Almost a month after initial announcements were made by the Pakistan army to rid North Waziristan of militants hideouts, the country faces a new crisis – one that will determine the far reaching impacts of Operation Zarb-e-Azb and everything that comes after. The Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), who evacuated and fled from their homes so that the army could carry out its offensive without the fear of civilian collateral, are now reaching the one million mark, a number so staggering when one considers the fact that we still have IDPs from the 2009 offensive and the 2010 floods, languishing without proper care and rehabilitation. However, media reports are sketchy, few and far between when it comes to understanding the reality the IDPs face in relief camps, including their own, unique personal stories. It is in one such camp in Baka Khel Wazir, a FATA town in Bannu, that their voices are being heard by one person who probably feels their loss, hope and sadness more than others.
In a rare and exclusive glimpse into the lives of the refugee IDPs, at a time when no coverage is allowed and gaining entrance to the camps is near impossible, the wife of Shahbaz Taseer – kidnapped in August 2011 and missing ever since – Maheen Taseer, says that being with the 67 or so families in Baka Khel camp is the “closest” she has ever been to her husband since his abduction and, hence, the experience of truly integrating with them, if only for a day, and seeing up-close their strength, perseverance, optimism and, yes, patriotism, she feels truly at one with the kind of spirit she identifies as being Shahbaz’s alone at this difficult time. A psychologist by profession, Maheen raised as much as one million rupees in less than a week and took it to this camp to not only help the many distressed but also share with them in their time of need. “Ever since Shahbaz was taken away from me, I have been looking for a way, a place where I could feel nearer to him. I think this was the place. In the IDPs, we have people extracted from all they love, from their homes, their loved ones, their lives, and thrust into the unknown, depending only on the kindness of strangers. That is what my husband must be going through as well, so what better place to be with him, our people, and to care for myself as well?”
Shahbaz Taseer has been missing for almost three years now and while his exact whereabouts remain unknown, more recent reports say that Taliban militants are keeping him in the tribal areas – the tribal areas from where these hapless IDPs are fleeing. “Contrary to what we are hearing in some reports in the media, this IDP camp was perfectly set up, providing essential rations and even segregated facilities to the temporary residents,” says Maheen. Camps to help facilitate women and children are in dire need with many refusing to make use of these lodgings if their tribal traditions are not respected with women being allowed full purdah. “There are even separate facilities and camp areas for families, with no outsiders allowed inside. I was fortunate enough to visit one of these cordoned off family areas where a newborn had recently been introduced to the world, named Azb Khan, after the operation these people hope will rid them of their oppression at the hands of the Taliban,” says Maheen.
The Baka Khel camp seems to be one that is getting the job done. “Cooked food is prepared and given to the people, there is no shortage of rations and sleeping, hygiene facilities are adequate. The women I met were happy, lamenting only missing their homes and nothing else. But yes, there is one thing every person, man, woman or child, wants and that is peace. They prayed for Shahbaz and hoped peace would come to not just the country and themselves but to my husband and I. It is this spirit that has made me decide to take this journey again, right after Eid to take more essential everyday items such as clothes, blankets, hygiene products and toys for the children.”
Operation Zarb-e-Azb is an ongoing offensive with no set schedule or time frame. That means that the IDPs not only do not know when they will see their homes again, but also that aid and help will be an ongoing project, with donor fatigue not being an option. There are many camps such as this one where families, children and the elderly are waiting it out right until the very end. “The people of FATA are our people; their eyes are filled with the same pain, beliefs and aspirations. They want peace and stability, sacrificing more than those of us sitting comfortably in the urbane centres can ever imagine. We need to give back to them. I implore all NGOs and the people of this country to send whatever aid and help they can. After all, we are all working for the same cause, a safe, progressive Pakistan – some maybe more than others.”
The author is Daily Times’ op-ed editor
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