x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Civilians caught in crossfire

As tens of thousands of people flee anti-Taliban military operations in South Waziristan, the crisis has left the dispossessed relying on relatives for food and shelter.

Policemen search Pakistani tribesmen who are fleeing violence in South Waziristan, and aid agencies put the number in need at more than 150,000.
Policemen search Pakistani tribesmen who are fleeing violence in South Waziristan, and aid agencies put the number in need at more than 150,000.

At a refugee registration centre in Dera Ismail Khan, hundreds of people are standing around under a hot sun waiting impatiently to sign their name and receive a food ration card. In keeping with the traditions of the area, the wives and daughters stand off to the side, whispering to each other and trying as hard as possible to remain inconspicuous. Though there are four registration centres in Dera Ismail Khan ? the door to the tribal regions of Pakistan and the point of entry for refugees fleeing a military operation in South Waziristan ? only one is functioning. A fifth centre has been established in Tank, located close to Dera Ismail Khan and another point of entry for refugees.

As police officers watch over the gathered crowd, rumbles of discontent and impatience grow louder. One man shouts that he has been standing in line for more than four hours. Police shout back and brandish their batons. The man is quiet and the line begins to move more swiftly. Tens of thousands of people have fled the rugged mountainous region of Waziristan since the army began its anti-Taliban operation there two weeks ago. Many have been staying with relatives, but the sheer number of refugees has overwhelmed officials, families and the aid agencies trying to help them.

Surraya Mehsud, whose family arrived from South Waziristan a week ago, describes a tiring and frightening journey she, her husband and their four children undertook. "We wanted to leave earlier, as soon as we heard about the army coming into the area," she said. "But we didn't have enough money and were hoping the situation would improve." But eventually her husband decided that money or no money, they were going to flee. "It was becoming too dangerous," said Fazal Mehsud, who belongs to the same tribe from which Baitullah Mehsud ? the late leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban ? hailed from. "I just thought I was putting my family in danger by staying there."

The average price of travelling by car to Dera Ismail Khan from Waziristan was said to be about 20,000 rupees (Dh1,100) an amount too steep to be paid by many. Fazal Mehsud and his family began the trip to Dera Ismail Khan by foot, carrying blankets and some food on their backs. A lorry driver offered them a ride and a passenger bus allowed them to hitch a ride on its roof, and eventually they reached Dera Ismail Khan.

"When we were walking, we heard bombings in the distance and could even see smoke rising from explosions," he said, wiping the sweat off his forehead. "Many, many villages have been destroyed." As the Pakistan army continues its offensive in South Waziristan with the aim of dealing a deadly blow to the Taliban leadership sheltering in the rugged terrain, more families are seeking sanctuary in Dera Ismail Khan and Bhakkar, with a few even making it as far as Lahore and Karachi.

Asif Qureshi, district co-ordination officer of Bhakkar, puts the total number of refugees in the area at more than 150,000. But aid agencies fear the number will easily rise to 260,000. With the government already overwhelmed with the refugee crisis from the military campaign in Swat, official help for those in Dera Ismail Khan is scant. No camps or shelters have been established and so far the government has only given 5,000 rupees to families to enable them to buy food.

The registration offices are being run by aid agencies and there is no medical assistance. "We are on our own," said Anwar Khan, who arrived with his family two weeks ago and was sharing a four-room house with more than 25 other people. The men slept in one room, while the women and children shared two other rooms ? with mattresses and blankets piled up in every corner. Mr Khan's two-year-old daughter had cracked lips and sallow skin, a sign or either possible disease or malnutrition.

Mr Khan said his relatives were not delighted to have them share their house, but given the custom of hospitality so integral to this region of north-west Pakistan they could not refuse. "But the result is that no one has enough to eat and everyone is always fighting," he said. The relationship between the people of Dera Ismail Khan and those living in South Waziristan has traditionally been one of friendship and warmth. Every winter a large number of residents from South Waziristan descend on Dera Ismail Khan to escape the chill, and in the summers they go back home.

But this sudden onslaught of hundreds of thousands of refugees has caused a great deal of discontent. Asif Khan, a resident, frowned when asked about the arrival of those fleeing the fighting. "We don't have enough facilities for ourselves and to have these people come down and take over our homes and spread diseases is just not right," he said. Others are more forcible in expressing sentiment. In nearby Bhakkar, located only 25 minutes by car from Dera Ismail Khan, more than a thousand refugees from South Waziristan were hunted out and forcibly sent back.

"We went around asking all the residents to point out any new entrants to this city," said the district provincial officer Pervaiz Kandahari. "Once we found out who the new visitors were, we questioned them about their reasons for being here. Those who had come from Waziristan were sent packing." The reason: many in Bhakkar and even Dera Ismail Khan fear that some among the new visitors could be Taliban. "I am sure these people are sheltering the Taliban and are here simply to create problems and set off bombs," said Wali. "We don't want them here, they should just go."

Der Ismail Khan has also seen a lot of sectarian violence over the past two years between Sunni and Shiites, and the Shiite community fear that the new influx of Sunni refugees from the tribal lands will exacerbate that. They have started to fortify their homes, only venturing out in groups and staying away from crowded places or registration offices. For many of the refugees, the situation is also dire. Few believe the current military campaign ? the largest such offensive since 2001 ? will achieve much.

"They keep doing these operations," said Shah Mehsud, 45, who reached Dera Ismail Khan about a week ago. "And every time they do an operation, people like us have to leave only to return after a few weeks and see that nothing has changed." When asked about the Taliban, Mr Mehsud refused to comment saying he knew other men who had been killed because they spoke out against the group. One man who is not afraid to talk is Maulvi Sher Mohammed, a self-styled anti-Taliban leader who belongs to the Mehsud tribe but has been living in Dera Ismail Khan for a few years. Mr Mohammed claims he is providing the government with vital information about the Taliban and their whereabouts and has even warned the police that some of their members are already in Dera Ismail Khan.

"But they aren't listening and they are very careless," he said. "They don't realise that we can provide them with details on the terrorists and that we are on their side. The government isn't serious about wiping out the terrorists." The Pakistan army has also convinced two other groups of militants, who previously supported Baitullah Mehsud, to assist them in the current operation. A military source disclosed that Maulvi Nazir in western Waziristan and Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan were both providing the army with intelligence in seeking out targets.

But despite the achievements reported by the military, the people of South Waziristan sitting in Dera Ismail Khan believe the army was saying much and doing little. "The army knows where the terrorists are but just doesn't seem to want to do anything about it," said Fazal Haq. "This is all just publicity and the army's way of pleasing America," said Mr Haq. "I don't think the army is serious about wiping out the Taliban. Such operations are just eyewash."

* The National