Global Policy Forum

Pakistan’s Refugees Reluctant to Return as American War Rages

For four years, skirmishes between US troops and the Taliban have increasingly driven thousands of people out of North Waziristan (NW) on the Pakistan-Afghan border. Nearly impossible to guard due to the mountainous terrain, the Durand Line (as the Pakistan-Afghan border is known) divides tribes and families. It has never been accepted by the Afghan government, and Pakistani officials also permit tribal movement across the porous border. Tens of thousands from NW fled after US drone strikes began regularly targeting militants from across the Afghan border, leaving civilian casualties and escalating tensions in the region. The Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre says there are now 980,000 displaced persons in Pakistan.

October 27, 2011

Nearly four years ago as skirmishes between troops and Taliban militants drove thousands out of the North Waziristan (NW) Agency on the Pakistan-Afghan border, Kalim Ullah, 40, was among those who left.

Even though his attempts to set up a business in Peshawar, the capital of the Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa Province, have not been successful, he says he is “unwilling to even consider going back because I have the safety of my extended family of eight to consider.” Since 2007, more people have been moving out as tensions continue.

The Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre says there are currently around 980,000 displaced persons in Pakistan. Of these, based on the latest figures available from July 2010, at least 80,000 are from NW.

Many fled after strikes by US drones targeting militants from across the Afghan border such as the one in March that killed 40 people, according to media reports. Other strikes have since been a regular event.

“I came away from my village near Miranshah [the main city in NW] because of the constant tensions created by the strikes. The sound of a drone overhead and then the explosions is terrifying,” said Yasin Wazir, 30, who is now considering a permanent move to Karachi after coming to Peshawar in April this year.

Since then, tensions have mounted, with US troops reinforcing the border adjacent to NW. Speaking to IRIN, Maj-Gen Athar Abbas, director-general of Inter Services Public Relations, said: “Yes, US troops are now posted along the border.” Pakistan’s army chief, according to media reports, has said a US ground offensive was “possible” but this was something the US would need to think “10 times” about.

“Too risky”

Meanwhile, fear among local people is running high. “We are considering leaving, because it is just getting too risky,” said Abdul Rehman, 40, from the Gurbaz area of NW. “We definitely don’t want to get caught up in a war,” he told IRIN. He also said tribesmen in the area “who have traditionally been able to move across the border to attend occasions like weddings or funerals” were “very disturbed by the sealing of the border”.

The Durand Line as the Pakistan-Afghan border is known, has never been accepted by successive Afghan governments since it was mapped out in 1947 when Pakistan was created. It divides members of the same tribes - as well as families - and has proved almost impossible to guard because of the mountainous terrain, with the Pakistani authorities also permitting tribal movement across it.

With the situation in NW now more uncertain than ever, there is some expectation that more people may move away - mainly to relatives in towns such as Dera Ismail Khan, Tank or Peshawar. “There is no official word on the matter, but we are hearing of people - especially those in border areas - moving away, planning a shift or at least sending their families away,” an administrative official in Miranshah who preferred anonymity told IRIN.

“We have no reports of any major movements of people out of NW. But of course we always have contingency plans to address such a situation if it does arise,” Duniya Aslam Khan, a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), told IRIN.

“I would really like to go back home. City life does not suit me. I miss our home, and we are isolated here in Peshawar. But I don’t know now when it will be safe to go back. I hope that moment comes soon for my mother, who is nearly 80 and hates being away,” said Kaleem Ullah in Peshawar.


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