The Pakistani government has started the repatriation of internally displaced (IDPs) Mahsud tribesmen back to their native area as part of the second phase of military operation “Rah-e-Nijat”, which was conducted in October 2009 against Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’s terrorist infrastructure in the South Waziristan Agency (SWA). It needs to be mentioned that there are two types of IDPs: one who are residing in IDP camps; and those who have either rented houses in SWA’s adjoining districts of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province (KP), or living along with their relatives in the two districts.
In the first phase of repatriation, nearly 400 Mahsud families were sent back to SWA on 4 to 10 December 2010. The government is providing free transportation to these families from the KP to their villages in the Agency. To facilitate and smoothen the process, the government established two transit camps for the returning IDPs: one, in the Sports Stadium Dera Ismail Khan; and another in Zam Public School in Tank city.
Ground reports suggest that upon return to the Agency, the IDPs would be initially housed in tent camps prepared by the Army in six areas, namely Sheikh Ziarat, Mandana, Chaghmalai, Splitoi, Spinkai Raghzai and Nawai Kach. Later on, they would be allowed to proceed to their houses in the area. The Army is also providing two tents, four mattresses and four quilts to every IDP family because most of the houses in the area have been destroyed during the military operation. Similarly, heavy rains and occasional floods during summer this year have also impacted heavily on the remaining physical infrastructure, namely mud-made houses, roads etc. The government is also providing Rs. 25,000 in cash and six month of food ration, tents and items of daily life, which comes to a total of Rs. 150,000.
The IDPs seems to be hesitant in returning back to their native areas. Firstly, the winter has set in SWA, which is usually harsh given the mountainous nature of the area. It snows very heavily and severely restricts human mobility in the region. This is of the reason that fighting in the region comes to a halt due to severe weather conditions. The IDPs are reluctant since they may have to spend the winter in tents and in the meanwhile rebuild their houses. The local economy of region, trade and businesses are non-existent for the time being. Also, there are no economic opportunities for the IDPs in terms of earning livelihood. Whatever little agriculture the area supports is not possible during the winter due to heavy snow. Similarly, communication infrastructure remains poor, and medical facilities have not been restored so far.
The main threat comes from the TTP, which has warned the IDPs not to return back to the Agency. According to the TTP, they are at war with the Pakistani security forces and the civilians could become a victim of armed clashes between the Taliban and Pakistani security forces. Various pamphlets circulated by the TTP in the region have invited the attention of the IDPs towards this issue and forewarned of such consequences. These threats have created fear among the IDPs, who believe that they could be deliberately targeted by the TTP. Hence, they are not in favour of returning back until law and order is restored in their areas. It seems that only those people are being repatriated who are living in the IDP camps. The other group may continue to live comfortably with their relatives or in rented properties.
However, there are certain challenges that the Pakistani government could face in rehabilitation of the IDPs. Firstly, Pakistani security forces need to provide security to those IDPs going back to the Agency. For this purpose, the Army need to be stationed in the area in order to ensure that the Taliban do not return back and use the settlements to regroup and re-establish their terrorist infrastructure in the region. Such an eventuality may allow the Taliban to recruit tribesmen from within the settlements as well.
Secondly, the government should support the IDPs with reconstruction of their destroyed property. There is a dire need to provide financial assistance to local tribesmen to undertake reconstruction of their houses. Efforts should also be made to restart the economy of the region. Such efforts may help in generating employment in the region and could help the locals to sustain their lives. What needs to be understood is to win the hearts and minds of the beleaguered people of FATA, who have suffered immensely – both in terms of human and material losses – in this war.
The rehabilitation of IDPs is a litmus test for the success of Rah-e-Nijat. A successful repatriation could send a strong signal to the entire nation as well as IDPs from other Agencies such Orakzai, Mohmand and Bajaur Agencies, that the government is serious in dealing with the Taliban menace. This would also dispel the misunderstanding within the tribal society of northwest Pakistan that the government is allegedly behind the creation of the Taliban and supports them covertly in pursuit of a “New Great Game” in Afghanistan. A successful repatriation strategy would help in creating a better image of Pakistan and the security forces within the country.
Mansur Khan Mahsud is Director Research at FATA Research Centre.