The ancient Pakistani town of Bannu, lying just outside the North Waziristan Agency– a stronghold for insurgents operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan – is a now a centre for displaced families escaping a looming government offensive in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Power lines snake across the ground to half a dozen hastily-built brick and dirt compounds, temporary housing built by families from North Waziristan who pooled their funds together in anticipation of a long military campaign.
The offensive has, in reality, begun: tens of thousands of troops have been deployed on the ground in North Waziristan, and jets have carried out airstrikes – yet no official operation has been declared by Pakistani officials, although hundreds of thousands of residents are likely to be caught up in the increasingly deadly conflict between the state and Taliban militants.
At the impromptu camp in Bannu, Hajji Sher Wali Khan, 70, sits surrounded by his extended family - 150 women and children – who arrived from their village near the town of Mir Ali, on the evening of 31 May. The 37-km journey took more than seven hours, stopped at four separate checkpoints and questioned by soldiers.
“We left because there is continuous fighting. There are bombs and jets. We wanted to save the lives of our children, of our wives,” Khan told IRIN.
North Waziristan has been under a nearly-continuous curfew, sealed from the outside world, since 8 May, when an IED killed eight Pakistani soldiers near the town of Mir Ali. “The curfew kept us captive in our home,” said Khan. “We couldn’t get anything, and in the markets there was no flour, no cooking oil. We had no water and no electricity. The hospitals and clinics had no doctors, or were closed altogether. How could we live in such a situation?”
When the Pakistani military temporarily lifted the curfew on the morning of 31 May, Khan and his family took the opportunity to leave for Bannu, in neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwan province.
More than 17,000 people that have fled North Waziristan in the last month, according to the FATA Disaster Management Authority (FDMA), which assists IDPs in the region. According to officials, up to 800 people have also fled across the border to Afghanistan's Khost and Paktika provinces.
Weeks of aerial strikes and ground skirmishes between soldiers and Taliban fighters have reportedly killed 70 people, including at least 30 civilians.
But until Pakistani officials declare North Waziristan a conflict zone, the FDMA, along with international aid organizations, cannot begin to provide shelter or relief to fleeing residents. The FDMA expects as many as 628,000 IDPs could flee the region.
Pakistan has carried out more than half a dozen military operations to root out the Taliban from the FATA over the last decade, displacing millions of people in the process. According to Arshad Khan, Director General of the FDMA, in all those previous operations, his staff were given at least 15-days warning to put aid in place.
Pakistan has always depended on international support to assist IDPs, but the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN refugee agency UNHCR said they had yet to be notified of a military operation in North Waziristan. “The government is still calling these [activities] surgical strikes,” Humaira Mehboob, an OCHA spokesperson in Islamabad told IRN.
Elders say Go
In lieu of a government notification, tribal elders and militant leaders have told residents to leave. A rare tribal jirga – comprising local militant leaders and more than 5,000 elders from North Waziristan – was held on 30 and 31 May, and advised people to quit the area by 10 June.
The meeting and the declaration was prompted by reports of civilian deaths in early morning airstrikes on 21 May, as Pakistani jets and helicopter gunships hit buildings and homes close to the main market in Mir Ali. According to locals, the hospital in Mir Ali had been without power and supplies for weeks, and was also damaged in the attack. Many of the shops in Mir Ali's sprawling bazaar were flattened.
“Forty people were killed, most from one family, including children, women and some young boys who had nothing to do with militants,” Malik Akbar Khan, an elder of the locally-dominant Dawar tribe told IRIN. “They were all civilians.”
Eight-year-old Tahira Noor's lower back is covered in still-fresh wounds from the masonry that pinned her down in her home a few hundred yards from the market. Beginning at 2:20 a.m. her home was hit in three separate bombing raids by the Pakistani Air Force. “There was no siren, no noise before. We were totally surprised,” she said.
Tahira's father, Fazlur Noor, along with two of his brothers, had left for Bannu two days before to make arrangements for their family to join them. “All our wives, and all our children are dead, except for this girl and another infant girl,” said Noor, in front of the home he had built to house his now-decimated extended family.
|The TTP – back to war|
|A military offensive in 2009 against Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP’s) original base of South Waziristan displaced hundreds of thousands of Mehsud tribesmen who, like the Dawars and Wazirs today, chose to steer clear of IDP camps.
The TTP's leadership fled to North Waziristan and neighboring Afghanistan, and last year its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in an American drone strike. Major rifts in the TTP appeared thereafter, as a non-local, Mullah Fazlullah, from Swat, was appointed as the group’s chief.
Two factions, one led by commander Khan Said Mehsud, and another led by Shahryar Mehsud, claimed to be the new leaders, since they belonged to the Mehsud tribe, whose fighters dominate the TTP's ranks. This gave birth to factional fighting in North and South Waziristan, as well as targeted killings in TTP-dominated areas of Karachi, killing more than 100 militants since March.
The split came at a time when Pakistan was attempting to broker a peace agreement with the TTP. Khan Said's group has favored a peace deal, while Shahryar has refused to negotiate and continued attacking military installations in North Waziristan, including the 8 May IED attack that killed 8 soldiers and sparked the current crisis.
Ataullah, Tahira's uncle, watched as jets dropped three bombs. “Later, in the morning, helicopters strafed us, injuring one rescuer,” he said
“We waited three days for the curfew to be lifted, so we could bring [Tahira] to Bannu for treatment,” said Noor, adding that no Pakistani officials have contacted him since the airstrikes. He says the dead were mostly children aged between 3 and 10, and included a two-year old, named Abid Aqeel.
Military officials contacted by IRIN denied receiving any reports of civilian casualties. A 22 May statement said the airstrikes had killed “60 terrorists”.
North Waziristan is home to several militant groups, some involved in the insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan, along with others that target Pakistan.
The largest is Tanzeem Mujadideen-e-Waziristan, an organization led by Hafiz Gul Bahadar, which sends fighters across the border into Afghanistan. In 2006, Bahadar signed a peace agreement with the North Waziristan government that secured a ceasefire between his fighters and the Pakistani military.
In pamphlets distributed on the streets of North Waziristan, Bahadar announced the termination of that truce on 30 May, citing the civilian casualties caused by the military strike. He also ordered people to make their way to safer areas near the Afghan border by 10 June, and called on all militant groups to collectively wage war against Pakistan’s armed forces.
Because elders from the locally-dominant Wazir and Dawar tribes have said they prefer to live with relatives or friends instead of in Pakistani IDP camps, it is expected that a large portion of those now leaving North Waziristan will make their way to Afghanistan, where the tribes have relatives.
Pakistan has three brigades stationed in North Waziristan. The soldiers have largely focused on fighting Al-Qaeda militants and members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the largest militant network in the country, whose stated goal is to topple the Pakistani government.
Senior government officials told IRIN that the towns of Datta Khel, Eso Khel, Danday Darpakhel, Esori, Mir Ali, and areas close to the Tochi River are expected to be targeted in the military offensive. The areas are thought to be hideouts for Al-Qaeda linked-militants and the leadership of the TPP, the largest militant network in the country.
The political administration of North Waziristan has said the 600,000 people living in those areas have already endured heavy fighting in the last few years. And more than two thirds of the 370 suspected American drone strikes in FATA have struck North Waziristan.
“The common man was trapped, having drones in the skies and [the] knives [of militants] on earth,” a local school teacher, Haji Toor Gul Dawar, explained. “Now, daily curfews and bombings have made North Waziristan a hell to live in.”