By Zia Ur Rehman

March 23, 2015

n October 2009, 45-year-old Ashraf Gul and his six family members decided it was in their best interest to head to Karachi. With the military offensive against Taliban militants gathering momentum by the day, Gul – albeit with a heavy heart – was pragmatic enough to realise that his native area of Ladha in South Waziristan was simply not safe; at least for the time being.

As the family settled into the southern metropolis’ Ittehad Town neighbourhood where Gul’s brother, a naturalised Karachiite working here since 1983, had made temporary accommodation arrangements, they expected to be back in Ladha within a few months at most.

Gul had been sure the operation would take no more than that; he really did believe the government would be helping them and the other internally displaced persons (IDPs) with their return journeys in a matter of months.

That, however, did not happen and his belief soon turned to hope and, not long after, yearning. Now as the government recently announced plans to start sending the Mehsud IDPs back home after nearly five-and-a-half years in Karachi, Gul, by his own admission, is more worried than eager over the prospect of a return.

On one hand, the increasing harassment of Mehsud tribesmen in Karachi at the hands of law enforcers has him convinced of the need to return. But, at the same time, he fears that remnants of the Taliban militants targeted in the operation could still be hiding among the mountains of South Waziristan, the adjacent tribal areas or just a little further off on the Afghanistan side.

“They could still come back. If that happens, we will have no choice but to flee our area yet again,” Gul said in a talk with The News.

A ‘wait and see’ approach

When the military operation – codenamed Rah-e-Nijat – against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan started in South Waziristan in October 2009, an estimated 364,000 people from five of the agency’s tehsils — Ladha, Makeen, Sararogha, Sarweki and Khaisor – were compelled to leave the area.

Largely belonging to the Mehsud tribe, a majority of the IDPs have been living in the nearby districts of Tank and DI Khan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, a significant number of the displaced families chose Karachi as their preferred destination.

Settled mainly in the city’s suburban parts – Sohrab Goth, Ittehad Town, a number of neighbourhoods along the Super Highway and Northern Bypass, Pipri and Landhi’s Gulshan-e-Buner area – most of them have been earning a livelihood by operating Qingqi rickshaws or working as daily-wage labourers or private security guards.

Efforts to repatriate the IDPs finally kicked off in earnest on March 16, with nearly 200 families living in District Tank being relocated to their native areas. While a number of Mehsud IDPs from Karachi have also reached Tank over the past week to register for their return, a number of the displaced families and social activists working for their cause still say that they have adopted a ‘wait and see’ policy.

Advocate Shah Wali, a Karachi-based Mehsud activist who runs the Pashtun Peace and Development Movement (PPDM), said the government has initially been sending IDPs back to only 10 percent of the affected area. “They have also imposed severe restrictions on the movement of villagers. That is why we are not seeing the IDPs return in large numbers,” Wali told The News.

Zaman Mehsud, a journalist in Tank, confirmed that a number of IDPs from Karachi had arrived in Tank to register with the South Waziristan political administration. Authorities, he said, have been issuing South Waziristan Residency Facilitation Cards (SWRFC) to the families and children were also being administered polio drops upon arrival.

As for financial help, Zaman said a figure of Rs10,000 had been allotted for travel and Rs25,000 for other expenses.

Taliban warnings 

However, as the repatriation drive continues, Taliban militants have also been threatening the Mehsud IDPs against returning to their villages. In an email sent to media personnel on March 14, Azam Tariq, a spokesperson of the TTP South Waziristan, had asserted that their fight with security forces in the area was far from over and anyone who chose to return would be at risk of injuries or worse. The TTP had also openly threatened to attack anyone who would dare join the local Levies force.

These threats, local tribal elders believe, have discouraged a majority of the Meshud IDPs from going back. “People do not want to go through the entire relocation process again. They realise that as things stand, they could be forced to flee their homes at any given time; that is why no one wants to take the decision to return home in any hurry,” said a Mehsud tribal elder living in Pipri.

The other IDPs 

In the past, a large number of IDPs from Swat and Bajaur had come to Karachi, mostly over the course of 2008, as military offensives were launched in their respective areas.

However, their returns had been swift in comparison to those displace from South Waziristan as they moved back within two to three months after the government announced a clean-up of their areas.

With no official declaration regarding South Waziristan’s status till recently, the IDPs settled in Karachi remained hesitant over a possible return.

Why Karachi?

Regarding the reasons why IDPs preferred migration to Karachi over relocation to nearby areas, Pashtun activists opine that cheap accommodation and employment opportunities were the city’s main attractions.

“A large population of Pashtuns from Swat, Bajaur and South Waziristan has already been living in the city for some time now.

So, naturally, those who have since had to move out of their hometowns preferred coming to Karachi where they know there are people willing and able to help them find accommodation and jobs,” said Munawar Burki, a Karachi-based journalist.

However, he clarified that the most recent IDPs in Pakistan – those displaced after the military initiated operations in North Waziristan and Khyber Agency in 2014 – had opted against moving to Karachi, largely preferring to stay in neighbouring towns such as Bannu, Lakki Marwat and Peshawar.

“Unlike the Mehsuds or Swatis, the tribes of North Wazirsitan and Khyber Agency do not have a communal or any sort of traditional base in Karachi.

That is mainly why they have chosen to stay in their areas and have not moved here,” said Burki.