Eighty-year-old Bakhtia Khan has finally gone home to Dera Bugt in Balochistan, Pakistan, after having fled nearly nine years ago during clashes between the army and Bugti tribal fighters.
On 17 January, armed with a government deal for their return and the promise of food, shelter and transportation, Khan and some 18,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) started a 60km journey from Kashmore, in Sindh Province, to Dera Bugti.
But they were blocked by security forces at a checkpoint, and ended up staging a two-week sit-in on the national highway until an order from the Balochistan High Court allowed them through, on the condition each returnee register themselves with authorities.
By that time, many had given up.
“We told them that the government told us we can come home now, but they told us they don't care, we were not getting through,” said Khan. Six of his brothers are still in custody after arguing with the security personnel.
He was one of 3,161 IDPs who made it to Dera Bugti by 3 February. Back in his dusty hometown, he assessed all that had been lost. “Our home was well built, and we had a tube well. Now it has all been ruined and looted, and the well is destroyed,” he said. “We cannot farm without water.”
Khan's hands are covered in bruises. Like many of the displaced, he had spent his time in exile working as a manual labourer, breaking stones into gravel for use in construction.
“These children, they have never been to school,” he said, gesturing to a group of young boys nearby. All of Khan's family had to work to make ends meet because Pakistan's government largely barred local and international aid groups from helping the Dera Bugti IDPs.
“No one ever even gave us something like this to burn and keep warm,” Khan said, picking up a blade of dry grass.
Despite pressure on the Pakistan government from the international community, aid groups struggled to get access to the IDPs.
Press reports say 178,000 Bugti people had been displaced since 2005.
The conflict pitted Pakistan’s army against fighters loyal to Nawab Akbar Bugti, the 79-year-old former governor of Balochistan, who was pushing for a greater share of profits from natural gas fields in the region.
Security forces suspected his tribesmen of sabotaging pipelines that carried gas from fields at the nearby town of Sui to other parts of Pakistan.
On 17 March 2005, a battle erupted between tribal fighters, stationed in a fort in Dera Bugti, and soldiers in the surrounding hilltops. Shelling by Pakistani soldiers killed 43 civilians taking shelter near the fort, triggering an exodus from the town and surrounding area, according to a fact-finding report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Khan led 16 households - some 212 people - on a 21-day walk to Jhal Magsi, nearly 200km away. “We went through the mountains on foot, at night, in the rain,” he said. “We had no food and no water. The children ate seeds meant to plant crops.”
“We ran. Our only concern was to hide somewhere safe with our kids,” said Misk Ali, 55, as he stood amid tents in Dera Bugti.
“We left our crops un-harvested,” he said, explaining how his family had walked for weeks in the rain to find safety. On the way, his 25-year-old son, Lal Muhammad, was wounded by shelling, and two of his younger children died from what he suspects was pneumonia.
Until this month, the IDPs from Dera Bugti were largely barred from returning home. Officials said the area was unsafe, and they feared tribesmen would join the insurgents. Six different armed Balochi separatist groups - including one led by a Bugti tribal leader - routinely target federal troops and non-Balochi settlers. Some have laid landmines near major roads.
But in May 2013, Balochi nationalists were voted into the provincial government, and last autumn, Khan accompanied hundreds of families led by Bugti tribal leaders to the capital, Islamabad, where they met with government officials and brokered a deal for the return of IDPs.
Despite promises of an assisted return, the IDPs say they have received no support.
“There was no plan in place to bring these people back,” said a senior district health official, who declined to be named.
Today, returnees like Khan and Ali camp in the streets near the ancient fort in Dera Bugti, in courtyards of abandoned homes, in a cemetery - anywhere there is space.
“The most immediate need is housing, since most of the IDPs' homes were destroyed,” the health official said.
“We need medicine, especially antibiotics, for the large number of sick children, many of whom have pneumonia, chronic bronchitis and diarrhoea,” the official added.
Dera Bugti town and the surrounding district have lacked most healthcare services for decades. For the hundreds of thousands of women in the area there is only a single female physician and three female nurses. In 2013, authorities blocked the transfer of an additional female physician from a neighbouring district, citing security concerns. For similar reasons, the government still does not authorize aid agencies to work in the area.
The grievances that initially led to the conflict persist.
The gas fields in Dera Bugti district generate millions of dollars in revenue for the state petroleum company, but the area lags behind the rest of the country in almost every measure of development, according to data collected by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics for monitoring the country’s progress on the UN Millennium Development Goals.
A 2011 government report showed that only 15 percent of residents have ever attended school, 3 percent of children have been properly immunized, 9 percent of homes had electrical connections, and 4 percent had piped water. In the district with the country's largest natural gas reserves, 35 percent of homes used candles for lighting, and 84 percent used charcoal for cooking.
“None of us was ever involved in the fighting,” said Ali. “We have no enmity with the government. We just want them to compensate us for our homes and the other things we lost.”