The Road to Bannu

Sep 2014

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Photo credit: Asad Hashim

Photo credit: Asad Hashim

“Within historical times Bannu has never been a theatre for great events, nor have its inhabitants ever played a conspicuous part in Indian history.” – Imperial Gazetteer of the Bannu District, 1883-84

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The history of Bannu, a sleepy little town of about a million inhabitants in the south of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and adjacent to the Tribal Areas, is long and littered with conquests, banditry and more than its fair share of violence. This town, which lies far off the historically more frequented trade caravan routes between Afghanistan and India, has been constantly ravaged by plundering raids through the ages, many carried out by some of history’s greatest figures: Mahmud of Ghazni invaded it in the 11th century; the Mongol Emperor Tamerlane likewise in 1398; Babar, the founder of the Mughal Empire, in 1505; the Persian Emperor Nader Shah and Ahmed Shah Durrani, the first Afghan Emir, did the same through the mid-1700s; and, later, Sikh Emperor Ranjit Singh briefly annexed it to his lands in 1838. And, that’s to say nothing of the regular attacks throughout those years by the Wazir tribes of present-day North Waziristan, which neighbors Bannu. Those attacks continued until it was annexed by the British in 1846 after the first Anglo-Sikh War.1

Bannu has also served a way station. It was a stop for Hsuan-Tsang, a Chinese monk, traveler and scholar of the Tang Dynasty, who set the tone for China’s relations with India in the 7th century after writing about his 17-year journey through the country in an epic travelogue, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions.2

In its past, the town is said to have been visited by the Persian Simurgh, the fabled, mythical phoenix who protected Zal-e-Zar the legendary warrior mentioned in the epic Persian poem, Shahnameh. Some say the town’s name comes from that family. Zal’s son Rustom “the bravest of the brave” fathered Banu Goshasp, a warrior princess of great repute in Persian mythology. Bannu the town, is Banu Goshap’s namesake.

And yet, nothing of great significance has ever happened here. Bannu was never permanently occupied by any of the invading forces until the British, nor was it ever the site of a great battle, or a seat of power. The reason, perhaps, is because while it seems that everyone comes through Bannu, no one ever comes to Bannu.

That is, partly, why I went. Before the latest military assault had begun, I traveled to Bannu in March 2014 to speak to its residents about this way station caught in the no-man’s land between Chaman and Torkham on the Pak-Afghan trade routes — a dusty, congested, point of transit, far off the beaten path from Pakistan’s mainstream, but central to those in the adjacent so-called “tribal areas” of Waziristan. Months before the army began its operation, I learned from its residents about Bannu — and its centrality to its more volatile, ungoverned neighbor.

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North Waziristan refugees seek government help in Bannu.

Khan Wazir fled his home in Mir Ali, a major town in troubled North Waziristan in 1998, at the age of just 19, due to an internal tribal dispute. A genial man, quick to smile and to make those around him laugh, he is also, apparently, unafraid of speaking his mind regarding what he calls the “true nature” of the conflict in his homeland, or, for that matter, anything else.

Over the last 16 years, he’s built a successful life for himself here in Bannu, working primarily as a property dealer, with deals taking him as far away as Dera Ismail Khan or Peshawar to the northeast.

“Before, we’d go to Waziristan one or two times a month and come back,” he told me at his modest, but spacious, home in the heart of Bannu’s old town, which remains enclosed within the walled city first established by Lieutenant Herbert Edwardes, the British colonial officer who first formally annexed Bannu in 1848 “We’d spend the summers there and the winters here. Now, the situation is such that I have not gone back to my home in Waziristan – where my brother, sister and relatives live – for five months.” He adds, “Even if I go, I go for rare reasons, and I go fearfully.”

For Wazir, as for many others, harassment in North Waziristan comes from both the army and local armed groups, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) and its various factions, as well as, separately, Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s fighters.

“There is a lot of tension on the route. On the one side, you have the army check posts, when we go there. We have to present ourselves completely. Second, in Mir Ali and Miranshah in Waziristan, we see such faces,” he pauses to laugh, “that a person is needlessly afraid.”

As such, living in North Waziristan is a constantly shifting, fine balance, between protecting oneself from insurgent groups, the Pakistan army and finally, American drones.

Wazir, and others, speak of the Pakistani army’s operations in the Tribal Areas of being “often indiscriminate” with entire villages shelled and widespread killing. This is how the Pakistani state has always dealt with this region, as the British did before them. Collective punishment is, in fact, even codified into the laws that govern FATA, particularly under the Collective Responsibility clause of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), a set of laws first promulgated by the British empire at the turn of the 20th century and continued by the Pakistani state after independence.

By contrast, Wazir prefers the U.S. drones. “If out of a hundred, they have killed five innocent people, then this is acceptable,” says Wazir. “They have hit absolutely the right people 95 percent of the time,” he asserts. “The Pakistan army creates a big problem for the people. If there is a bomb blast [by an insurgent group], the army will kill a number of people, shell villages, kill old people and stop people from being able to get to medical facilities [due to curfews]. Drones are better.”

Nevertheless, it’s a hard life, in North Waziristan. Wazir quotes a phrase that has become popular there in recent days: “Oopar drone, neeche churri.

Drones above, knives below.

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In the last six months, it has been the knives below that residents have had to worry about the most. On June 15, the Pakistani military announced the commencement of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, named after the strike of the Prophet Muhammad’s sword, which the army claimed would provide a “final solution” to Pakistan’s militancy problem.

The military said it was taking on the complex web of armed groups present in North Waziristan, a web that includes the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (and its various factions), the Haqqani network, and local armed commanders, as well as al-Qaeda, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). It made no mention, notably, of whether it would target the forces of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a powerful, armed commander who is the true military force in North Waziristan and who has in the past signed accords with the Pakistani state. A Pakistani official recently described him to Tanqeed as “a loyal Pakistani.” Read on >>

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  1. The NWFP Imperial Gazetteer (1908) describes the annexation of Bannu by British forces, led by colonial officer Lieutenant Herbert Edwardes, in somewhat glowing terms: “Within a few months Edwardes reduced the country to order, effecting a peaceful revolution by the force of his personal character, and without the firing of a single shot. The forts were levelled; arrangements were made for the collection of regular revenue; and so effectual were his measures [that he was able to head off to Multan in April 1848 at the outbreak of hostilities there with Levies conscribed from Bannu].” Edwardes is a constant figure. []
  2. Bannu’s history runs far deeper than it seems at first glance: archaeologists say the area around it has been inhabited, in one form or another, for more than 30,000 years, since at least the Upper Paleolithic period, making it one of the oldest human settlements in the subcontinent. []

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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 […]

  2. […] The Road to Bannu […]

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