North Waziristan: fleeing before the bombardment begins
Earlier this week the government of Pakistan told the people of North Waziristan that they had three days to evacuate their homes – 72 hours to get themselves and their possessions out of a rugged tribal region situated along the Afghan border. It was both an order and a threat – the sort of warning the majority of those living in this mountainous region seem to readily understand.
It comes some 12 days after Islamic insurgents targeted the country’s largest airport in Karachi in a brazen, commando-style raid. The attack, which was claimed by the Pakistan Taliban and their Uzbek allies, left 36 people dead, including 14 members of the security forces.
The people of Pakistan know all about Islamic militancy – its towns and cities have suffered a long list of attacks in recent years, but the assault on Karachi’s international airport seemed to shock the nation. As a consequence, the government junked an attempt to negotiate with the insurgents and went on the offensive. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told the national assembly this week that a major military campaign, called “Strike of the Prophet’s Sword”, would “eliminate” the militants once and for all.
That announcement was followed by a barrage of air strikes and artillery fire in North Waziristan – the opening act in an operation designed to purge the area of local and foreign fighters. There was help from the Americans as well – a US drone strike on a compound in the town called Dandey reportedly killed four members of the militant Haqqani network.
With Pakistani air force F-16s circling overhead – and a government curfew on the ground – local residents were stuck in the middle but on Wednesday the military called a temporary halt in the bombardment to allow tribesmen and their families to get out. Unnamed officials in the capital Islamabad said they were giving people a chance to escape before a fully-fledged ground offensive begins.
More than a hundred thousand people have tried to beat tonight’s deadline. Many have piled up their possessions on a rag-tag assortment of vehicles and rolled down to Bannu, a city located outside the tribal zone in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Not everyone has managed to escape, though. We have been told that a significant number, including many elderly people, have been left behind with the Pakistan government providing little or no transport.
The authorities have managed to set up a couple of camps where displaced residents can go. According to the government’s frontier minister Abdul Qadir Balockh, tribesmen and their families will receive food, medical care and 12,000 rupees in cash upon registration.
It sounds like a reasonable offer but Channel 4 News understands that these camps stand virtually empty – a potent symbol of the Taliban’s reach. The militants have threatened the lives of anyone who registers at such a facility. Instead, the vast majority from North Waziristan have sought shelter with friends and relatives, or rented accommodation – or bunked down at local schools.
The Pakistan Taliban has given the people of North Waziristan alternative directions, instructing them to seek sanctuary in Afghanistan and today the UN confirmed that more than 6,000 have entered the Afghan province of Khost. It was a development government officials in Pakistan tried to downplay as they desperately attempt to assert their authority in the tribal region.
“We cannot say they are refugees there,” said the chief minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. “Most of them have relatives in Afghanistan.”
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