Seventy-year-old Muhammad Ibrahim alights from the rickshaw with his twenty-year-old nephew Ishfaq and starts climbing the mountain to his home in village Sega, tehsil Ladha. The road to this point and beyond has been ruined by the rains and floodwater. It takes him an hour to reach what was home.
When he reaches the spot, there is not a soul in sight. All he can hear are the birds or the buzz of insects. In eight years the place had been emptied out.
Those eight years for Ibrahim were spent as what is now called an ‘internally displaced person’ or IDP. His return to Gomal area in Tank, South Waziristan, was only made possible when the Pakistan Army announced that the area had been cleared of militants in Operation Rah-e-Nijat after a massive.
“I asked my nephew to give the Azaan, so the evil would leave,” Ibrahim said. He was relying on a way to bring God’s name back into a space to make evil spirits flee. Muslims rely on this method for spaces left deserted for long periods of time. The belief is that Evil can come to reside there, or djinns or other invisible energies.
The more visible enemy, armed fundamentalist outfits which took to terrorism, became the focus of Rah-e-Nijat, with the word ‘nijat’ also meaning to ‘get rid of’. Ibrahim’s home is in FATA or the area bordering Afghanistan after Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province ends. Operation Rah-e-Nijat came as a follow-up to Operation Rah-e-Rast in Swat. It started in 2009 against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and foreign militants in the mountains. It was only on the 19th of May 2017 that the Government of Pakistan properly announced that all internally displaced people from FATA’s South Waziristan had been sent back home. In its press release, the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (Safron) said that a total number of 130,000 families were repatriated. On the 18th of May, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Governor Iqbal Zafar Jhagra visited the FR Tank Khirki IDP camp and gave himself a pat on the back, saying they were happy to say they had fulfilled their promise to send all the families home. He declared they were going to set aside Rs. 500 million for the construction of link roads in the area.
The permission to go home was celebrated by the displaced people from South Waziristan, naturally. But arriving home would be much more difficult than they had imagined.
When 28-year-old Irfanullah came back from an IDP camp in Dera Ismail Khan, he found that everything had been destroyed. None of the rooms, walls or roof of the house had survived. “I found mortars shells inside my home and that scared me,” he says. “In the yard I looked to my neighbour’s house and found that he was living in a tent with his family because his house had been destroyed similarly.” He accepted his neighbour’s offer to sleep in their tent as he had nowhere to stay for the night.
Other people returning to Ladha in South Waziristan went through the same experience. They also discovered that if their houses, or what was left of them, were not safe, neither were the routes around the mountains. A journalist from South Waziristan, Hamza Mehsud, says one of the most dangerous things you encounter is an improvised explosive device (IED) coming under your foot. Some IDPs who came home lost their legs because the small bombs littered in the area to restrain the movement of the Taliban during the operation were still lying around.
Hamza believes that more than 90 percent of houses are not habitable. Most of them are destroyed by the fighting, rains, floods and snows in the area while their occupants had fled the war.
The government announced the equivalent of $ 4,000 for completely destroyed houses and $ 2000 for partially destroyed homes.
Commenting on the amount for destroyed homes, an elder asking not to mention his name, asks: “How it is possible to construct a home with this money?” He is convinced that the government has received a lot of money from the international community in the context of the war on terrorism – and yet its citizens are left with destroyed houses.
On the other hand, the repatriation of North Waziristan has not been yet completed. The people of North Waziristan were made internally displaced persons because of Operation Zarb e Azab.
A journalist from South Waziristan, Hamza Mehsud, says one of the most dangerous things you could encounter is an improvised explosive device (IED) coming under your foot
According to FATA Disaster management authority sources, the areas of Shawal, Gawarveek and other boundary areas near Afghanistan are not open for the local people.
Tribal journalist Rasool Dawar says that many areas of North Waziristan are not open yet. The residents of Derpa Khail, for instance, are not allowed to return to their homes, he adds.
The nearest areas to Tank district of KPK, like Spenkai Raghzai, Kot kai, Chag Malai etc. were announced open from time to time for the locals – but areas further out, like Makin, Ladha, Kaniguram and Bader etc. were announced open after a much longer time.
A group of villagers gathered from Karachi, Dera Ismail Khan, Tank and other parts of the country and hired a coach bus to return to their homes.
They are all excited. Many of them are meeting each other after many years – having grown up together. They had played in a same village, had fun and hunted together before terrorism and counter-terrorism hit their hometown.
One of the most important positive changes in the area, which they notice, is the construction of the roads and of Army educational institutions.
The group of the villagers consists of people of ages ranging from 20 to 45 years old.
The villagers gather in Tank, contribute money for food and drink on the way and prepare for their journey.
They then set out from Tank with a fair amount of excitement.
“Look at the clouds on the mountain – how beautiful they are!” one says.
Another villager points at some residents around the road, saying “Look, people who have houses on the roadside have started living in Waziristan!” He is looking at Dawatoyee – which is also the hometown of Khan Saeed Sajna, a top Taliban Commander, who is still threatening the government and residents of Waziristan not to come there. The villagers appear willing to defy the Taliban.
After Dawatoyee, one of the main built-up areas of Mehsud tribe is Makin – but now the bazaar of Makin has totally been demolished during Operation Rah e Nijat.
The villagers are excited to visit their native Waziristan but there is also a palpable sense of fear, or at least apprehension. These are people who have never faced a security check-post before the War on Terror arrived in their areas. Now there were more than half a dozen check posts from Tank Ladha for a distance of around two hours in a straight drive.
Crossing all the check posts involves showing the security officials a special permission card, known as a Watan Card.
The villagers arrive at the Ladha area. Without a Watan Card no indigenous resident is allowed to return to their area. Security officials believe it is a necessary precaution and that there is little room for argument over it.
As the villagers arrive at Ladha, security officials brief them, and point out areas which they ought to avoid.
As the journey progresses and their home approaches, the villagers feel more and more as though they were strangers – they had never faced such restrictions on their movements in their life before. Even the use of cameras or making videos is also strictly prohibited for reasons of security.
The villagers stop at the village mosque. They visit some of the houses, including that of Khan Zeb, who has been part of this journey. He points to a place where he has a memory of his uncle sitting one morning. Suddenly, with great sadness, he says: “Hey guys, come here. This was my father’s room. Nothing is left of it!”
After they are done visiting some houses, military personnel come to them and say that for now it would have to be enough: “We need to clear the area from IEDs.”
After spending around half an hour in their village and visiting some of the houses, the group has decided to go back to Tank. To stay in the area was dangerous also because of another threat: wild animals. After the area had been evacuated during the fighting, wild animals such as boars, bears, leopards and dogs arrived in significant numbers.
On their way back, everyone seems upset. Rahim-ud-din, 33, and Shafqatullah, 29, wipe their tears sit in the vehicle and are about to leave their village. Khushwali and others are trying to console them.
On the way, most of the villagers are silent. Some of them were making videos and pictures hoping they wouldn’t be spotted and prevented from doing so.
On their arrival in Tank, many of their fellow villagers who couldn’t make the journey are eager for news of their homes…