(The author, Hira Binte Asim is 15 years old girl, a student of Class 10th. She is a fond reader and a debater. She has won essay writing competitions at school level and debating competitions at school, college and division level. She has traveled overseas to six different countries. A fond domestic tourist, to travel through length and breadth of Pakistan from Chinese border to Afghan and Indian borders. )
Travlling on a carpeted double road towards Waziristan, enjoying the changing weather and terrain conditions, I was listening to my father while he replied to my questions about the tribal areas and the situation there. My younger brother was even more inquisitive, but my father replied most of our questions saying that “experience is different than perceptions”. Indeed we had developed perceptions about tribal areas through media programs, news and student gossip but today we were travlling to South Waziristan to spend our Eid holidays. Past few days flashed back while I was looking at a group of children waving at our vehicle and my father telling us that over 30,000 Internally Displaced People (IDP) have returned back to their homes in South Waziristan, since December 2010 (including 16800 children). One day back we were sitting in Okara, prepared to spend lonely Eid holidays without our father, when we got a call from him that we were to celebrate Eid with him in South Waziristan. In spite of our perceptions about Tribal areas we were excited to travel to him. I knew it would be enjoyable, thrilling and surely educating. We have travelled and trekked with him across mountains, lakes and glaciers; there is nothing that we fear in his company. I remember being on his back during trekking and on horseback during ride outs. May it be Australian coastline, Malaysian forests, Thall desert, Karakorum ranges, Chinese, Afghan or Indian border; as long as we were together adventures would just get underway.
The journey to Dera Ismail Khan was long; we passed through lush green fields and cultivated crops of Punjab. As we crossed River Jhelum, our surroundings began to differ from green plains to barren region. We observed thorny bushes and dry scrubs growing along the roadside, with just a few verdant plants left behind. After a while the leafy plants vanished altogether as we entered the desert of Thal. With the falling night, sand shimmered in the moonlight, the desert stretched over 100 kilometers. The sight to me was a sketch taken from some horror movie, yet it looked picturesque. After hours of the lengthy journey we crossed River Indus and entered Kheybar Pakhtun Khua Province and were few miles away from our destination. “You are now entering the district of Dera Ismail Khan”- the board stirred up our excitement once again, though we read it with half open eyes. Tired and drowsy we stumbled our way to the guestroom and were embraced by our father, who too was cheerful to see us.
I was deeply engrossed in my thoughts when I saw a boy saluting my father. That was a REALITY far away from my PERCEPTION. It was surely a sight which lifted me up. I had heard my relatives, classmates, media anchors, criticizing the role of army with regards to war on terror and its employment in tribal areas. These small waving hands said lot of unspoken words to me and surely to all the men in uniform.
It took us two hours from D.I khan to reach a place called ‘Manzai’. We entered a small fort of Khattak Scouts. This fort was built during the British era in early 20th century. We visited the Commandant’s house, who was a friend and course mate of my father. It was an exciting place, especially with birds and deer roaming freely in the garden. We stayed in the Scouts Mess, where British resided over half a century back. It had a huge wooden building, massive doors and high ceilings, the construction gave an outlook of royalty, it did have a magnificent feel to it.
Then came the Eid day; my father and brother Hamza offered prayers in a local mosque, met soldiers and local people. Hamza, like me was under the impression that people in this area might not be friendly and wouldn’t well receive our presence around. But the fact was opposite; they were greeted so well by the locals and were invited by everyone for the feast / Eid festive. Their opinions and views about army were far different from what we had heard and seen. People were friendly and grateful to army for restoring peace. Later, we drove to a nearby post to greet the FC troops and see how uncomfortably they live to keep our countrymen comfortable.
In the afternoon, we left for ‘Jandola’, a famous town marking the start of South Waziristan (FATA). It was British hub of fortress defence against Afghans and tribesmen. Jandola was also the main resistance center of militants in Operation AL MEEZAN. The historical Jandola Fort has been repaired and occupied by Scouts and the Army. We saw commercial activity and variety of civil transport in Jandola. Few civic facilities have also come up including civil hospital, with military assistance.
Over 6000 families of South Waziristan Agency, who saw their hometowns reduced to rubble, had returned home since Dec 2010. The rehabilitation and development work undertaken by the army and FWO was far more than what we had seen on the media. The “Eid Mela” organized by army for the local children was a clear sign of blossoming peace and the end of era dominated by militants.The next day we made our journey to “Sararogha”, another famous town towards Razmak. It was a pleasure drive through coloured / mineral rich mountains, low clouds, cold and rainy weather. Villages are composed of mud houses with thick walls and high roofs, like mini fortresses built along the road sides and on the mountains. It seems that relative height of house and the size of gate is a sign of prestige amongst tribesmen. We saw children playing beside their houses and people celebrating the joy of Eid. They waved as our vehicle passed by and my father mostly stopped over to return their greetings and offer sweets to children, who were excited to shake hand with him.
While passing through a village “Murghaband”, we visited a tribal family to wish Eid Greetings. Crossing a stream in the midst of mountains we made our way towards their house, built on a breath-taking sight. We hesitated as we stepped through the door which led to a spacious courtyard surrounded by 16 rooms for the joint family, with few hens and a lamb resting in the corner. The courtyard marked center of the house; two beds covered by embroided sheets and few chairs were laid in the middle. We were greeted by the family members with such warmth that I felt being related to them. Few moments later, my perception of “strangers” was changed, that too by the people who are perceived to be “different”. There was something that bonds us together; religion? History? Ideology? Or Pakistan? As the family members greeted us one by one and gathered around, we sat down on the bed in the courtyard. The elderly ladies did not speak Urdu but one of their daughters did and she helped us communicate. Their friendly and warm attitude gave me confidence and I started sharing their experiences of pre and post war era. I had so many questions to ask, but I was little hesitant.
They were excited that we had visited them to greet Eid. They shared their feelings of being back home and that they felt exiled in the camps of DI Khan. Now that they were permitted to return back to their village, they had mixed feelings of returning back homes and seeing the destruction all around. Most of the houses were destroyed, schools damaged, fields barren and social life upset. They were thankful to Army for assisting them, developing infrastructure, repairing their houses, constructing roads, schools, women skill development center, starting livelihood projects and bringing life to their fields. They had no money no jobs, the possessions they had left in their house were looted. They were facing cold weather ahead and army was doing its bit (through various donors) to arrange quilts and warm clothes, besides arranging for food and non food items for poor families. The little girl said “no matter what the situation is or no matter where we go; our country and village will always be ours; we are free here, the love we have for this place can never die”. These words spoken from a young, little, uneducated girl were enough to bring tears to my eyes. They were inquisitive about us, our native places, our education, livelihood etc. They also wanted to get educated, they wanted to earn money for their family and live a better life. They had hope from Army and we promised them our bit and motivated them to work. After a fine conversation with the tribal family and enjoying their hospitality, we said goodbye and embraced good wishes. Though we didn’t speak the same language and didn’t belong to the same region; “we are Pakistanis and we are a family”.
It had started to rain and we continued our journey to Sararogha. All the way my mind was boggling, I was comparing our lives with them and feeling ashamed that we don’t really are thankful to God to Pakistan, for what we have been blessed. There are people living in the same country, our brethren, who don’t have enough food to eat, warm clothes to wear, sufficient shelter to stay in, money to buy books and schools to go to; yet they are contented with their lives and struggle for better. They also have a right to live free and sophisticated lives like us. I pray that Allah guide us to the right path and forgive our corrupt and immoral attitude.
Driving through winding roads, along the water stream of “Tank Zam”, we passed famous “Kotkai”, a village which was hub of terrorists and was speaking for its own disaster. However, new road, upcoming markets, cultivated fields, grazing cattle, poultry farms, fish farms, stadium, schools and waving children spoke for their hope in future. Who could say in 2010 that this place could ever flourish or even get back to its life. The miracle has been possible with army spearheading the efforts of governmental and Non Governmental Organisations .
We reached Sararogha another famous and land mark village that we heard during military operations. This was comparatively a bigger village and open valley. Relative height was more than the places we stayed or passed through. Rain had stopped but temperature had fallen and we felt little cold, especially after the sun set. We were offered place to stay by one of my father’s old friend and his course mate that we had known since childhood. He had made the room sufficiently comfortable for us, but when he told us that the house belonged to the well known militant leader of the area named “Taj Gul”, I felt uncomfortable (my mother had the same feelings, which she shared little later. Though she had been to far more threatened and risky places with my father but perhaps it was psychological this time). Few days back I had read about him in the news paper and international media. He was a wanted terrorist commander who was known for his bravery and cruelty. Having taken so many innocent lives of civilians and military personals, he was killed in the last drone attack few days back. The house was apparently the biggest in town, built on relatively high plateau, with heavy iron gates (approx 25 – 30 feet high) and “roof top observation posts” on both sides of the house.(pic 13). We were told that this was the traditional style of constructing houses even before military operations; bigger the house, higher the walls and gate, dominating the place, bigger would be stature of the owner. So these were the status symbols. Barring few houses of the commoners, most of the houses had huge gates and observation posts on the top.
Next day we went along to see the village and meet local families. Population appeared to be less but the developmental work spoke for its better future. The nearby school had just started with the singular efforts of army and now it had the strength of 141 children including 57 girls. The dispensary had started working (though military medical camps for local civilians are a regular feature in the area). We also saw two poultry farms and a grand market (45 shops) coming up. I could imagine the hustle bustle of town revived by coming spring season, Insha Allah.
We visited the village which was celebrating the joy of Eid. The house of the Malik (call him tribal chief) was also partially destroyed and they were busy reconstructing it, stone by stone. We stopped over at his house, where he lived with his family. They were pleased to return back to their village and was proud and gratified to army. We sat over at his place for some time, shared similar views as of the last family, delivered Eid gift package to the family and drove further deep into the village.
People of all ages (all boys and men) were roaming and gossiping in groups, festive of Eid was visible. My father visited an under construction mosque that army was constructing with the help of locals. The way he was greeted and surrounded by the villagers was heartening and reassuring. We then passed through a semi destroyed house, with a newly constructed room in the courtyard. This house belonged to a widow, whose family was no more and she lived with her grand children. A fairly big house, almost destroyed, sheltering this left over family. Who would take care of their basic needs their livelihood?? I asked this question to my father and he replied “the tribal system and the Army (surely after Allah, who is our protector and guardian). He asked us to visit the widow. A boy nearby accompanied us into the house. He told us that the lady lived in a cave inside the village (like many others) and recently shifted here. Stepping inside the broken door, stumbling our way through the rubble (which used to be stairs sometime back), we entered a small courtyard and a cemented room where she lived (recently built by the army). The widow was unable to speak Urdu but her expressions spoke more than her words. Having spent ten minutes and delivered some ration for Eid we came out of the house with mixed feelings of sympathy and hope for the lady and many like her. Again, the heartening feeling was respect and gratitude for the army, committed in their rehabilitation and welfare work. The same army which was reputed and misperceived for killing, being a foreign army.
We drove up to a nearby village called “Jannata”, as the name spells; it was a beautiful valley, with lot of wild fruit, naturally grown in the open spaces. The significant to note was wild olive; never expected to see olives trees spread over such a large area. The village was vacant and we didn’t come across any local. We were told that army was preparing to welcome the inhabitants in near future. We then started our journey back to Manzai. On our way back we stopped over at village “Chagmalai” near Jandola. A place known for terrorists activities and now fairly developed by the army as a model for rehabilitation oof displaced citizens. We were taken around and we saw hustle bustle in the recently developed market and eid festive mood. There was a grand “children mela” organized in this village by army, to celebrate Eid in its cultural fervor.
Most remarkable memory was seeing the high school. The building was newly renovated; the furniture was top of the line, comparable to any school of the country. The computer lab had brand new LCD screen on every desk, library was fairly rich and science lab equipped with everything that could be required for students of high school. Yet refreshing sight was of the green lawns with a functional canteen on a side. Stadium annexed to the school was large enough to house larger gathering than this village alone. Various sports events and celebrations were centrally organized here. Then came even a bigger surprise; in the shape of “Waziristan Institute of Technical education”. A well laid out institution which had just taken off with its first batch of students, all efforts spearheaded by the army. I felt so proud of myself and my army.
Amongst low clouds, cold breeze and soft pattering rain, we continued our journey back to Dera Ismail Khan, all lost in the thoughts and memories of Eid in tribal area; comparing my “perceptions” and my “experience”.