Suspect Citizens

Special Series: Reckoning with Zarb-e-Azb 


Tanqeed presents Reckoning with Zarb-e-Azb, our project assessing an operation that, two years later, is still ongoing. In the coming months, we will be releasing more articles analyzing the costs of this military venture.  
A Reckoning | Intro
FATA Reforms | Report
Zarb-e-Azb | A Primer
Zarb-e-Azb | Timeline 
TQ Coverage of Zarb-e-Azb
The Road to Bannu
Media & Zarb-e-Azb
Reporting Zarb-e-Azb
S Waziristan IDPs
Black Like Charcoal
Bannu Graffiti
Civilian Failure?
On Solidarity
Zarb-e-Azb & Left
Feminist Military?
On Peshawar
Selective Grief
Not our 9/11
More coverage


Project collaborators
Shah Shuja
D. Wazir
A. Serafina A.

It was in the evening, after another day of the blistering Ramzan heat, that security forces opened fire on protesters in a refugee camp 15 kilometers outside Bannu city, killing two and injuring another 11. The camp had been set up in Bannu to become home for some 3,500 families fleeing the Pakistani military operation in North Waziristan, a region of the Tribal Areas that is adjacent to Bannu.

As the year dragged on and government and security officials provided little respite from the harsh conditions, the residents had become frustrated. That day, the protesters were demonstrating against the lack of basic facilities like water and electricity, and the restrictions authorities placed on their movement outside the camp.

It is difficult to know exactly what happened next, but it is evident that the security forces dealt with the rag-tag protest of displaced people as if they were under attack from the enemy: two families received the bodies of their loved ones a day later.

In a rare instance of something resembling an apology, a brigadier attended the camp along with government officials and condemned the attack. The government announced a Rs. 5 million compensation package for the families of the deceased and Rs. 1.5 million for the injured. But, no action was ordered against the security personnel who fired on the unarmed protestors.

The incident occurred on June 21, 2015, just days after the 1-year anniversary of the Pakistani military operation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, particularly the North Waziristan and Khyber agencies.

It is an unparalleled event in the recent history of human displacement in Pakistan, a country which has seen the displacement of over 13.7 million people by natural disasters since 2008 alone. And since 2004, the Switzerland based Internal Displacement and Monitoring Center estimates that over 5 million people have been displaced by conflict, sectarian violence and human rights abuses from Pakistan’s northwest.

Tensions often run high between people living in camps for the internally displaced, and the authorities. “Scuffles break out between the police and IDPs [internally displaced persons], especially during the food and cash distribution process,” said one humanitarian worker, involved in relief efforts in 2008 and 2009 for IDPs kept in Jalozai camp and Kacha Garhi camp. “Inhabitants protest against the camp conditions, and the police sometimes clamps down.”

Yet, it may not be coincidence that the only camp managed predominantly by the security forces and the military, without any major involvement by international humanitarian organizations in its daily administration, was the one where two people were shot dead. Since then, there have been other clashes between IDPs and security agencies, both civilian and military. One with the police in Bannu ended with two displaced persons killed and another 28 people injured, including 17 policemen. Yet, the frequency of such incidents has not made the Pakistani media question the accepted narrative that these clashes break out due to the “unruly” behavior of the displaced.

The logic of security — rather than welfare — has governed the approach of officials, civilian and military, towards the million plus people who have been displaced from North Waziristan by Operation Zarb-e-Azb. The operation, which officially began on June 15th 2014, created nearly a million newly displaced people who joined another 930,000 people who had been displaced previously in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and FATA.

The prioritization of security was evident in the bans and controls set in place against the IDPs. It was evident when, following the start of the operation, the government claimed that it didn’t need foreign help, preferring to hand over significant aspects of administration to the security forces. And, it is evident in the lengthy clearance process for humanitarian organizations seeking to work with displaced families.

Organizations are required to get a No-Objection Certificate (NoC), which needs clearance from the security forces and civilian disaster management agencies, before they can work. Reports by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on North Waziristan’s IDPs show that the problems of the clearance process were raised with authorities multiple times, especially after the procedure delayed a survey of the humanitarian situation to be completed by UN agencies and government disaster management authorities.

Anecdotally, it also seems that while several organizations have had trouble acquiring an NoC, a number of religious welfare organizations with close links to the military as well as banned Islamist outfits were able to begin operations in Bannu almost immediately.

And now, two years after exercising an extraordinary level of control over the situation in North Waziristan as well as the administration of the displaced, the GHQ has expressed dissatisfaction over the slow pace of rehabilitation and reconstruction and appears to have decided to take over more responsibility. And with it, more of the government’s money.

It is still anybody’s guess what the military has actually done — and who it has actually killed — where the operation is concerned, but as the country’s shadow government, its engagement with the facilitation of IDPs has been marked by an absence of good governance and a security lens that deals with the displaced mainly as potential suspect ‘terrorists’ who must be contained.

Foreigners in their own land

“Some families left in late-May, when the airstrikes began,” said Karim* , an IDP originally from Mir Ali. “Most of us did not leave because we heard announcements in mosques that the government was looking to negotiate peace with the Taliban.”

Even eight days before the launch of the operation, the government and security officials were in talks with local tribal leaders. A grand jirga, or meeting, of 65 leaders of the Utmanzai Wazir and Dawar tribes met with Corps Commander General Khalid Rabbani. The government reportedly agreed not to launch a full-scale operation if the jirga restored peace in Waziristan within 15-days, a tall-order that the government nor the military itself had been able to procure in the preceding decade.

Speaking about this same jirga, Malik Akbar Khan, who heads a multi-party alliance of political leaders from North Waziristan called the All-Parties Siyaasi Ittehad said, “Afterwards, some people said we should leave the agency, some people said we shouldn’t. But by the time most of the jirga members had returned, the government had broken its word.”

The quick onset of the operation caused transportation prices to soar as families rushed to exit the agency. And routes that usually take only three to six hours, eventually took between 24 and 30 hours to cover. Much of that had to do with the new cordons and checkpoints set up in Waziristan and at its exit points to surveil the incoming refugees.

“They made the decision suddenly,” said a member of All-Parties Siyaasi Ittehad. “The government had given no serious thought to how it would deal with the hundreds of thousands displaced.”

Even by June 24, several days after the start of the operation, the government had not grasped the scale of the displacement. It had only expected roughly 250,000 refugees, but the actual numbers had already hit around 455,000.

While the government’s preparedness lagged, the primary motivations that drove the management of IDPs were security and suspicion. Major General Asim Bajwa, the director general of the military’s public relations wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), told the media during a briefing that the “IDPs are also being screened so that no terrorist can escape under the guise of an IDP.” The ISPR claims that a few suspected militants were caught impersonating displaced persons.

But Nasreen* Bibi explained what this checkpoint strategy meant in practice for thousands. “They would look through our belongings and then throw them on the ground. They did this with everybody’s personal items,” she recalls. She is sitting on the floor alongside several other women in a large ramshackle home rented by IDPs. All of the women sitting with her have been displaced from their homes in North Waziristan.

“They would throw the things around and then command us to pick our stuff back up.” She says it took her an entire day to reach Bannu via Bannu-Miramshah Road, the main artery from North Waziristan into Bannu.

Bakhtawar Khan, a 42-year-old IDP now living in one of the roadside spontaneous settlements that emerged as IDPs arrived, also described a grueling process for passing through the numerous “strangulation points”, as they are called officially by the military, which controls them. At each point they crossed, says Khan, they had to show their identity cards and have their names recorded along with having their belongings inspected.

“They even wrote down how much livestock we brought along,” said Khan. “Thank God none of my chickens ran off in between checkpoints; otherwise I would have some explaining to do.”

Other IDPs told stories of family members being detained at checkpoints causing the family to break up. Khan’s relative, Marjan Khan, who initially fled to Khost, Afghanistan says that he fared far better at the border with Afghan forces. “They understood our customs better, especially in treating the elderly and those with families.”

Indeed, by early July nearly 180,000 people had crossed into Afghanistan. Pakistani authorities later admitted that the reason was because their access to “settled” Pakistan had been cut off by extensive cordons and checkpoints during the initial parts of the operation. Imtiaz Gul, a security analyst has speculated that this may have been part of a deliberate strategy to drive militants across the border into Afghanistan.

Additionally, the military instituted a curfew after the operation began, making it difficult for people to travel and leaving many stranded. Reports from the UN’s OCHA office indicate the large influx of refugees at points when the curfew was relaxed.

If leaving was difficult, figuring out where to go was also no easy task. The provincial government of Sindh attempted to ban IDPs from entering the province, and others also expressed wariness about the IDPs, with one famous Karachi-based filmmaker tweeting, “IDPs should have been contained in camps in KPK – allowing them to settle in #Karachi will not bode well for security.” The guiding logic of the security forces and the military was thus backed by local governments as well as influential segments of Pakistani society.

Finding a temporary home

Twelve days into Zarb-e-Azb, the IDP camp near Bannu only housed 28 families even though over 455,000 people had already been displaced. The camp had been set up in FR Bakka Khel, a frontier region that runs next to Bannu but is technically still considered part of the Tribal Areas. It is cordoned off with a massive stone and brick checkpost, cutting off the camp from the rest of Bannu.

Despite the fact that it was virtually empty, an army official enthusiastically told media that the camp would soon be transformed into a “model camp.”

It was only as public schools reopened in Bannu that the camp saw a significant increase in residents. Schools had been used as shelters for the displaced, but with the school year beginning, IDPs shifted elsewhere. The FR Bakkakhel camp soon became a place of last resort for those with nowhere else to go.

Reports have focused on cultural reasons such as the purdah (traditional privacy of the home) and fear of retribution from the Taliban as reasons why people chose not to live in the camp. But, the IDPs we spoke with pointed to other factors as the most salient reasons for not living in a military-run camp.

“Leaving every day for work takes more than 2 hours,” said Qasim*, a 36-year-old resident of the camp, originally from Mir Ali, North Waziristan. “Over five hundred people leaving the camp every morning at the same time as me have only three desks issuing gate passes, without which we can’t leave.”

The security forces often impose spontaneous curfews on the camp. Additionally, there is a regular, daily curfew at 6pm. After that, people are only allowed to enter or leave on the intercession of local elders, who have traditionally acted as mediators between the tribes and the state.

“But it is usually so hot inside our tents, even at night, that not being able to return before curfew is a good excuse to sleep some place cooler,” Qasim added light-heartedly.

Others left the camp because of its closure and separation from the rest of the city. Ayesha Bibi*, whose daughter fell sick while she was staying at the camp, ultimately chose to find residence in Bannu city provided “quicker access” to medical facilities.

And, some of the most vulnerable groups of people have chosen to stay outside the camp, preferring instead to live in spontaneous settlements in and around Bannu. “We have been a free people since the time of our grandfathers, and their grandfathers before them,” explains Bakhtawar, who now lives with his wife and children in a spontaneous settlement of 1500 families near Dami Pull, a bridge on the outskirts of Bannu. The dusty, sprawling settlement bears a neglected look. Aside from the odd UNHCR logo on tarpaulin tent roofs, there is little sign that aid agencies, government or non-government, are looking out for the camp’s inhabitants.

Still, even here, there are signs that the people are striving to make their lives bearable on their own. Some tent walls are plastered with mud, an age-old way of keeping the inside temperature in check, and a few groups of tents are surrounded by mud boundary walls. “Many of us have chosen to settle here over the camp, even though it has more facilities,” he added. As he talked, he worked on trying to fix the settlement’s sole source of water, a broken hand pump.

The choice has not been without costs. As a Bannu-based journalist told us, the FATA Disaster Management Authority (FDMA), a federal government response agency dedicated to the Tribal Areas, is narrowly focused on providing aid through designated distribution points and relies on the ability of IDPs to approach them on their own.

“The nearest public school near Domail Bazaar is a 50-minute walk away,” said Bakhtawar. “All of us had to pool money to hire a private tutor to teach our children, but our children’s education has still suffered because he is not very regular.”

In order to receive aid, the government and security forces require that the displaced undergo a registration process where proof of identity is critical. Soon after the operation began, the National Disaster Management Authority sent 20 officials for the task while the military deployed 50 army personnel—more than twice the number of civilian officials. Given the constant suspicion and generalized fear of the ‘true’ identity of the IDPs, the security directive once again took precedence.

The process is multi-layered. Registration requires government identity documents, particularly the computerized national identity card (CNIC). Officials then hand the data of all IDPs who register with them to the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), a federal identification database, for verification. But, problems quickly ensued. NADRA announced that it was unable to verify thousands of families, and nearly half of all IDP heads of household were undocumented. There were also problems in the existing records kept by the government. This meant that except for initial food rations, families were unable to access cash assistance or the SIM cards through which it was being disbursed.

Aziz Rahman, a 60-year-old resident of Ghulam Khan, Waziristan, was one among thousands of family heads who entered Bannu without an identity card. The special procedures in place for FATA residents to acquire a CNIC require signatures from tribal leaders and the political administration making it difficult to get the card even in times of relative calm.

Additionally, some people, like Rahman lacked even a Nikkahnaama (marriage certificate) or other identifying documents, a prerequisite for making an identity card. “It took me 4 months to finally obtain all the documents required for registration,” Rahman says in frustration. “The government had stopped registrations in Bannu by then, leaving me to survive on the charity of others.”

In fact, so many families were denied aid for this reason in the first few weeks of the humanitarian operation that the Pakistan Red Crescent Society had to urge the government to issue aid tokens to IDPs without identity cards or other documentation. UN bodies even advised NADRA to set up desks for the issuance of new identity cards near IDP registration points, but this was not heeded.

Many of those who did apply for registration were rejected. The UN estimates that nearly 40 percent of those rejections happened because NADRA had old or inaccurate family trees —which it also tracks — in its database for the applicants. “I was rejected aid because I was told my elder brother was already receiving it,” said Azizullah also from Ghulam Khan, who now lives in the Dami Pull settlement. “I have my own family now, but according to the government I am still my brother’s dependent.”

Even those with all of their documentation in order were sometimes denied aid because they had more than one registered address. Many of the displaced had a second address in Bannu due to historic linkages between the district and neighboring North Waziristan.

Unsurprisingly, the acceptance rate of registered IDPs kept falling and the rejection rate continued rising dangerously post-July. And by August, it had become clear that the registration issue was impacting the most vulnerable.

For the privilege of citizenship

“I paid Rs. 36,000 to get two ID cards made,” said Abdul Marjan a resident of the Dami Pull settlement, originally from Miramshah. “They allowed me to register, but because I shared the same family number with my sons, I was denied aid,” he added.

Because so many people were denied aid due to problems in registration and verification, an entire shadow industry eventually sprung up, providing IDPs with registration slips and identification documents under-the-table and at a premium.

The cost of each card made went up based on how many supporting documents the person in question lacked. People without supporting documents for identity cards had to get these made first. Each set of documents also required attestation by a range of officials, including the local malik (government-appointed tribal leader) and various members of the agency’s political administration. Each official illegally charged Rs. 500-2000 (~5-20 USD) for attesting a single document, in effect, causing the costs to pile up with each document attested. 

An entire cadre of people impersonating government officials also allegedly emerged. Samina Bibi*, recounted falling prey to such a person. “An official claiming to be from the FDMA took Rs. 60,000 (~600 USD) from me to make six identity cards. But I never heard anything from him afterwards,” she said. Samina contacted the FDMA, but the organization told her it could do nothing. She finally managed to have an identity card made, but it cost her another Rs. 1500 (~15 USD).

UN organizations flagged this problem in the first few weeks of the displacement, but even by August, the number of female staff at all service delivery points was reported to be inadequate. OCHA reports show that UN bodies had asked the government to set up grievance desks to ensure no deserving families were denied aid due to problems in the registration process.

“It’s one thing to register a complaint and an entirely different thing to act on it,” says Marjan, while explaining how helpful the grievance desks had been. Unsurprisingly, the rejection rate for registered IDPs rose from 41 percent to 42.9 percent between July and August.

Abdul Marjan is also doubtful of how the state has handled the humanitarian disaster. Reflecting on his journey and the issues he has faced, he observed, “They have finally made us into citizens, but we had to pay dearly for the privilege.”

The rhetoric of hearts and minds

Speaking about the humanitarian fallout from the operation, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, the director of the army’s public relations, said that it will take time to win over people from Waziristan.

But, the overarching security imperative of the military and the government has only exacerbated the situation. “These checkpoints only help the state feel safer by allowing it to hide what is actually going on in the name of FATA’s integration into the mainstream,” said Nisar Ali Khan, a member of North Waziristan’s All-Parties Siyaasi Ittehad and affiliated with the ethno-nationalist Awami National Party.

Two years after the military venture began, the security perspective has not abated. Indeed, it is shaping the kind of reconstruction and rehabilitation that can take place. As the return begins, those going back to their homes in North Waziristan are now required to get a special Watan card in addition to their national identity card. Security forces ask for these documents at checkpoints along the way.

“We carry these identity cards around as if they are passports,” says Abdul Marjan at the Dami Pull camp. “And this Watan card is our visa to return back to the homes we were driven out of,” he adds with a strained smile.

The card began as a way for the government to distribute cash aid but appears to have become a mandatory document. Without it, they are unable to return to their homes or even travel out of their villages once they have been repatriated. Just as the registration of IDPs upon entry into Bannu and other “settled” areas was wrought with problems, the process of issuing these cards is plagued with issues.

“My family and I went to get the cards made before sunrise, and we only got out by sunset,” says Akbar Khan,* an IDP from Miramshah, North Waziristan who was recently repatriated to his village along with 250 other families.

Yet, problems with Watan cards only scratch the surface for those freshly returned to their homes. The generalized suspicion by the state of them has been near-impossible to shrug off.

“When we reached our village station, the military lined us up and gave us a 40-minute lecture on how we were to live peacefully,” says Akbar Khan. “They told us we had to register in advance to go to Bannu. They warned us against wandering around too much, letting people spend the night in our houses and spending nights outside the village.”

The government has also made the return of thousands of families contingent on signing a draconian “social agreement” that places the responsibility for security directly on the locals’ shoulders. And though the army has confiscated the guns of many residents, it has not said who will keep them safe.

“They didn’t discuss our security. They only gave us rules to live under and warned us of toughness if we didn’t follow them,” says Akbar. These rules have, among other things, stalled the return of normalcy to the region. “Even now it’s difficult to get a hold of a doctor, and the schools are still closed.”

And those with whom we spoke also seemed uncertain whether the military operation itself had accomplished anything. “I honestly cannot say if it has or not,” said Samina Bibi. “The only thing I want to say is that we don’t need these planes and bombs. We cannot live like this, we want and we need peace only.”

*                                     *                                       *

Shah Shuja is a writer.

D. Wazir is an independent researcher.


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One Response to Suspect Citizens

  1. Fazal Rahman, Ph.D. on Jun 2016 at 1:01 AM

    It is a good informative article on the situation of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from North Waziristan. However, the information, and the facts cited in it, remain abstract and disconnected from the causes and potential solutions, which is only possible if these are placed within an appropriate theoretical framework. Not only this has not been done, but also some fundamental macro-level facts have been excluded, e.g., the fundamental role of US and NATO imperialism in pressuring and bribing Pakistani government and military to unleash the extremely devastating state terrorist operation of Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. State terrorism, which causes non-state terrorism in overwhelming majority of cases-not only in Pakistan, but worldwide-is not even mentioned.

    The editors and selected writers on this site appear to be conditioned by the literary culture of the US and the West, dominated by the positivistic and empirical frameworks that mutilate the facts and their meanings by not only fragmenting them from the theoretical contexts, but excluding the latter altogether, either deliberately or because of ignorance.

    Throughout much of its history, Pakistani governments and military have been bribed and used by the US and other Western powers as mercenaries to carry out their agendas and policies of regional domination and control in that part of the world. The current situation of North Waziristan and IDPs is part of that history, albeit in a more extremist form, as part of its own population has been attacked and treated as if it is a foreign colonial population. Indeed, their deliberate policy and actions of displacing such a large number of people from their homes for such a prolonged time is hard to match even in the colonial wars of conquest by the western powers. According to some published information, the homes and businesses of IDPs in North Waziristan have also been severely damaged and destroyed during the course of Zarb-e-Azb. So, even if they are able to return, they are returning to dire conditions.

    There is no logic of security in all that. Instead, even though they do not realize it, the logic of insecurity and self-destruction is built into their policy and actions, which will develop and manifest itself in the not-too-distant future.

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