Half a million people. That’s more than the entire population of Sialkot. Or Quetta. Nearly as many people as there are in the whole of Islamabad. That might give you an idea of how enormous the tragedy is that is being faced by refugees fleeing from the fighting in North Waziristan. We call them “Internally Displaced Persons” or IDPs; a sterile euphemism that is our way of dehumanising and sanitising their misery, so that we can talk about it without too much guilt and without accepting any responsibility.
Make no mistake. The scale of this man-made calamity is massive.
After nearly a decade of curfews, closed schools & hospitals, a total absence of a government administration, tales of untold misery are emerging as the refugees flee from their homes in and around Miranshah and Mirali to queue up at distribution centers. People for whom honour is more important than anything else in life, reduced to waiting up to sixteen hours at a time for handouts of twelve thousand Rupees (just over $120), a few kilos of flour and some rations of food to feed their families.
As the mainstream media gets access to people from the tribal areas, almost for the first time, the overwhelming messages are those of complete and utter despair (the Urdu word “majboori” encompasses compulsion, helplessness, coercion and necessity) and of a realisation that their physical and mental anguish didn’t just start with Operation Zarb-e-Azb. It has been going on for at least eight years. Between drones overhead and army convoys on the ground, between the fear of terrorists in their midst and the compulsions of their culture, between the artillery shells raining down and the militant commanders demanding shelter, the tribal populations have been trapped. Between the militants and the military.
While the name of the operation – Zarb-e-Azb, meaning a blow or a strike with a holy sword – conjures up a sense of righteousness and religious fervour, it seeks also to distract attention from the duplicity and lies that have led us to where we are today. I suppose one should be grateful it wasn’t called Darb-e-Adb, which wouldn’t have been surprising, given the creeping Arab-isation that has turned Ramzan into Ramadan.
After being under siege for nearly ten years, the people of Waziristan have been forced to leave their homes. Fleeing in fear of their lives, they have left everything behind. Most prefer not to stay in the IDP camps that have been set up by the government. That option is neither practical, given the extremely hot weather and lack of clean water & sanitation, nor does it fit with the tribal customs that value honour and self-respect (the Urdu term “khud dari” is hard to capture in English – it means everything from self-reliance and ego to a sense of privacy and personal pride) and that require women to observe purdah. That leaves them relying on the generosity of friends and relatives or at the mercy of profiteering landlords who have houses to rent out.
It is beyond my imagination what they must feel. Moving house or going away on holiday to a below-average hotel are among the most difficult experiences in my life. When I think about how much they have lost, it is unfathomable for me. Homes, livestock, possessions, maybe even their land. Also peace of mind and a sense of security. Their entire way of life. Everything has come crashing down around them. We used tribal populations when it suited our strategic ends as we played our cloak-and-dagger games of “depth” in the region. Then left them hostage to the monster we created. And now, as we move to deal with our own Frankenstein, they are in the way and we are asking them to offer more sacrifice.
Now that they are among us, the people of North Waziristan are asking questions. Why did you let it get to this point? Where has the State been all this while? What did all the previous operations achieve? Who are we acting against now? What’s next for us? And while they ask these questions, very few have anything to say about the terrorists. The unwillingness of IDPs to condemn or even talk about the militants who have terrorised them for so long shows either the extent of their fear of the terrorists or a sense of sympathy or even allegiance with them. Either way, we have failed them.
And now that we are committed to Zarb-e-Azb, what next? The worst thing about this IDP crisis is that there is no clear end in sight. Will these refugees ever be able to go back to their homes again? The military machine will clear and hold territory, as they did in Swat and South Waziristan, but what then? Is there a long-term plan? Do we have political and administrative leadership with the maturity and competence to re-assert the State’s authority and to rebuild the dysfunctional administrative structures? Will we learn from our mistakes? Will we realise how destructive our duplicity and lies have been?
But that’s too far into the future. And it isn’t just the future that we are staring at with unanswered questions. If we look back at the past, it is no different. Was the sacrifice, the suffering necessary? Could there have been another way? And even if all of this was indeed unavoidable, are we doing enough to provide even the most basic support to the IDPs? Transport? Shelter? Food? Health? Not to mention counselling, psychological support or even simply a sense of respect and belonging?
We haven’t learnt from our past. Maybe we can learn from our present.