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Waking Up in Waziristan By Jennifer McKay

South Waziristan was not exactly where I expected to wake upon my birthday in 2012. It is, after all, not yet at the top of everyone’s ‘must visit’ holiday places. To be honest, most friends had been somewhat horrified that I was making this trip, raising the spectre of all sorts of terrible things that could happen, though the more adventurous ones were envious because it’s a place of mystery that few get to visit. But despite the concern, it was peaceful, exciting and remarkably beautiful. South Waziristan is waking up and coming to life again after truly terrible times.

I visited the areas around Jandola, Chagmalai, Spinkai, Kotkai, Janata and Sararaogha in November to talk with the people who have returned after the military operations against the insurgents, and to see what’s happening in the reconstruction and rehabilitation activities. As a consultant who works across the civil-military divide and who regularly evaluates aid and development projects, I am able to assess the quality and outcomes of such projects.
It soon became apparent to me that how little most of us knew about South Waziristan and the work, Pak Army is doing there and I came away with a very different perspective to the one I had, when I arrived. There is a perception that it is the international and humanitarian community that does these things best and little credit is ever given to the impressive work, the Army also does in this field, not only in South Waziristan but elsewhere in places like Swat. Once again, this visit reinforced my views that I have written about previously on the need to better understand this.
The first thing I noticed was that the locals were warm, welcoming and they weren’t carrying guns. Nobody is allowed to move in these areas with a weapon. The long tradition of carrying weapons has undergone an enforced but important change. The second thing was that all women were not wearing burqas, were out and many were working in the fields. So, that quickly dispelled two well-worn perceptions.
South Waziristan has extraordinary scenery with mountains and cliffs rising sharply against the skyline with a river meandering through beautiful valleys. However, the spectacularly stark terrain makes it a hard place to conduct operations and it is easy to see why the losses were so heavy in subduing the insurgency.
The war on terror has exacted a terrible cost on human life and the economy of Pakistan. Thousands of Army personnel have sacrificed their lives and thousands more injured. The losses were heaviest in 2009 and 2010 and many of these were in Waziristan. These sacrifices should never be forgotten. More so civilian losses, including law enforcement agencies, have also been high across Pakistan with thousands of innocent people falling victim to terror attacks. The overall human toll now exceeds 40,000. The economic cost to Pakistan has also been enormous with the destruction of homes, livelihoods and investor confidence. The resulting shock to the economy has a negative flow-on effect on other much needed development projects across the country. This, and the immense ongoing efforts to combat this incredibly complex situation, makes a complete nonsense of the constant international criticism that Pakistan is not giving enough in the war on terror.
Although casualties have reduced since 2010, peace building will be a long-term challenge given the external influences at play in the region. But much has already been done to restore a peaceful environment for the local people to return to the area to rebuild their lives and it is already making a difference.
The Pakistan Army is under-taking the re-habilitation and reconstruction of South Waziristan for the Government of Pakistan with additional support from a very small number of international donors, UN agencies and local NGOs. The Government has enhanced its footprint and although not yet large, it is growing. As the security situation further stabilises, more agencies will be able to work in the area. The revival of South Waziristan is an excellent model for what can be achieved anywhere in Pakistan after a crisis. Electricity services for 35 villages have been restored and as each new area is prepared for resettlement, this is a priority. An impressive new 117 km road with excellent bridges, built by Pakistan Army in just 18 months, transverses the area. This road will join up with a similar road through Wana, to connect with the Indus Highway to form a third trade corridor between the Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics. This will contribute significantly to the economy of the South Waziristan and stimulate development and job opportunities.
Health facilities are undergoing reconstruction with 12 already completed and better health services specifically for women. Meantime, medicines are provided at regular Army Medical Camps.
Education is a top priority. The Army is rebuilding 45 schools for both boys and girls, many of which are already operating and more are underway. It was particularly heartening to learn that there is a real thirst for education from the communities and the tribal elders were very supportive of education for girls. They requested that a girls’ high school be constructed by the Army to give girls the opportunity to extend their education and have guaranteed to support and protect it. The well-equipped school, with an on-campus residence and facilities for the female teachers, will open in few months. Teacher training is also being undertaken as many teachers had been lost to the area over a period of ten years because of the militancy.
The Waziristan Institute of Technical Education (WITE) is now well established and properly equipped to impart useful skills in a number of trades. With the support of industry experts from Sialkot, a place well known for making footballs including those used in the World Cup, students are being trained in this craft. I am now the proud owner of a colourful WITE football though I suspect my kicking skills are not quite worthy of the high quality of the ball. However, it will be put to good use at picnics with energetic friends. Students from WITE and other colleges have also been taken on field trips to other cities in Pakistan to learn about industry and life elsewhere.
The Cadet College Spinkai, the second in South Waziristan – has been established, operating in temporary premises at Raghzai, but will soon move to its own new campus. There was strong competition for admission in the college, not only from the area but other parts of Pakistan with 851 applicants competing for 50 slots. As in all schools and institutes of the area, computer rooms and libraries are an important feature. In addition to the academic subjects, students learn a number of social skills including public speaking and there are clubs in photography, gardening and literature.
Some 140 of the brightest students from the area are now studying at Army’s expense in good schools in other cities of Pakistan. The extensive investment in education will provide many opportunities for young people to obtain jobs or to continue on to further studies elsewhere. This will also help them support their families and the prosperity of the area.
Although most families have been eager to return, it has been tough for most. Many have returned to damaged or destroyed homes and a complete loss of their livelihoods. UNHCR is building one-room shelters for the more vulnerable returnees such as widows but to date, progress is slow and the shelters are not culturally appropriate as they are mostly built in the open, not with the traditional compound walls. A Pakistani NGO, ‘Resettling The Indus (Rt INDUS)’, is building, more culturally, appropriate houses, working with the local communities, and undertaking planning for a number of villages soon to be re-settled. They have also implemented small livelihood projects including stone-masonry and honey production, to help support the communities.
As part of the resettlement package, families receive food support for a period of six months provided by the World Food Programme and their donors. However, after that, it can be hard as there are still very few jobs and many have to live on whatever savings they have until they can get work or set up a micro-business. Water systems have been restored in 35 areas and in those where they are not yet rebuilt, the Army has placed drums near the houses which are regularly filled by a water tanker so women won’t have to make a long trek to the wells for water. Where the water tankers cannot reach, the women have been given donkeys to help them collect water and firewood. This makes an enormous difference to the lives of village women.
With a cold ‘Waziristan winter’ approaching, blankets and other essential items such as FM radios are being distributed. I found it distressing to see elderly men lining up for these items. To have been a displaced person and have to live in an IDP camp, even though for one’s own protection, brings a loss of dignity and it is reflected from their faces. Most of us, safe and comfortable in our homes in the cities, cannot imagine what this is like.
Markets have been built in 30 places to help locals re-establish businesses and are handed over at no cost, provided they are used for the purpose agreed. The markets sell a range of necessities and other items and more are opening as people return.
Agricultural practices are being improved to make the small amount of arable land more productive. Livelihood projects have been implemented to assist locals establish micro-businesses. To date, there are projects in poultry, cattle and fish farming and honey bees. The honey produced is delicious and I recommend it most highly, should you be fortunate enough to find it in your local markets. It will help support the people of South Waziristan and you’ll enjoy a great treat. These small businesses are initially provided the necessary start up materials, livestock and training. After that, they have to make it on their own but with ongoing guidance from Army experts.
Sports stadia have been constructed and are very popular for the favourite pastimes of cricket and football. The sports fields and a new community centre are also venues for festivals and Eid celebrations to bring the communities and those working there together. Discussions with the locals about what life was like in the shadow of the militants, their time away in IDP camps and with host families in other parts of Pakistan, and returning home, were revealing and deeply touching. As a woman, and a foreigner, I wasn’t sure that the men would be particularly comfortable with me. However, they extended their hands warmly to mine, talked freely and laughed with me and were entirely comfortable with me, mingling amongst them to take photographs. It turned out to be rather fun. Many spoke freely but others, still perhaps afraid of repercussions from any lingering militant sympathisers amongst them, were understandably uncomfortable in talking of the past. The terrible atrocities, they underwent at the hands of the militants, are still all too fresh in their minds. But they are happy to at last live in peace and they strongly emphasised that they want the world to know this.
So having said all this, is this work being done by the Army as good as that done by the humanitarian and civilian agencies in other parts of the country? The answer is a very definite “yes”. The work is equal to, or better than similar projects elsewhere. While the Army has the distinct advantage of manpower, a wide array of logistical, technical and other skills to do the work that may be difficult for others to achieve, it is the well thought-out humanitarian aspects that also make a difference. Projects are planned in close consultation with the communities and are designed to ensure sustainability without creating dependence. Projects are inclusive for men, women, children and the vulnerable members of communities, well planned, properly budgeted, effectively implemented, monitored for problems and evaluated for outcomes and are accountable. These are all sound humanitarian principles and in line with what UN and NGOs follow.
What is striking is the passion and commitment, the Army personnel have for the task of helping the locals settle back in. As a photographer I watch faces and eye contact closely during gatherings. The interaction between the Army and the people is mostly positive and warm. This can’t be easy for either side given the trauma the area has suffered. But the effort on both sides to build community confidence is clearly yielding positive results.
The achievements of the Pakistan Army in South Waziristan are in stark contrast to the experience in Afghanistan of NATO/ISAF with the donor-supported reconstruction through the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Despite billions of donor dollars pouring in to PRTs, they have not been able to achieve their goals. Lack of ability to stabilise areas, sub-standard materials provided by contractors, plus a frequent lack of cultural understanding have been some of the main inhibitors. But the story is very different in South Waziristan. Unlike the NATO/ISAF troops in Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army is of the same country, the same people, and although it is still challenging, acceptance and cultural understanding is greater. Also, as the Army directly controls the reconstruction process on the ground, working closely with and for the Government, donors and humanitarian agencies, there is full transparency and accountability.
Reconstruction and rehabilitation is not the traditional role of the Army. However, Government capacity is still small and there are significant barriers to getting more support from the international community so this role will continue to fall to the Army for some time yet. UN agencies and NGOs cannot easily work in the tribal areas.
All these issues need to be considered and addressed through regular dialogue between the key stakeholders, if more support for South Waziristan from the international donor and humanitarian community is to be achieved. As yet, there is no formal Damages & Needs Assessment specifically for South Waziristan by either the World Bank or the UN. However, the UN and the FATA Secretariat have prepared an Early Recovery Plan for FATA and KPK, resulting from the Post Conflict Needs Assessment (PCNA) conducted by the World Bank. This plan is currently before the Government of Pakistan for approval. Although it includes activities in a number of other agencies in FATA, it does not currently include South Waziristan. This could be extended if some of the issues already noted can be resolved and the Government approves the overall plan. However, this may be some time away yet so for now, the main responsibility has to stay with the Army. The Army is creating an enabling environment and continually going one step ahead. Now it’s time for the non-military sector to step it up a notch and resolve the issues on internal security and other procedures, to find ways for UN, NGOs and donors to be able to provide more support to this work to bring a positive and sustainable change. This support will be very welcome. Opening a robust dialogue immediately to explore fully how the challenges can be overcome, would be valuable so work can progress faster.
South Waziristan was a real surprise not only for me but the many people I’ve spoken to since. There is so little awareness of life there and the impressive work the Army is doing to help the people rebuild their lives. So much has already been achieved. Unfortunately, good news stories do not attract the same attention as the negative. Yes, there will be many big challenges ahead but the Army’s resolve is greater and they will stay the distance. Let’s hope that the goal of long-term stability can be fully realised and the people of South Waziristan can prosper in true peace and harmony.
The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA. [email protected]

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