Monday, October 22, 2007

Pakistan: 80,000 displaced in Waziristan

After over a week of fierce fighting in and around the town of Mirali, in Pakistan’s tribal North Waziristan Agency, lying along the country’s mountainous north-western border with Afghanistan, some semblance of normal life is returning slowly.

A few shops in the town's market, which had remained deserted for more than seven days, raised their shutters and some families moved back into hastily abandoned homes, according to local residents.

But the majority of the 80,000 people who have fled Mirali and areas around it as a result of the latest fighting have still not returned, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in the neighbouring North West Frontier Province (NWFP). And many civilians are still missing.

"My cousin has just called from our village, Ipi Faqir, located just a few kilometres from Mirali. He has been searching among the rubble of houses there, but has found no trace of his 17-year-old son," Aurangzeb Ali, 35, told IRIN from Peshawar, the provincial capital of NWFP.

The boy, feared dead, has been missing since 8 October.

Ali fled his native Mirali – the second largest town in North Waziristan - along with thousands of others on the night of 9 October, as villages believed by the Pakistan army to be harbouring militants were bombed by jet aircraft and helicopter gunships.

Government attack on militants

The military attack came amid intensified fighting between pro-Taliban militants and Pakistan government troops, which broke out in the first week of October after militants ambushed a military convoy near Mirali.

Tensions in the region have run high since 2001 – with accusations repeatedly surfacing that tribal leaders in the area, which the government does not fully control, have been assisting wanted al-Qaeda leaders.

Journalists have been consistently barred from entering the area. Renewed fighting erupted after a ceasefire reached between Pakistan authorities and tribal leaders broke down in July this year.

"We have seen plenty of fighting in our lifetimes, but never anything like the aerial bombardment of the last week," Ali said.

The Pakistan military closed off roads leading into North Waziristan at the height of fighting, effectively cutting off the area from the rest of the country.

200 killed in clashes

Pakistan army spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said 200 people had been killed in the clashes, including 45 soldiers and 150 militants. There has been no official estimate on the number of civilian casualties.

However, villagers who fled the area say civilians had been caught in crossfire, wounding and killing some.

"I have heard that around 50 civilians were killed," said Mohammad Arshad, a farmer who lives near Mirali. Arshad has left his three children and wife with relatives in Tank, a small town south of Bannu. "It is safer for them to stay here. We have moved twice in the past two years, and it is too distressing for the children," he said.

Kamran Arif, Vice Chairman of HRCP in NWFP, which has been monitoring the situation, told IRIN that the army’s bombing of villages where they suspected militants were hiding "had led to many casualties of innocent people".

Arif said that the "destruction of homes and shops created great hardship" for ordinary people.

80,000 displaced

HRCP said in a 12 October statement that most of the 80,000 people displaced by the fighting had gone to neighbouring Bannu. Others had headed for Peshawar, some 190km to the north, and a number headed straight for hospitals seeking treatment for wounded family members.

"In most cases, as the fighting intensified, families fled, just heading out along the road to Bannu or elsewhere in lorries, trucks, vans or on foot – even though many had nowhere to go," Aurangzeb Ali told IRIN.

He said almost all women and children left, with Mirali, having a previous population of 50,000, becoming a "virtual ghost town”. Many families left just a single male member behind to watch over houses and possessions abandoned as they fled.

No certain ceasefire

The siege placed around Mirali has been lifted, according to media reports, as a result of a ceasefire negotiated between tribal militants and Pakistan's security forces, with the process of talks beginning around the Eid al-Fitr holiday, one of the most important occasions on the Muslim calendar, which was marked on 13 and 14 October.

However, Maj-Gen Arshad denied a ceasefire had been agreed, telling IRIN "all military check posts remain in place and no ceasefire has been finalised". He said that the movement of goods into North Waziristan had been permitted to ease conditions for civilians.

By 18 October, some had reportedly begun to filter back – in some cases merely to recover belongings, in other cases to resume their disrupted lives. Trucks carrying goods, especially food items, had also begun reaching North Waziristan from parts of the NWFP.

However, with intermittent violence and displacement occurring in Wazirstan’s remote and rugged territory over the past six years, there is scepticism among those recently displaced that the fighting is over and that their lives will return to normal.

"Waziristan is no longer a place where one can safely bring up children," said farmer Mohammad Arshad.

Related article: The following post was made on June 20, 2006.

The Daily Times has reported that the Taliban movement in Miramshah, capital of North Waziristan, has issued a diktat warning male doctors from carrying out ultrasound tests on female patients.In a pamphlet from the "North Waziristan Mujahideen", the militia demanded the appointment of female for carrying out such medical procedures.

Published with the permission of IRIN
Disclaimer: This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or Mike Hitchen Consulting
Photo: Copyright