Bannu: When the Pakistan government announced a military operation against militants in North Waziristan on 15th June, 2014, over a million people left the tribal district helter-skelter to keep up with the deadline for evacuation.
Thousands of the displaced found refuge in the neighbouring cities of Bannu, Lakki Marwat and Dera Ismail khan. Others wandered further afield, to Peshawar and other towns of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
But Abid Khan, a resident of the Mama Zyarat village in Tehsil Datta Khel, chose a different direction. His family lived right on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, so Khan and his tribe crossed over to Afghanistan. The decision made sense because southeast Afghanistan was nearer; compared to the long and arduous track in blistering heat to safety in cities in Pakistan.
Now with the military operation Zarb-e-Azb complete, Khan says his family, along with 6,000 others living in Afghanistan, want to return home before the harsh Afghan winter. “They all belong to the Mada Khel tribe of NWA, who live on lands they own inside Afghanistan,” Khan told News Lens Pakistan.
The tribes living on the porous border between the two countries share ethnic and blood ties with those across in Afghanistan. They own land, engage in trade and are married into families living on both sides of the border.
Khan said the entire Mada Khel went over to Afghanistan in the wake of Zarb-e-Azab. “There are more than 4,000 families living in tents in the area of Laman (Bermal in Afghanistan). Another 2,000 families live in Mirsapar and Patha Mela in Paktika province of Afghanistan.”
Other tribes like Dawars, Saidgee, Toori Khel and Manzar Khel of NWA had also migrated to Khost province in Afghanistan, said Khan, where they live in a camp set up by the Afghan government with help from UNHCR – the UN refugee agency.
“They are properly facilitated but the harsh cold winter of Afghanistan causes a lot of health problems and they wish to come back like others,” Khan said.
According to the FATA Disaster Management Authority (FDMA), nearly 60 per cent of the displaced population has repatriated to North Waziristan Agency. More than 30,000 families crossed over to the Khost and Paktika in Afghanistan, provinces bordering Pakistan, when the military operation in NWA started in 2014.
The same year, some of the homeless displaced chose to come to Pakistan along with their families when the weather turned cold. The harsh winters in Afghanistan are unbearable for people from North Waziristan who are used to warm weather in the plains, said Khan.
Some of the families who sought refuge in Khost Province of Afghanistan have yet to get travel assistance and permission from the government of Pakistan to return home.
“We have approximately 10,000 families still residing in Khost,” said an official of the political administration in Miranshah, the agency headquarters in NWA, on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media. However, refugees from NWA living close to the border said there were more than 10,000 families still living in various parts of southeast Afghanistan.
“Most of them came back through the Kurram Agency while some came through Khyber Pass after they learnt about the food grant and cash awarded to those displaced by Zarb-e-Azb,” said an official of FDMA who wanted to stay anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to media.
But with NWA declared “clear” of militants, those who are still in Afghanistan await a signal from the government to return.
“We have heard that the government is planning to bring us back but nobody has contacted us so far,” Malik Umar Din Wazir, a tribal elder, told News Lens on the phone, from Khost province in Afghanistan. “We want to go back to our homes as soon as possible because others displaced from our area have been rehabilitated so why not we.”
Wazir and other Pakistani refugees in Khost in Afghanistan live in tent houses set up by UNHCR while those still living on the border, he said, have no basic amenities provided to them.
“In Laman and Mirsapar areas [in Afghanistan], the Mada Khel tribe has dwellings in a dry mountainous region where they have no access to health, education, potable water and other facilities,” said Abid Khan Wazir from the border area of Mama Zyarat who has seen the refugee dwellings while coming to Bannu in Pakistan through Kurram Agency.
“I cannot describe the abysmal conditions these people live in,” said Khan Wazir.
Tribal elders say that a Jirga – a council of elders – of the displaced people have demanded of the Pakistan government time and again to help bring back those stranded in Afghanistan. “But still there are issues between the two governments when it comes to facilitating the return process for the displaced,” said Khan Wazir.
The Political Agent North Waziristan Agency, Kamran Khan Afridi, claims the local administration in NWA has made all arrangements to bring refugees back through the Ghulam Khan Pass. He, however, accused the Afghan authorities of neglecting their repatriation.
“We have raised the issue with the Afghan government and with the Coalition Forces for cooperation but with zero results,” said Afridi. “Not just the civil administration but the military headquarters at Miranshah have also completed preparations to receive refugees at Ghulam Khan Pass at a seven days’ notice.”
Afridi said a review meeting was held at 7 HQ at Miranshah two months ago with the corps commander giving a “go ahead” for repatriation of refugees.
In Phase One of the repatriation process, he said, data was collected about NWA refugees in Afghanistan. “On the basis of this data, it was decided that 200 families would be rehabilitated a day and provided the same facilities as we did in case of the internally displaced.”
He also blamed the Afghan forces for not allowing elders of NWA to meet Pakistani authorities to finalize arrangements for their repatriation.
“They were manhandled twice and [the Afghan forces] also destroyed the refugee data they were bringing with them,” said Afridi.
Mukhtar Khan, a refugee in Khost told News Lens on the phone that they had suffered a lot in the past three years and now wished to go back home. He said they had completed preparations for departure, to move on a short notice if the government asks them to.
“It seems that the issue of the Pakistanis displaced in Afghanistan has fallen prey to internal politics of both states in view of the recent tension between the two countries,” said Malik Ghulam Khan, General Secretary of the Committee of the Displaced.
He said they had committed no crime by choosing to migrate to Afghanistan at the time when the military operation was announced.
“They were close to the border and unable to travel to Bannu or elsewhere on a short notice, so they chose to go to Afghanistan instead,” he said.