The Road to Bannu

Sep 2014

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Zahid’s testimony, and that of many others I spoke with, speaks of a place where the only game in town, when it comes to access to power, is either the political agent or the TTP. Even more troubling for the locals is that the militants, who have taken over swathes of land and now administer it through jirgas or revenues in opposition to the state, are not easily identified only as foreigners. “The Taliban in our area, they are the people of the area,” says Zahid. “The same way that we meet other people, we will shake their hands also, as a part of our routine. Because they used to be our [friends], these days they are Taliban. Maybe in the future they will become one of us again.”

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Niaz Wazir, a 20-year-old native of Mir Ali, is an interesting case, an earnest young man who moved to Bannu in 2010 so that he could continue to pursue his bachelor’s degree in political science at Mir Ali’s Government Degree College, a state school. Because of the college level quota system, he is forced to remain with that institution — even though there have been no teachers and no lessons there for years. Yet, they do have exams, the only activity for which teachers are present. So, Niaz and hundreds of others like him come to Bannu and live in hostels while studying with private tutors. Then, they go back to their home institutions to take the exams.

Niaz pays 5,000 rupees per month (approximately $50) to share a room with two other boys. He pays another 700 rupees (approximately 7 dollars) for tutoring per subject. All told, his expenses come to about 25,000 rupees per month. While it may be a small sum in dollars – a little less than $250 – in Waziristan, which is especially a deprived area, it is a king’s ransom. Still, Niaz wants to pursue a Ph.D., and use that education to teach other young people in North Waziristan.

In some ways, Niaz’s concerns about paying for his education make him just like any other Pakistani student. I mention this to him. “Definitely,” he responds, instantly.

But, after a brief, thoughtful pause, he elaborates. “All of Pakistan does not have a curfew, though. We have the army there, right? So if you go, you cannot cross the road [in front of them]. They will shoot you straight away. So how can I be said to be inside Pakistan?”

Many of Niaz’s contemporaries have either joined the Taliban, or used their education or connections to get visas to work in the United Arab Emirates, he tells me. Asked why he didn’t choose either option, he says:

For myself, I thought that I’ll learn something, gain some wisdom. I will not get involved in this because the future of this militancy is not right. Our destruction is in this militancy. Destruction, yaara, because students cannot get an education, and noone can gain shaoor [wisdom]. If you get involved in this, you will either die in a drone strike, or a bomb blast, or some other way. It will all end. Death is clear, on this path.

For those in North Waziristan, this sense of being far outside the Pakistani mainstream, is pervasive. It is also justified. FATA exists within its own laws and its own realities. Schools exist, but teachers do not; hospitals exist, but doctors ignore their posts. And, all roads lead to the political agent, rather than any sort of representative local governance or courts.

“It is clear that our lives do not have any similarity to those of people anywhere else in Pakistan – especially in Punjab,” Zahid explained to me. “This poverty, the lack of educational institutions, no system for health or education, like they have in Punjab. That kind of development work has become very little. All the roads are completely destroyed. […] We do not have electronic media there, we do not have mobile phone systems there.”

Khan Wazir sums it up more pithily. “Look, to my knowledge, perhaps just in Faisalabad there are about 200-300 factories. Ok? Now go yourself on this road from Waziristan to Peshawar. If you find even 200-300 rehris [pushcarts], then fine, you can say that Waziristan is part of Pakistan.”

For Salim, the poet, Khan, the property dealer, Israr, the shopkeeper, and Niaz, the student, the only road out is Bannu. Located just 37 miles (60 kilometers) from Miranshah and 21 miles (35 kilometers) from Mir Ali, Bannu offers them, and thousands of others fleeing conflict, access to the kinds of facilities, and safety that their homes no longer provide.

But they’re not the only ones.

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“Bannu lies in the way of the Taliban, and we are the first to face the brunt of the issue,” says Sajid Ali Khan, the District Inspector General for Bannu division, which includes neighboring Lakki Marwat district.

“I think that Bannu is unique in the sense that it is the first settled area where the TTP was able to establish its foundation and organization, way back in 2005,” explains Khan. “The first settled area [where an] organized or synchronized attack also took place in Bannu. I am telling you of a time when the rest of the province did not receive the aftershock of terrorism, it had not fully spilled over into the settled districts.”

Khan, who has been a police officer for more than 25 years, had been the DIG here for only six months, but seems to be more cognizant of the security challenges that the district faces than anyone else. Or, at least, he is willing to admit them. The junior police officers I spoke to don’t seem to have the power to change events. That’s why they conceptualize their law enforcement duties in intensely local ways. Civilian administrators, on the other hand, don’t think of security issues as a sphere, where they have any control, and, therefore, dismiss them.

Three days before the 2013 elections, a bomb blast in Bannu.

The police, however, lie at the intersection. It is a civil force whose entire raison d’etre is security. People like Sajid Ali Khan will tell you the challenges they face, although liberally sprinkled with hyperbole when it comes to the role the police is playing.

Since 2005, Bannu has seen a relentless series of coordinated attacks against police stations, and state institutions, including schools, as well as a major jailbreak in 2012 in which more than 380 inmates freed. There have also been countless IED attacks on army convoys heading towards North Waziristan or elsewhere. The latest major attack was in January, when a bombing of an army convoy in the heavily fortified Bannu Cantonment killed 20 people and threatened to derail the government’s attempts to engage in dialogue with the TTP. As of late March, the district’s bomb disposal squad had already defused more than 100 explosive devices in 2014, police say. Parts of the district, meanwhile, remain entirely dominated by the Taliban and other armed groups.

Khan speaks at length about specific attacks on Bannu police stations and checkpoints at Miran, Huwaid, Bakka Khel, Basya Khel, Mamashkhel, and within the city center itself. Muhammad Rukhsar, the station police chief for the central city station counted 20 police fatalities in the last year – some from his own staff. Amin Marwat, an additional Station House Officer at the same station who survived a suicide bombing on his vehicle, recalled an attack on his police station in which he and a handful of police officers held off two suicide bombers and a number of TTP gunmen who were attempting to raid the building back in 2012.

“Bannu is a gateway for them,” Amin Marwat told me. “We are targets all the time, but we battle them.” We are in his police car while on patrol in the city center. “We are not their friends, and we don’t back down. We don’t show them any laxity.” Khan sums up what it’s like, to be a law enforcement officer in Bannu. “It is, more or less, a state of war.”

The civilian administration has a slightly different take on the situation with the Taliban and other armed groups. They think that Bannu provides a safe haven for the militants. “[They] come here to take refuge. Their own families come here to take refuge. So if they do [attacks] here, then it is obvious that there would be an effect [on their own people]. Because ultimately this is their pavilion, where they rest,” says Aurangzeb Haider, an assistant commissioner in the local government of the district. Haider ignores the fact that there have been several attacks on Bannu by insurgents. Read on >>

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11 Responses to The Road to Bannu

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