Saturday, October 25, 2014


Communications / Journalists in Trouble

An Eyewitness Account of Pakistan's War in North Waziristan

Civilians fleeing North Waziristan.Civilians fleeing North Waziristan.
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Civilians fleeing North Waziristan.
Civilians fleeing North Waziristan.

Amid indications that a major military offensive was going to unfold, I attempted to slip into the North Waziristan tribal region earlier this month.

I wanted to report on what really goes on during a military operation in Pakistan's northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas, located along the border with Afghanistan, which are often inaccessible to local and foreign journalists because of security conditions and government restrictions.

As I expected, soldiers manning one of the first checkposts outside the northwestern Pakistani city of Bannu stopped me from going to Mir Ali, the first major town in North Waziristan, some 40 kilometers west of Bannu.
 

A deserted market in North Waziristan.
A deserted market in North Waziristan.

They told me that they cannot let me go into a war zone because they will not be able to provide security, and if I am killed the army will be criticized inside the country and internationally.

This forced me and a couple of local journalist friends to sneak into North Waziristan on June 10. We stayed in a small village near Mir Ali for two days, and then moved into North Waziristan's administrative center, Miran Shah, 25 kilometers west of Mir Ali.

On June 15, our fifth day in North Waziristan, the government announced the formal beginning of a "comprehensive operation" against militants in the mountainous region.  Security forces imposed a round-the-clock curfew, and so we were forced to stay in a village close to the town of Miran Shah.

We observed the first five days of "Operation Zarb-e-Azb," named by the army after a sword belonging to the Prophet Muhammad.

For years, Islamabad resisted calls by Washington and its allies to cleanse the region of the Afghan Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and an assortment of Central Asian militants who had carved out a sanctuary in North Waziristan.

The current operation, however, has so far failed to convince North Waziristan's residents that Islamabad is sincere or capable of ridding the region from local and foreign extremists. For them, the offensive only represents unspeakable misery and suffering.

The operation was apparently concentrated in a 60-kilometer stretch between Mir Ali and the village of Datta Khel, west of Miran Shah. Pakistani troops were visible everywhere in this region, but more surprising was the presence of Taliban who appeared to be unaffected by the military operation and were visible everywhere.

On June 17, the seventh day of our stay in North Waziristan, we decided to move west to try to cross into neighboring South Waziristan through Shawal, an alpine region that joins the the two parts of Waziristan.

The local Taliban offered to provide protection, and we traveled with them. Again the Taliban were present everywhere, and they had even established checkposts on some of the roads. It is safe to say that the territory between Datta Khel and Shawal, a 60- kilometer road journey, was more or less controlled by the Taliban because there were no troops and no government presence.

Shawal, a series of remote, forested valleys that spans the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, is completely controlled by Taliban factions that are active in the two countries.

The Taliban told us that their fighters were ready to join Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Sadiq Noor, two prominent Taliban leaders in North Waziristan, if they decided to resist the Pakistani army offensive in the region.

Contrary to what is reported in Pakistani and Western press about North Waziristan, we saw no evidence of Central Asian militants associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or Arabs loyal to Al-Qaeda.

We tried hard to probe the impact of Pakistani air strikes. In interviews with dozens of North Waziristan residents, including those in villages targeted by sorties, it became apparent that few militants were killed in the aerial bombing strikes, and most victims were civilians.

 

A house after it was bombed by Pakistani fighter jets in North Waziristan
A house after it was bombed by Pakistani fighter jets in North Waziristan


The Pakistani army claims to have killed nearly 400 militants in North Waziristan in air strikes that began on May 21.

The humanitarian crisis inside North Waziristan is largely hidden from the outside world. So far, nearly half a million residents have fled the offensive. Some have moved west into the southeastern Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktika, while others have gone east to Bannu and other regions in Pakistan.
 

A woman prepares meal for her family displaced from North Waziristan.
A woman prepares meal for her family displaced from North Waziristan.

​The massive displacement makes North Waziristan civilians the main losers in the Pakistani offensive. "This situation is deteriorating fast," Shadim Khan, a tribal leader, told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "You can see the misery written on everyone's face here."

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