Nearly half-a year after the Pakistan Army launched its counterinsurgency operation in North Waziristan, refugees from the tribal areas continue to seek more livable conditions across the border in Khost province.
At Camp Gulan in Khost province, UNHCR workers distribute supplies to the refugees who crossed the border to escape fighting in North Waziristan. (Photos: Rahmat Alizada)
On the second day of this September's Eid Ul Azha, Waziristan’s tribal elders gathered in Peshawar’s Bagh-e-Naran park to ask the Pakistan government permission to return to their hometowns, which they were forced to abandon this summer as a result of the Pakistan Army’s ongoing counterinsurgency operations along the Af-Pak border.
The Pakistan Army launched operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan in the wake of a June 8 attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, for which the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) claimed responsibility. On Oct. 2, its spokesmen announced that 90 percent of North Waziristan had been cleared of insurgents, and that the operation would soon succeed in completely ridding the area of Taliban operatives.
In reaction, elders from the Wazir, Mehsud and Dawar tribes gathered to discuss the future of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees who left North Waziristan and continue to face misery in camps scattered across the region.
According to tribal elder Malak Gul Marjan, most tribal people preferred to take refuge in neighboring Afghanistan instead of shifting to settled areas of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Families from various parts of the volatile tribal areas have migrated to Khost and Paktika provinces in Afghanistan, he added.
Estimates on the total number of IDPs from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) who have taken refuge in Khost province vary on both sides the border. While government officials in Khost say around 200,000 Pakistani refugees currently reside there, Pakistan government representatives say only 10,000 people crossed the border into Afghanistan.
It is better to take refuge in Afghanistan instead of living miserably in tents in Pakistan, said Syed Alam Khan of North Waziristan, an elder and tribal Jirga member who migrated to Afghanistan and returned back to Pakistan to meet with his relatives during Eid.
While supply flows to the camp have been regular, aid workers warn more effort is needed to keep conditions livable during winter months.
Alam Khan criticized the FATA political administration for its attitude towards the tribal people. He said local officials imposed a curfew the moment helicopter gunships and jetfighters started shelling. As a result, civilians were caught in the conflict.
He added that members of the Sherkhel, Gulkhel, Gurbez and Sidgai tribes migrated to Khost province, where they are staying with relatives. In the Ghulam Khan area, around 500 families had fled to Afghanistan and their numbers are increasing day by day, he added. The displaced Mehsud families who had shifted to North Waziristan Agency after a military operation was launched against the TTP in South Waziristan in 2009 have also moved back to their ancestral home.
While some of the families are living with relatives on the Afghan side of the border, most reside in camps set up by the government of Khost province. Hassan Mohammad, who heads the civic organization Khost Refugees, says 25,000 families have been registered in Gulan Camp, but a total 30,000 thousand families are scattered in different parts of Khost province. Humanitarian organizations estimate an additional 4,000 refugees recently crossed into Khost and are now living in Tani and Spera districts, as well as unpopulated mountainous areas of the province.
“The refugees are thankful to the Afghan government who have provided emergency aid, but the refugees need more assistance, because the weather is getting colder in Khost,” says Saleem Shah Khan, 50, a representative of the refugees who fled Waziristan’s Manzar Khel area to come to Khost’s Gulam Camp. “If we do not receive winter relief, I think the refugees will face harsh times in the coming winter.”
According to Mohammad, each Waziristan family received one tent, a catering set and flour. The government has also provided 100 million Afghani for food rations and daily supplies to be purchased in Spera District and distributed among the refugees, he added.
Mubariz Mohammad Zadran, the spokesman for the governor’s office, says that the number of Pakistani refugees in Khost has reached about 200,000. Providing aid to such a large group has its hurdles, he added.
“The refugees are in 11 different locations in Khost province, including some far-flung areas," Zadran said. He called on all the relief organization to step up their efforts to get aid to the Pakistani refugees because “we have a cold winter ahead of us.”
Back to school
In Gulan Camp, the refugees say they lack access to drinking water. “In the past relief organizations would bring clean water in tanks, but that has stopped for some time now,” said Naeem Wazir, 40, a refugee who came to Khost three months ago from Darpa Khel. He added that the refugees drink water from the river, which sometimes makes them sick.
Efforts to provide schooling for the Pakistani children living in Camp Gulan are underway, but refugees say a lack of supplies has prevented many from attending classes.
Public Health Directorate officials in Khost province say they have “given more than their capacity” to provide medical services to the people in Gulan Camp, and are working with Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) to treat patients. Since most illnesses arise from unsanitary practices, healthcare professionals give refugees tutorials on keeping their temporary homes clean, said Dr. Arif from the Public Health Directorate of Khost. Patients also have access to an on-site hospital, and ambulances are at the ready to transfer urgent cases to more well-equipped health facilities in the city, he added.
International aid groups have also taken steps to provide schooling to the children living in refugee camps. So far, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) says it provided educational and recreational facilities, including all-girls' classrooms, for 2,000 children in five different locations in Gulan Camp. The organization has also deployed 80 teachers and is training more educators.
Bakht Noor Bakhtyar, who heads Khost’s education department, says the local administration is working with international donors including UNICEF to adapt coursework to the standard Pakistani curriculum.
Still, the parents of many refugee children say educational supplies in the camps are lacking. “Our children don't have pens, notepads and books. Only a small portion of the children have received them. Most children excuse themselves from school because they have not received supplies,” said Ustad Alam Khan, 50, who came to Khost province six months ago from Waziristan’s Tabi Saidgai area.
Education Directorate officials said they requested the Ministry of Education to provide 200 additional schools and teachers in collaboration with international donors.
Uprooted and armed
The influx of refugees from North Waziristan into Khost has raised fears of weapons smuggling and the presence of Taliban operatives in the camps, though Khost officials have attempted to dispel such concerns.
“There are no armed men among them nor have the armed opposition infiltrated them,” said Gen. Faizullah Ghairat, the provincial police chief. “They are under complete observation. The people living in the Gulan Camp are only civilians afflicted by war.”