Waking up in Waziristan


Meet the warm, friendly side of Pakistan

South Waziristan was not exactly where I expected to wake upon my birthday in 2012. It is, after all, not yet at the top of everyone’s ‘must visit’ holiday places. To be honest, most friends had been somewhat horrified that I was making this trip, raising the spectre of all sorts of terrible things that could happen, though the more adventurous ones were envious because it’s a place of mystery that few get to visit. But despite the concern, it was peaceful, exciting and remarkably beautiful. South Waziristan is waking up and coming to life again after truly terrible times.

I visited the areas around Jandola, Chagmalai, Spinkai, Kotkai, Janata and Sararaogha in November to talk with the people who have returned after the military operations against the insurgents, and to see what’s happening in the reconstruction and rehabilitation activities. As a consultant who works across the civil-military divide and who regularly evaluates aid and development projects, I am able to assess the quality and outcomes of such projects.

The first thing I noticed was that the locals were warm, welcoming and they weren’t carrying guns. Nobody is allowed to move in these areas with a weapon. The long tradition of carrying weapons has undergone an enforced but important change. The second thing was that all women were not wearing burqas, were out and many were working in the fields. So, that quickly dispelled two well-worn perceptions.

South Waziristan has extraordinary scenery with mountains and cliffs rising sharply against the skyline with a river meandering through beautiful valleys. However, the spectacularly stark terrain makes it a hard place to conduct operations and it is easy to see why the losses were so heavy in subduing the insurgency.

Although casualties have reduced since 2010, peace building will be a long-term challenge given the external influences at play in the region. But much has already been done to restore a peaceful environment for the local people to return to the area to rebuild their lives and it is already making a difference.

For the rehabilitation and reconstruction of South Waziristan, the government of Pakistan is working in tandem with Pakistan Army, and a very small number of international donors, UN agencies and local NGOs. The government has enhanced its footprint. As the security situation further stabilises, more agencies will be able to work in the area. Electricity services for 35 villages have been restored. An impressive new 117km road with excellent bridges transverses the area. This road will join up with a similar road through Wana, to connect with the Indus Highway to form a third trade corridor between the Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics. This will contribute significantly to the economy of the South Waziristan and stimulate development and job opportunities.

Health and education facilities are undergoing reconstruction with 12 health care facilities already completed while some 45 schools for both boys and girls are being rebuilt, many of which are already operating and more are underway.

Although most families have been eager to return, it has been tough for most. Many have returned to damaged or destroyed homes and a complete loss of their livelihoods. UNHCR is building one-room shelters for the more vulnerable returnees such as widows but to date, progress is slow and the shelters are not culturally appropriate as they are mostly built in the open, not with the traditional compound walls. A Pakistani NGO, Resettling the Indus, is building, more culturally, appropriate houses, working with the local communities, and undertaking planning for a number of villages soon to be re-settled.

As part of the resettlement package, families receive food support for a period of six months provided by the World Food Programme and their donors. However, after that, it can be hard as there are still very few jobs and many have to live on whatever savings they have until they can get work or set up a micro-business. Water systems have been restored in 35 areas. Markets have been built in 30 places to help locals re-establish businesses and are handed over at no cost, provided they are used for the purpose agreed. Agricultural practices are being improved to make the small amount of arable land more productive.

Sports stadia have been constructed and are very popular for the favourite pastimes of cricket and football. The sports fields and a new community centre are also venues for festivals and Eid celebrations to bring the communities and those working there together. Discussions with the locals about what life was like in the shadow of the militants, their time away in IDP camps and with host families in other parts of Pakistan, and returning home, were revealing and deeply touching. As a woman, and a foreigner, I wasn’t sure that the men would be particularly comfortable with me. However, they extended their hands warmly to mine, talked freely and laughed with me and were entirely comfortable with me, mingling amongst them to take photographs. It turned out to be rather fun. Many spoke freely but others, still perhaps afraid of repercussions from any lingering militant sympathisers amongst them, were understandably uncomfortable in talking of the past. The terrible atrocities, they underwent at the hands of the militants, are still all too fresh in their minds.

The achievements of the Pakistan Army in South Waziristan are in stark contrast to the experience in Afghanistan of NATO/ISAF with the donor-supported reconstruction through the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Despite billions of donor dollars pouring in to PRTs, they have not been able to achieve their goals. Lack of ability to stabilise areas, sub-standard materials provided by contractors, plus a frequent lack of cultural understanding have been some of the main inhibitors. But the story is very different in South Waziristan. Unlike the NATO/ISAF troops in Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army is of the same country, the same people, and although it is still challenging, acceptance and cultural understanding is greater. Also, as the army directly controls the reconstruction process on the ground, working closely with and for the government, donors and humanitarian agencies, there is full transparency and accountability.

South Waziristan was a real surprise not only for me but the many people I’ve spoken to since. There is so little awareness of life there. Unfortunately, good news stories do not attract the same attention as the negative. Yes, there will be many big challenges ahead but people’s resolve is greater. Let’s hope that the goal of long-term stability can be fully realised and the people of South Waziristan can prosper in true peace and harmony.

The writer is a disaster management and civil-military relations consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA. She can be contacted at: [email protected]