x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

'I prefer to keep a distance'

Last word Visiting a registration centre for Waziristani refugees, Nasir Khan finds distrust the order of the day.

Visiting a registration centre for Waziristani refugees, Nasir Khan finds distrust the order of the day. It took me seven-and-a-half hours to travel from Lahore - from long McDonalds drive-thru lines, Prada purses, Armani glasses - to Dera Ismail Khan, the impoverished North West Frontier Province city where as many as 150,000 refugees flowing out of Waziristan have gathered in recent weeks. People from Lahore don't go to Waziristan, or near Waziristan, and they generally don't know Waziristanis. I'm no better: my driver's father's uncle used to live there - that's my only connection. Waziristan is a place in a newspaper: bombs go off there, militants get picked up, the army advances, refugees abandon their homes and flee to to government registration centres in DI Khan.

My journey began well: for over three hours I coasted along the beautiful motorway that connects Lahore to Peshawar (and has repeatedly been described by Shabaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab, as one of his biggest achievements). After Faisalbad, however, the road fell apart. In places it simply disappeared. In others it was no more than a gravel track dotted with boulders. Twice, I had to drive over the bodies of dead dogs.

In midafternoon, I stopped in Bhakkar, a city of 300,000, less than 20km away from DI Khan. I was hungry, and curious to see how many refugees had ended up here. After some milky tea and too-sweet biscuits, I walked around talking to tea-stall owners and fruit vendors. But I saw no camps, no food lines, no refugee registration centres ? no refugees at all. I asked a cheery old man manning a peanut stand where the Waziristanis were.

He dropped his smile: "I don't know and I don't care." Pressed to elaborate, he grudgingly gestured across the Indus river, toward DI Khan. "We don't want them here," he said. "They are all part of the Taliban and will be setting off bomb blasts if we let them come." Down the road, I came across an old woman sitting by the road with a cloth bundle, which I took as a sure sign that she was a refugee. "Are you from Waziristan?" I asked. She vehemently shook her head. "Do you know anyone from there?" Again, she shook her head. "Would you be willing to help someone from there?" She gave me a perplexed look, picked up her bundle, and walked away.

Next I sought out the District Coordination Officer, who welcomed me in his office, where he served me milky tea and too-sweet biscuits. I asked why no refugees had ended up in Bhakkar, a city over twice the size of DI Khan, and just as accessible to those fleeing Waziristan. "We sent them all back." Back? "Yes, we sent them to DI Khan." But why couldn't they stay here? "Because they are all terrorists and are connected with the Taliban."

The first thing I saw in DI Khan was a long line of men of all ages waiting to be registered and receive Smart cards (preloaded debit cards) which would allow them to withdraw money for groceries. The official manning the desk, however, had gone off on an hour-long "tea break", and was only convinced to return when a scuffle broke out among the hungry men who had been waiting hours for their turn.

In DI Khan, I learnt, the refugees fall into two broad groups, both drawn from Waziristan's Mehsud tribe. There is a well-off minority who own winter houses in DI Khan, and for whom the war is an inconvenience, but not a disaster. These people fled Waziristan before the attacks started, and are now living in their own homes. Then there are the poor refugees who waited until the last minute to get out, often walking for hours and paying exorbitant fees to bus drivers; they are now forced to stand in lines for food money. Since actual camps have been slow to open, they must either beg relatives for hospitality or pay strangers for a room.

"I am so sick and tired of this," said Omar Khan, 54, who had arrived in DI Khan from Makeen a week before my visit. This, he said, is the third time he has fled his home because of fighting between the army and militants. "Every few years the situation repeats itself, and on and off I am forced to move my family and come here, as beggars." "I am pretty mad at the government," chimed in Khan Bahadur, also from Makeen. "When we get here we are given nothing - not even a tent." Bahadur also said that relatives of his without escape money are still stuck in the tribal regions.

Again and again, I was treated like a fool for asking what people in line thought of the Taliban: "Of course we don't like the Taliban"; "I just want them to go away"; They have caused so many troubles"; "Because of them, there is never ending violence." But, just as in Bhakkar, the residents of DI Khan wanted nothing to do with the refugees. Passing by the registration line, they kept their distance, and did not hide their distaste. According to Feysal Ali Khan, a social worker in the area: "the people are fearful that troubles, such as militant activities, will follow with the refugees".

"I think they are friends with the Taliban and al Qa'eda," said Kehmatyar Mehsud, a resident of the town. "I prefer to keep a distance." Abdullah Mehsud, one of the men waiting in the line, recalled better days when, it was normal for Waziristanis to vacation - and even seek marriage - in towns on the warmer plains, including DI Khan: "It's a sad situation. Its obvious that the people living here aren't too happy about our arrival. It was never like this before - we were almost like family."

Driving back to Lahore in the dark, I couldn't help thinking that this was the Taliban's true victory: they've turned neighbour against neighbour, Pakistani against Pakistani.

Nasir Khan is an advertising executive and freelance journalist in Pakistan.