Nearly 46,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are due to start their return this month to Pakistan’s conflict-hit Tirah Valley close to the Afghan border. But most are likely to find their homes completely destroyed, or at best roofless.
This will be a second wave of returnees, after the first batch of just over 30,000 IDPs ventured home last year.
“Seeing a wrecked house is a terrible shock because most of these homes have been built over generations, and we wonder how we will rebuild them quickly,” said Zahir Khan, an IDP from Tirah currently living in Peshawar.
Displacements from Tirah Valley, in the Khyber Agency, began in March 2013, after an intensification of fighting between two militant groups, Ansarul Islam (AI) and Lashkar-e-Islam, with fighters from the Pakistan Taliban backing the latter group.
As Taliban-backed fighters moved into Tirah, where many people were seen as being supporters of the AI, houses were razed, mainly in the Bagh and Maidan areas. Nearly 80,000 people fled their area as a result of the violence, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Further damage to housing was caused during the military operation that followed. The area was cleared of militants by September 2013, according to media briefings by military officials.
“Almost 14,000 houses were damaged during the conflict and most of the damage [8,000-9,000 houses] is in the Bagh and Maidan areas. Our assessment shows that 25 percent of houses are completely damaged and the roofs of 45 percent have been torched, so overall 70 percent of houses do not have roofs,” Hamid Mumtaz, manager for community infrastructure and social mobilization at UN-Habitat, told IRIN from Islamabad.
He said families in a first wave of returns last year were living in their existing houses, or had cobbled together “makeshift arrangements” for shelter. Some repairs had begun, but he said that because the houses are made of thick mud or stone walls, and are often multi-storey, they could take a very long time to rebuild.
Most of these displaced people who spoke with IRIN said they were eager to return home, but they are also worried.
“I will be going back with my elderly mother, wife and three small children. My cousin, who has already returned, says my house in the Bagh area of Tirah has no roof and can offer no real shelter,” said Zahir Khan. “I have little money and have done only a few odd jobs for months while living here. I wonder how I will repair the damage.”
The first phase of returns to Tirah, led by the Federally Administered Tribal Areas’ (FATA) Disaster Management Authority (FDMA) was completed late last year, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), with 30,825 people voluntarily returning. The process of assisting those who remain displaced (in most cases living with host families) was begun by the FDMA in the first week of May.
“We are planning for 7,200 families to return. The 4,000 families for whom Rs. 25,000 [US$250] has already been approved by the government to help them go back, will be the first to return,” said Director-General of FDMA Arshad Khan.
Limited UN support
Humanitarian agencies have provided some support for a number of the returnees. Through the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, UN-Habitat is supporting 575 families in the shelter sector. UN-Habitat’s Mumtaz said the International Organization for Migration also planned to support 370 families. “After damage assessments, funds will be released for shelter,” Arshad Khan of the FDMA said.
Most affected people had begun repairs on their own.
“I have managed to put a roof, mainly with corrugated tin sheets, over a part of my house, and am moving my family back to Bagh,” Shah Afridi told IRIN. He said he was concerned about how they would manage during imminent monsoon rains. “We also need to find a way to build back the roof and one supporting wall which has been totally demolished, before the next winter,” Afridi said.
Because of the housing situation in Tirah, in many cases men have returned home alone, ahead of families, to begin making repairs. This has created its own strains for families.
“Our house in Maidan is very badly damaged. The only choice for us is for me to go back with my two sons, aged 16 and 15, and begin rebuilding work - but I am very worried about leaving my wife and 11-year-old daughter here on their own in Peshawar, even though they are living with relatives,” said Hukum Khan.
He told IRIN that women “could not live outdoors without proper shelter,” citing both “physical frailty” and cultural reasons as factors in this.
There are also other fears for the people of Tirah. Police in Peshawar believe a blast at a registration point earlier this month, where IDPs were signing up to return, was linked to their alleged backing for the AI.
Four IDPs were killed and 11 wounded. A previous suicide bombing targeting Tirah IDPs at Jalozai Camp near Peshawar in March 2013 killed 15.
“There are many worries and concerns for all of us,” said Zahir Khan. “These extend beyond the problem of getting our homes ready again and in a condition where we can live in them. The fear is they could be destroyed again in some new upsurge of fighting. We simply cannot afford for that to happen.”
While aid packages of food and other basic items will be offered for at least six months, according to FDMA, the bigger challenge for most people is to ensure houses are standing again, especially before winter.
“Building these houses with thick walls takes a long time,” said Hamid Mumtaz.