

Aerial firing began half an hour later. Special forces troops in T-shirts labeled Anti Terrorist Squad fired their AK-47s in the air when the crowds grew too unruly for their liking.

Following that, hundreds of young men in the crowd were corralled into a neat line, patrolled by soldiers and stretching past the shops and food carts on Peshawar Road. The line slowly shuttled forward into the stadium.

Watching the World Cup in one of Karachi's most dangerous neighborhoods. Read more here.

Inside the stadium, stations were set up around the grounds. Trucks were unloaded onto wooden platforms, bags of flour or tanks of cooking oil carted by workers to loading stations, and piles of lentils weighed and portioned out into boxes under tents. Temperatures hovered between 105 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer sun.

The IDPs, equipped with their registration tickets, were given wheelbarrows to carry their supplies. A military attendant stood by the exit, checking tickets and making sure they had taken the appropriate amount. The first groups of ration gatherers were out of the stadium by about 10 am. Others weren’t so lucky. The line still stretched beyond the horizon by sundown.

“For three straight days we’ve come here, gotten nothing, and gone home,” said Hidayatullah Wazir, who came to Bannu from the Razmak subdivision of North Waziristan with 30 family members. “All day it looks like this. People have died waiting in this heat.”

At night, groups of young men gathered in the heavy air of Bannu’s bus depot, where a few dozen cots have been set up outside for bus drivers and other young men to nap. A single fan, powered by an extension cable from a nearby shop, runs to cool the makeshift camp while stray dogs bark at each other from behind parked cars.

The dusty bus depot is where IDPs from all over North Waziristan arrive, crammed into ubiquitous old Toyota Hilux mini-buses driven by men like Shahrzad. Almost all of the 12 and 16-seater buses carry five or six more passengers than their designers intended. Women in shuttlecock burqas cram together as everyone from infants to old men find whatever space they can — in laps, pinned against windows.

For now, men like Shahrzad and Muhammad Mustafa, a schoolteacher from Razmak, sleep in the makeshift campsite at the bus depot.

“There are 18 people in my family, including eight kids. Here in Bannu they’re with good people, but we don’t know how long we’ll have to stay away from home,” Mustafa told VICE News.

Pakistan's humanitarian crisis is worsening. Read more here.

The sense of safety from the Taliban is eroding, too. On July 9, a bomb was detonated from a bicycle targeting the military in Bannu. Five civilians were injured.

“We’re innocent people,” Shahrzad said. “We’re Pakistanis. But most of the operation’s effects are being felt by us, not the Taliban. Why are we being punished?”

All photos by Mustafa Hameed. Follow him on Twitter: @mustafahameed

Tagged:
VICE News
Karachi
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asia & pacific
North Waziristan
Uzbek
jinnah international airport
bannu
internally displaced person
khyber pakhtunkhwa