S Waziristan as I saw it
Monday, May 03, 2010
Believing that the government was now making genuine efforts to improve things in Waziristan, I was always hard put to believe visitors returning from Waziristan who told me horrifying tales of the problems they faced traveling on the Wana-Gomal-Tank road. But seeing is believing, and I experienced the same difficulties myself when I traveled on that road last week, the other road linking Wana with Tank via Jandola being closed to traffic since the launch of the military operation in October last year.
It is not the rough ride that makes one sick but the manner of the all-too-frequent checking conducted by the security agencies. At a check point where one enters South Waziristan from the settled area of Tank, all travelers are asked to disembark and present their identity cards, standing in a queue under the blazing sun without shelter. Meanwhile, the driver of the vehicle slowly walks forward to the check post, hands raised in the air in a gesture of surrender, to get written permission for the onward journey. All items inside the vehicle are checked, counted and then recorded on the permission slip. This slip is required to be handed in at the last check post, where the passengers and their luggage, and any animals with them, are rechecked to ensure that nothing in the list is missing. In case any item is indeed missing, vehicle and passengers are sent back to the first check post. There the driver gets a proper thrashing and the passengers are made to stand, often for hours, before the procedure is repeated and they are allowed to proceed onwards on the basis of a fresh slip.
In a recent incident a boy put his life in danger to retrieve the family dog that had bolted on the road. The driver was slowly negotiating a difficult bend when the dog jumped out of the truck. The youngster immediately jumped out to bring the dog back. A bystander advised him to forget the dog and return to the truck because trying to catch the dog in the rough terrain could be hazardous. Ignoring the advice, the boy kept chasing the dog because he knew that if the animal was discovered missing at the last check post the family would be maltreated and humiliated, and then ordered to return to the first check post for fresh permission.
On my return from Wana, I travelled on the road from Wana to Tank via Jandola which passes through the Mehsud area. What I saw was stuff nightmares are made of. Houses, shops, madressahs and even official buildings on the roadside stood in ruins or demolished. All along the road from Madijan to Jandola, villages on both sides had the appearance of a war zone and testified to the fact that they had borne the brunt of the military operation. There was no sign of any human or animal life, except for a few cows wandering about in the deserted villages.
At Jandola it was a different scene. The market of the Bettani tribe had been completely razed to the ground and the debris dumped in the nearby riverbed. There is no market or shopping area for the tribesmen to buy food or essential items. They have to go all the way to Tank to get items of daily consumption.
I was told the internally displaced people (IDPs) were under tremendous pressure from the authorities to return to their homes in Waziristan. The officials are not interested in the reason for the IDPs’ reluctance to return to their hearths and homes: they worry about their safety if they returned. Has the government taken steps to ensure the complete security of the returnees? Have arrangements been made for reconstruction and rehabilitation of their homes and their villages? Has travel on the roads in the Mehsud area been permitted? If it hasn’t, how will the IDPs arrange for their food and items of daily use? These are some of the basic prerequisites that need to be met by the government before it forces the IDPs to return.
All civilian form of government has been missing from the area for the past eight years. Matters have been left in the hands of the army and a Grade-18 officer, the political agent. Since the army is not trained for taking political decisions, it is incapable of taking them. As for the political agent, he is not even able to travel in his area of posting except under the protection of an army helicopter. The government needs to face reality and wake up to the extremely grim situation. It needs to show presence at a senior level if it is serious about getting to the depth of this complicated problem and resolving it.
The president should himself have visited the area and taken bold decisions, but he preferred to address a tribal jirga in the air-conditioned hall of the Governor’s House in Peshawar. In his address to the tribesmen he chose not to touch upon the real problems faced by people in that area. He did not even pay lip service to the promises that he had made earlier about introducing political and economic reforms in FATA. Surely, travelling to Waziristan is less time-consuming than travelling to China, Dubai or London. If he felt Waziristan did not merit his personal attention he could at least have directed his governor to visit the area. Interaction with the inhabitants, at the highest level, is the need of the hour to bridge the deep trust deficit which exists between the people and the government.
Unless urgent and effective action is taken to this end, I fear all military actions taken so far will prove to be in vain, and we may well hear news of a resurgence of militancy. The military may win all the battles. but the government will certainly lose the war if it does not pay urgent attention to the problem.
The writer, a former ambassador, hails from FATA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org