The Road to Bannu

Sep 2014

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HASHIM_3 | Issue 7

Chief Minister Akram Khan Durrani.

Under Durrani’s tenure as chief minister, Bannu did see a spurt of development work: a major new hospital, a university (named after Durrani himself), and several degree colleges and vocational centers were built, with new roads springing up around the district.

Those buildings still stand, though many are either not operating, or operating below full capacity, Bannu residents said. The civilian administration, too, admitted as much, with the commissioner, Mohsin Shah, blaming bureaucratic incompetence for the lack of follow-through on service delivery in the district.

Durrani, though, speaks less of realities than of possibilities. As it stands, despite the hospitals and the colleges, the fertile agricultural land and the opportunities for commerce, not enough people are coming to Bannu. Most just seemed to be passing through. Even the refugees stuck here think of it as a way station rather than a destination. Durrani seems cognizant of this, but, rather than being disheartened by the issue, he wants to use it to make the district come alive again. The fact that Bannu is a gateway, he says, cuts both ways. It may lie adjacent to the Tribal Areas where the law and the relationship to the state become contested issues, but it is also a route in the other direction — for trade and prosperity. For Durrani, Bannu’s proximity to the border areas is a blessing, not a curse. He has visions of turning Bannu into another Torkham or Chaman, passageways to Afghanistan. His eyes light up when he speaks of this prospect.

“If this law and order situation can be solved, then Bannu is a gateway,” says Durrani. “The road from Bannu to Ghulam Khan [in Afghanistan’s Khost province] is complete, and trade is ongoing.” It could be big business, Durrani argues, but when the law and order situation changed, it put a dent in his plans. The road of which Durrani speaks runs from Bannu, through Mir Ali and Miranshah in unstable North Waziristan, to reach Ghulam Khan Kalay, a border town between Afghanistan’s Khost province and Pakistan. As such, security remains a major concern, although the army does man check posts on it at all times. And, historically, that route has been of limited importance except for certain local exports such as pine nuts and other dried fruit.

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So, it remains to be seen whether Bannu, a town that has been ever-present in history and mythology can be capable of being not a land to be carelessly plundered as one passes through, but a destination in and of itself.

Shortly after I left Bannu, the military operation swung into full gear. I have gone back to see what it has down to the town. Bannu continues to provide refuge to refugees, militants and anyone else passing through. And, with the military assault underway, this small town is overwhelmed. Its streets are overflowing with those who have fled the violence there. More than half a million people have left North Waziristan since May 21st, with almost all of them seeking shelter in Bannu, either staying with relatives, or paying rent to move their families into rooms they consider safer than staying at the government’s only camp for refugees in Bakkakhel.

A refugee in Bannu recounts an aerial bombardment on his home in N. Waziristan.

The impact of the influx on the city is unmistakable: one in every two people in Bannu today is an IDP. The civil administration says its infrastructure cannot handle the massive increases in demand, with power outages for 16 hours a day, and other civic services operating at peak capacity.

Long lines of IDPs snake outside of three designated aid distribution centers, with thousands waiting for hours in temperatures of more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) in the hope of receiving basic food ration packages and cash grants that the army and government are disbursing. The situation is often chaotic, with pushing, shoving and shouting often breaking out, as confused people seek aid for their families. The authorities periodically resort to aerial firing, beatings and laying out barbed wire to control the situation.

Bannu is choking, it seems, on the human detritus of the military assault.

Asad Hashim is an independent journalist and Al Jazeera English’s Web Correspondent in Pakistan. He is also an editor at Tanqeed.

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11 Responses to The Road to Bannu

  1. […] Hashmi investigates the encroachment by the Pakistani Navy on village land and Asad Hashim takes stock of the situation in Bannu, a way station for travelers, migrants and now refugees from the […]

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