Bannu, Pakistan – This summer, the Pakistan Army launched Zarb-e-Azab, a military operation against armed groups based in North Waziristan, one of seven agencies constituting Pakistan’s semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
The armed forces cleared rebels of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or the Pakistani Taliban, from an 80km area, including the towns of Miranshah and Mir Ali also displacing nearly a million people from North Waziristan to the city of Bannu in northwest of the country.
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As the locals fled to safety, a village of Eidak tribe – the only settlement within Mir Ali – decided to stay back.
The Eidak jirga – a tribal assembly of elders – concluded that unlike other villages in North Waziristan, theirs was never encroached upon by the armed groups, and so the tribe should not have to evacuate.
But within a week, security forces arrived at the village with 200 vehicles to escort the tribespeople to Bannu. When they refused, they were led to the Pir Kali field, a barren plain just outside the jurisdiction of Eidak.
In the last two days alone, tribesmen on the campsite have killed 25 cobras and 40 scorpions. How can our children be safe there?
“My people are suffering terribly,” tribal elder Maulvi Mohammad Alam told Al Jazeera. “First the security agencies broke their promise to us, and now they are torturing us by setting up our camps in Pir Kali.”
Alam was led out of Eidak with the rest of his tribespeople on August 13, but due to personal responsibilities, he travelled to Bannu instead of Pir Kali.
He said villagers asked army personnel to let them camp in Palaseen, a green and shady plain that belongs to the Eidaks.
“Instead, they pitched our tents on the stony ground of Pir Kali. In the last two days alone, tribesmen on the campsite have killed 25 cobras and 40 scorpions. How can our children be safe there?” he asked.
Although government officials confirm that the tribespeople have been displaced to Pir Kali, they refute the suggestion that the villagers are living in difficult conditions.
“There is no injustice being meted out to the Eidak. All their needs are being met in Pir Kali,” Ahmed Gul, a government officer working under Mir Ali’s political agent, told Al Jazeera.
The Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) – the media wing of the Pakistan Army – told Al Jazeera that because the villagers refused the shift to Bannu, the army had no choice but to relocate them to Pir Kali.
But if Zarb-e-Azab was targeting the districts of Miranshah and Mir Ali, why were the approximately 40,000 residents of Eidak initially allowed to remain in North Waziristan?
When the operation began, Eidak villagers met with government and army officials “and told them that we should not be displaced because there are no militants in our village”, Qadeer Khan Dawar, an Eidak tribesman now displaced to Bannu, told Al Jazeera.
The Eidak tribe – a branch of Waziristan’s Dawar tribe – said their village was free of rebels because they formed an Aman Lashkar (peace battalion) in 2007. A pamphlet issued by the tribe notes: “The Aman Lashkar is neither pro-army, nor anti-Taliban. Its only purpose is to keep the peace in Eidak village.”
The president of Miranshah’s press club, Fida Wazir, told Al Jazeera the battalion was created after the village was caught in the crossfire between fighters and security agencies in July 2007.
|Eidak elders say they never allowed ‘militancy to settle in our lands’ [Ayesha Shahid/Al Jazeera]|
In its initial year, the Aman Lashkar was composed of roughly 70 volunteers – young men between the ages of 20 and 40 – who stood guard on mountaintops and roads surrounding the six square kilometres of the village. By 2014, the battalion had recruited almost 300 young men to guard the village day and night.
The army, aware that Eidak’s Aman Lashkar had been successful in keeping fighters out of the village, initially granted the tribespeople permission to remain in their homes.
Muhammad Nazir Khan, the only federal minister representing North Waziristan Agency, told Al Jazeera that in the past, villagers would form Lashkars to guard themselves from opposing tribes.
“But Eidak Lashkar is the only battalion that claimed to fight militancy,” he said.
For the first few weeks, the army sent trucks with food and water to Eidak village, Nizam Khan Dawar, head of an NGO working to help the tribes of North Waziristan, told Al Jazeera.
“Eidak had so much army support that the tribe was promised that they would be airlifted by helicopters in case of medical emergencies,” Dawar said.
By the middle of July, however, villagers realised things had taken an ugly turn.
First they lost telephone connections, next their electricity was cut off, and then the bombing began. Fighter jets pounded the village, injuring at least seven people within just two days.
“At night the fighter jets flew so low that the children would scream with terror,” Alam recalled.
Asked about this apparent turnaround, Gul responded: “These decisions come from the top. We play no part in them.”
A senior ISPR official, speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said many tribes in North Waziristan similarly claimed they had never offered safe havens to the rebels. “But time and again, out of fear of the enemy [Taliban], they broke their promises,” he said. “Maybe Eidak did the same, and now it must be emptied and searched.”
No one is happy to be displaced. But searching the village is a part of the nation's security.
Another ISPR official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that “it can’t be easy to be displaced, but the alternative is an incomplete operation and terrorism”.
Others continue to maintain that even while the rest of Mir Ali was a hub for attacks, Eidak was free of fighters.
Nisar Ali Khan, who once ran in the national election as an independent candidate from Mir Ali, told Al Jazeera that in 2008, an Eidak jirga was the target of a bomb blast that killed six. “Militants often targeted Eidak because they knew that outsiders like themselves were not welcome in Eidak village,” Khan said.
Alam said that when Afghan refugees streamed into their territory, “we provided them food and water, but we didn’t allow even their women and children to enter our village. When we didn’t even give refuge to refugees, why should we allow militancy to settle in our lands?”
Under the Frontier Crimes Regulations, the so-called “black law” imposed in FATA, the protection of private property and land is not the duty of the security agencies. “It was our responsibility to protect our land and our people,” Dawar said. “The purpose of the Lashkar is to protect ourselves.”
Nizar Khan, North Wazirisatan’s federal minister told Al Jazeera that the army promised the villagers that the search operation will not take longer than three or four days.
“It’s already been 10 days, let’s see how much longer they will have to live at Pir Kali,” said Nizar Khan. “No one is happy to be displaced. But searching the village is a part of the nation’s security.”
According to Ahmed Sayeed, an Eidak tribesman who has served in the Lashkar, political agents have informed the tribespeople they can re-enter the village “as soon as the search operation is over”.
Still, scores of Mehsud families displaced in the 2009 Rah-e-Nijat operation have yet to be allowed back into their villages in South Waziristan.
Although there is hope that the current operation will be speedier, there is no confirmation of when, if ever, North Waziristan’s displaced will see their homes again.
Follow Maham Javaid on Twitter: @JMaham