A group of men chant "we want peace" as they protest the Pakistani government's decision to send them to their native villages in western Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal district.
The leafy oak-covered mountains of their homeland pose a sharp contrast to the heat and dust of the men's temporary accommodations in Dera Ismail Khan -- a sprawling, squalid river town in western Pakistan close to South Waziristan. Nevertheless, as the men made clear on a hot afternoon earlier this month, they want to stay right where they are.
They argue that conditions at home are not safe enough for their return. And it's a concern they say is overwhelming shared by some 300,000 fellow Mehsuds who have lived as displaced persons in Dera Ismail Khan since autumn.
The Mehsuds, a Pashtun tribe from Waziristan, were forced to flee in October when the Pakistani military entered South Waziristan to oust the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an extensive extremist network that has claimed credit for many bloody attacks across the country in recent years.
Pakistan's powerful military now claims to have cleared South Waziristan, having killed thousands of members of the TTP -- a hard-line grouping within the Pakistani Taliban, which itself stands alone from its Taliban brethren in Afghanistan -- and chasing them out of the territories that have served as their headquarters for years.
The displaced Mehsuds are skeptical, however, recalling how the TTP made a spectacular comeback after being routed in a similar military operation in South Waziristan in the spring of 2008.
'No Home To Return To'
Khurshid Mehsud, a displaced young protester from the region, says they are running out of options, considering that the authorities have halted the small cash subsidies and food aid that had been provided to them since autumn.
But for Mehsud, the prospect of returning to Waziristan is an even bleaker choice. He says that many among the displaced prefer the mosquito-infested neighborhoods of Dera Ismail Khan to the cool hills of Waziristan.
Many worry that their home regions are still not secure.
Mehsud says that "we no longer have homes there. Our houses, hospitals, schools, and colleges have all been destroyed. We want to tell the government that we are caught between 'the devil and a dry canyon.' And it is difficult for us to choose one."
Pakistan claims to have made substantial progress in dealing with the displacement crisis by helping the return of two-thirds of the more than 3 million Pashtuns who in the past three years have been displaced from a 500-kilometer stretch of territory running from South Waziristan to Swat Valley in the north. The vast majority of displaced from Swat and the surrounding Malakand region in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the Northwest Frontier Province), where the military launched the operation in the spring of 2009, have since returned.
But those from South Waziristan have not, and ongoing and expanding military operations in adjoining tribal districts are creating fresh waves of displaced persons. The displaced currently number about 1.3 million, nearly all ethnic Pashtuns from the seven districts of the western Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Waziristan in the south, and the Bajaur tribal district in the north.Government Mishandling
All face an uncertain future. Experts suggest that the government seems to lack the planning and capacity to facilitate their return. The situation is further complicated due to insecurity and government restrictions that prevent international aid workers from reaching some of the most vulnerable.
The situation looked more chaotic in 2009 after the military entered Swat and the adjoining Malakand district after the Taliban imposed their harsh rule in the northwestern alpine region.
Bushra Gohar, an outspoken lawmaker from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, tells RFE/RL that a humanitarian disaster in Pakistan was averted only due to the generosity of locals in Peshawar Valley. Peasants and office workers there opened their homes and shared their meager resources with complete strangers as some 2 million people fled the fighting.
Drawing from her past career as an aid worker, Gohar is critical of the military-led response to the displacement crisis. Islamabad last year formed a special military-led body, the Special Services Group, to handle the displacement crisis, but its achievements have been mixed.
Millions fled the fighting along the Afghan border.
Gohar suggests that arrangement has not worked well because the army needs to be focused on winning the military component of the conflict. "My assessment is that a lot needs to be done. A more holistic view is needed," she says. "I feel that the military is not trained to deal with civilian issues and families in distress issues. So they can assist the civilian [administration], but not run the whole show."Less Push, More Pull
For aid agencies the challenge is much greater, because they have received only $170 million out of $530 million they requested last year, after international donors diverted money to aid victims of earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.
Dorothy Blane, who heads the Pakistan office of the Dublin-based international humanitarian NGO Concern Worldwide, suggests that best way to facilitate the return of the displaced would be to create a "pull" factor rather than pushing them to go back to remote regions. These areas were already among some of the world's most underdeveloped regions even before the onset of the current conflict.
"It's not a very attractive option to have to pick up sticks after being out of your home area for more than a year and go back to find that you don't have a house, that there are no schools, there are no health services," Blane says. "So really the pull factor is currently very weak in some of the areas the government would like people to return [to]."
Pakistani officials for their part laud the progress they are have made in facilitating the return of millions to their homes. Sitara Imran, the provincial minster for humanitarian and development issues in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says that their main challenge is to reach out to the displaced families who are dispersed across the country, some having made a 1,000-kilometer journey to the southern seaport of Karachi.
Imran rejects claims that people from the tribal areas are being pushed back to their home regions. "We do not force people to return. We only encourage people to return to their home regions after they are cleared and where there are no serious security problems," she says. "The government never forces people to return by force."
Back in Dera Ismail Khan, many displaced are determined to stay put until they can establish beyond a doubt that they can return to live a normal life in Waziristan. Once he gets back to his home, Gul Rehman Mehsud wants to stay there for good. "Now we are being told to go back, but the roads back home are not safe," he says reflecting on what he hears from those who have tried to return.
Mehsud says that despite official claims he can sense that hostilities are going on between the Taliban and the military in Waziristan. "We are concerned that if we go there we will be soon have to return," he says.RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal contributed to this report