A gun battle is raging at the small house Aziz Khan and his two brothers rent in Peshawar, close to Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan: Aziz’s seven-year-old son, Waris, is wielding a plastic sub-machine gun and chasing his cousins and friends, who are armed with similar toys, all of them making loud banging noises as they pretend to shoot.
“This is their favourite game. They have grown up amidst conflict,” Aziz told IRIN.
His family left Bara tehsil (an administrative unit) in the Khyber Agency, one of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in March 2012. They were among least 100,000 people to flee as fighting between militants and government forces intensified.
He now faces a dilemma: “I don’t know if we should return or not. Living here is expensive, we pay nearly Rs 15,000 [about US$150] a month for this house - but on the other hand things in Bara are not good, and the thought of going back is frightening.”
Those who have returned home say things are not yet calm or secure.
“We came back to our home in June this year so we could resume farming. Our home is still standing, but the fighting continues,” said Abdul Ghaffar, a father of three, speaking from his village in the Akkakhel area of Bara.
“The schools are still closed, roads sometimes shut down, and it is hard to get any kind of medical care for my elderly father, who suffers a heart condition.”
Displacement is a fact of life in northern Pakistan. In addition to repeated movements of residents fleeing fighting between the army and militants in FATA, the area is home to many of the 1.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, one of the largest refugee population in the world.
Earlier this year, an army offensive into FATA displaced 130,000 people, yet despite temporary victories, the underlying causes of the instability have yet to be tackled.
“We have seen this before; people displaced by conflict return home only to find things are still unstable, fighting resumes or conditions are very harsh,” Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based analyst who has followed the displacement problem for years, told IRIN. He said these factors created “wave after wave” of displacement.
“Right now, life is not normal in the Khyber Agency. The military has re-opened roads, but the hospitals are shut, schools are shut, civic facilities have been destroyed, and people do not feel safe,” he said.
Lack of livelihoods also severely affects internally displaced persons (IDPs) returning to their areas of origin, Yusufzai says.
“People have gone back to South Waziristan Agency but have found there is no work there. Without attention to these issues, life for people going home will be tough. Those who return have in the past left again, due to instability and insecurity,” he said.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 12,163 families displaced by conflict returned to their homes in July this year - 80 percent of them to the Kurram Agency - as part of a UNHCR-assisted organized return programme.
“UNHCR and the wider humanitarian community work together to ensure that the right conditions are put in place in any areas of return; before any returns take place, a potential return area is subject to a number of humanitarian and security assessments,” Shandana Saad, associate reporting officer at the UNHCR Peshawar office, told IRIN.
“The assessments take into account both the state of housing and surrounding key infrastructure, including school buildings and health facilities,” she said.
Some families have benefitted from such schemes. “We had no idea that we would receive any help after we got here,” said Amina Bibi, 50, who had been displaced from her village in the Para Chamkani area of the Kurram Agency in May.
She says her family of eight received “some supplies of food, supplies to repair a damaged part of our house, and also some basic items like soap, buckets and so on.” She says she is happy to be back.
Others are less certain.
“I visited our home. It is simply not in a liveable condition; the water pipes have been broken, people are scared, debris lies around, and I simply do not want to bring my family here,” said Muhammad Alam, from the Tirah Valley in the Khyber Agency, who, along with some 40,000 other people, was displaced by conflict in April. Around 80,000 persons are currently displaced from Tirah.
Alam had intended to stay home, temporarily leaving his family in Peshawar, but says after visiting Tirah, he changed his mind and returned to Peshawar.
“Overall, things here are grim. Schools run, but teachers have fled,” said Muhammad Fazal, a retired teacher and writer in Wana, a town in South Waziristan Agency.
“Shops are poorly stocked because roads are not always open, besides which many shop owners have fled. Clinics and hospitals are in poor shape. And people who have returned and found houses or lands destroyed cannot earn a livelihood, so they think of going away again to Peshawar, or Mardan or other places, even far away to Karachi,” he said. “Families who have come back to destroyed homes are in some cases still living in tents, in terrible conditions.”
The government has said 270,000 persons displaced by conflict are to be returned to home areas by the end of the year, and in Peshawar as well as Kohat, IDPs have reported feeling pressure from authorities.
“We were visited by police and some officials, who said we had to go back after a few weeks, and arrangements had been made for this,” said Imanullah Afridi, who was displaced from the Tirah Valley and is currently living in Peshawar with relatives.
“They were polite, but we did feel pressure,” he said. He added that, according to his brother, who was still in Tirah, “the area where our village is based has been turned into a wasteland, with piles of rubble visible in many places.”
UNHCR stresses that all returns should be voluntary. But a worker for a local NGO assisting IDPs feared this principle could be violated. “The IDPs have no power, so it is easy to coerce them, even if this is called ‘persuasion’,’” said the worker, who asked not to be named.
“There have been cases of pressure being used to return IDPs to homes. The people displaced from Khyber are, for example, not really willing to go back, because the security situation there is still bad,” said analyst Yusufzai. He said claims that militants had been driven away were not always accurate.
The government says it encourages IDPs to return only when it is safe to do so.
“According to our plan, the returns to the Khyber Agency will begin on the 15th of this month,” said Irfanullah Khan, spokesman for the FATA Disaster Management Authority. He said these would be voluntary, and that conditions in areas of return were conducive to people going back.
“In the Khyber Agency, 80 percent of homes are intact. Shelters, made from water-proofed sheets and other materials suitable for the climate, will be provided to the 20 percent whose homes have been badly damaged or destroyed,” he said. Khan added that 90 percent of homes were intact in Kurram, while in Khyber the World Food Programme (WFP) would be providing food aid to those returning.
“Upon the return of Tirah Valley IDPs, WFP will provide a nine-month ‘return package’ in locations as close to their areas of origin as possible,” Amjad Jamal, spokesman for WFP, told IRIN.
But such plans do not comfort IDPs worried about the future. “I don’t believe anything that is said by government people or the media,” said Afridi.
“All I know is that conditions in Tirah are very bad. The fighting still continues, and the people who are there, or have returned recently to re-claim lands and homes for fear they may be taken over by others, are miserable.”
Muhammad Rehmat has been living with his uncle in Peshawar for the last 18 months; this is the third time he has had to flee his home in Bara.
“I miss my home, my village and my extended family - but I simply don’t understand if I should go back because, who knows, we may have to move out once more and search for shelter with other people again,” he told IRIN. “It is a big risk.”