Scenes of bulldozed and fallen houses, shops and business centres run in the opposite direction through the car window as you drive towards Miran Shan from Baka Khel, a prominent area of the Frontier Region (FR) Bannu, on a newly constructed road. This FR region shares a boundary with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s southern district Bannu and North Waziristan of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Before military operations against religious fundamentalist militants, the writ of the Pakistani government was weakened in all former seven agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and six Frontier Regions now merged into Khyber-Pakhtunkwa (KP).
The announcement of merging FATA into KP abolished the century-old draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) promulgated by the British Empire in the Pashtun belt to curb local resistance. FCR was a multi-purpose repressive law meant to persecute rebels as well as keep the region as a buffer zone against the Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union.
In the 1980s, Khyber-Pakhunkhwa towns witnessed the Afghan war and the penetration of the fundamentalist Mujahideen into Afghanistan with the help of petro-dollars and American weapons. In the recent past, the region again has gone through a ten-year-long period of terror created by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). During this period, Taliban militants were able to establish a stranglehold over administrative activities in all parts of the former tribal areas.
Like the other areas that were once dominated by the TTP, North Waziristan suffered irreparable damage to its peoples’ lives. Aside from the loss of life and limb, infrastructure ranging from healthcare facilities, schools and other public properties was targeted or abandoned.
Paradoxically, during the period when extortion, kidnapping, slaughtering and harassment were routine activities in North Waziristan Agency, dozens of non-Muslims survived the horrible time without the particularly harsh treatment that one would otherwise expect. The Waziristan TTP, in some areas, imposed a jizya tax specifically for non-Muslims, in keeping with their medieval inspiration for legislation and administration.
Inside the Civil Colony of Miran Shah Cantonment, more than 70 non-Muslim families including Christians and Hindus, are living since the British Rule.
“We consider ourselves an integral part of the tribal setup”, Khalid Iqbal, president of the Minority Association, tells me. Khalid lives in very congested house of only two rooms alongside his wife, children and parents. “Our elders have migrated from other parts of the Subcontinent and started living in North Waziristan (NW) since the British time,” he explains. “We are servants and offer our services to the people of this very land. Our profession always requires peace and harmony in the surroundings!”
At that time, the Lashkar-e-Islam militant group of the Khyber Agency was ruling the tribal area adjacent to Peshawar. The group had imposed the jizya on non-Muslims but the minorities of North Waziristan did not receive any such instructions. Still, as can be expected, Khalid informs us: “The militancy period was equally horrible for both Muslims and non-Muslims in this area.”
Two minority community members Gulfam Masih and Indras Masih were abducted. At that time, in the region, there was one rule: that of “no mercy”. The goal was to terrorize the inhabitants, Khalid Iqbal informs me.
“The militants were treating everyone with harshness regardless of their tribe, faith, creed and caste. Not only minorities but also the majority have spent a very traumatic period in this mountainous area,” Rasool Dawar, a local journalist, tells me. Dawar covers the area for the country’s popular Geo Television network since the wave of armed militancy erupted in the region.
Among minorities there, the family of Gulfam Masih is the one that was particularly hit by the tragedy of the armed groups taking over the region. Masih remains the only non-Muslim who has been kidnapped from NW and has not yet returned. For years, Gulfam’s wife and son are waiting for his safe return. But the political administration is even properly aware, it seems, about him being missing.
In the time when the brutal militants were targeting innocent persons, they also picked Ijaz Sagar’s brother Indras Masih. After the abduction of Indras the vulnerable minority Christian community involved the local tribal elders for a settlement. A particularly painful year for Ijaz Sagar’s family ended when his brother came back alive.
“After a few months of continuous efforts for my brother’s safe return, we had engaged local Maliks (tribal notables) and religious people, which worked,” Sagar explains.
According to Ijaz Sagar, the timing of the kidnapping was sensitive and very few survived after abduction. The choice was simple: either the kidnapped person’s family would have to pay extortion money as demanded, or they would receive the dead body of their beloved one.
Dawar further explains that the minority population needs particular attention as they have been ignored in the past for all developmental proposals.
The minority community is living in small houses of the narrow alleys of the Civil Colony. People complain about the two-room apartments. “It’s difficult to live with 5 to 6 family members in a two-room apartment” Vaid Kumar complains. “The government is spending millions of rupees on extension and renovation of bungalows and parks but it doesn’t care about our vulnerable homes,” he says sadly.
The Christian community further speaks about about the forcible, illegal possession by a land mafia of the graveyard land set aside for minorities (Gora Qabristan) in Miran Shah. They also mentioned the unavailability of a church in the surroundings. Although there is a church in Tochi House, for many of the local Christians the place is not accessible due to strained relations within the community members.
Former Political Agent for the region Kamran Afridi states that houses are designed as per the employment scale of an employee and not according to the number of family members. The administration also rejects the claims about the graveyard land and responds that the local Christians never buried any dead person in Miran Shah in that graveyard, and that no solid proof of such a matter has been provided. Moreover, the stance taken by the political administration is that it checked the Revenue Department records but couldn’t find any relevant details. “A church and Community Centre will be built soon as it is included in an annual development program”, Kamran Afridi says.
Meanwhile a temple and Hindu cremation ground (Shamshan Gath) is not included in any developmental plan. “Cremating our dead bodies is an important part of our religion, much like Janaza (burial) for Muslims” Vaid Kumar informs me. The government should construct both a temple and a Shamshan Gath for the Hindu community, he requests, since at the moment the community takes their dead bodies to Kohat or Attock – which costs them heavily.
Christians and Hindus here have strong ties with the minority communities living in other districts of Pakistan. But when it comes to domiciles for new brides, in particular, they are facing immense problems, because most of them have National Identity Cards from big cities (Lahore, Peshawar, Gujranwala, etc.).
Most of the minority community is working as sweepers but since three years they are not getting their salaries. The Political Agent responded that the administration would have to collect around two million rupees from shops and other businesses but since the time that the markets were bulldozed, there is no money to pay these government employees. The North Waziristan administration has sent letters to the Governor KP. SAFRON and the Finance Ministry are also well aware of the issue.
The minority community couldn’t get compensation money as the rest of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) could. More than 90% of the minority community has domiciles of other towns rather than in North Waziristan. As the relief package is only for war-hit areas, these residents miss out on it.
Abdur Rauf Yousafzai is a Peshawar-based freelance journalist.
He tweets @theraufkhan