Peshawar: The telephone in Ghaziullah Wali’s small house in Peshawar rings often as members of his extended family keep inquiring about reports of impending military operations in North Waziristan Tribal Agency.
“Some of my family members want to move away,” he said. “A number have already done so over the years.”
The family has been driven into a panic by media reports of a possible military operation in the area. North Waziristan is seen as a centre of militancy and there has been pressure from the USA – Pakistan’s main ally in the “war on terror” – to stage an operation there.
Pakistan military spokesman Maj-Gen Athar Abbas, however, said the armed forces were too stretched to go into North Waziristan for now. “We are engaged in many agencies at the moment,” he said. “There are stabilization operations; there is a consolidation phase going on. There are active operations, like in Orakzai and Kurram and Mohmand Agency.”
Despite the assurance, uncertainty persists among many of the 361,000 people in the agency. “We hear constantly that North Waziristan is going to be the next target of the security forces,” said Saleem Wazir, 38. “The rumours of this happening are really rife at this point. The thought terrifies me. Where will we go? How will I move my father who is paralysed and my wife who is expecting our fifth child in a month?”
The possibility of military action has led some local humanitarian groups to consider how they would handle such an emergency.
“When the operation against militants by the army began in Swat in February 2009, most aid agencies were taken by surprise when over 1.5 million people were rapidly displaced. Conditions in camps were appalling, especially in the initial weeks,” said Asif Khan, a volunteer with the charitable Edhi Foundation who worked with internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Swat in camps in the Mardan and Swabi districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KP) immediately after the displacement began.
“We should have earmarked places for camps, [and put] facilities in place for [pre-positioned] food ahead of any movement from another area, and we are thinking about how to plan for that,” he told IRIN.
The UN at the time described the disaster as the “worst since Rwanda” and there are fears a similar crisis could reoccur.
The lack of access for aid agencies to areas of fighting makes matters worse. “Lack of access to North Waziristan is a problem. We have not been told about any operation, but if an emergency situation arises we have contingency plans to deal with this,” Michael O’Brien, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told IRIN.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said it was not aware of any planned military action in North Waziristan. Duniya Aslam Khan, a UNHCR associate public information officer, told IRIN: “UNHCR hasn’t been formally contacted or requested to take any steps by authorities on the issue. However, as a general principle, we have a contingency capability in place to respond to new displacement situations that may occur in the region and we are prepared if the situation arises. Camps can be set up if the need arises.”
In areas of North Waziristan, where attacks by unmanned US drones have resulted in loss of life and given rise to anger among tribesman, especially as the attacks have often killed civilians, disquiet remains.
The death of 40 civilians in a strike in March led to tribesmen warning they would take revenge.
“Who knows what could happen here?” Jamal Sanaullah Wazir told IRIN from Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan. He said he had already asked relatives to look into the cost of rented housing in Peshawar or other areas, or the possibility of moving in with relatives.
Uncertainty has deepened following revenge attacks in northern areas in the wake of the 2 May US raid in Abbottabad which killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Militants from neighbouring Afghanistan reportedly attacked security personnel in the Dir District of KP, resulting in 30 deaths and causing families to flee the area.
Dir District, which borders on Swat District, was caught up in the 2009 conflict between the military and militants which displaced tens of thousands of people.
“People are human beings and have suffered a lot in the past [during] military operations here,” Ihsan Dawar, president of the Tribal Union of Journalists in North Waziristan, told IRIN. “Media reports about the operation are creating a lot of panic and some people have already rented houses in Bannu [a neighbouring district in KP] and the areas outside the tribal belt in the event of any kind of emergency.”