Burnt out homes, destroyed fields, and shattered livelihoods await Pashtun tribespeople from the Tirah Valley who are returning home from Peshawar after intense fighting between the Pakistani army and the Taliban last year forced them to flee.
Tirah, perched high above the Khyber Pass, is home to the Afridi tribe and is part of the Khyber tribal district abutting Peshawar, the capital of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Like other parts of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber has endured large-scale destruction and its residents have suffered from militant attacks and army operations during the past decade.
In line with its policy of returning internally displaced tribespeople, Islamabad is now trying to send Afridi families back to their villages in Tirah, promising modest help in the form of transportation and cash handouts.
But among the tens of thousands of those displaced, many are balking at the effort, citing the inadequacy of government support and the utter destruction of Tirah.
Shafiq Afridi, a clan leader who left his Tirah home in March 2013, told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal, "The fighting was intense. There were mine attacks and bomb blasts everyday. Even houses were being scorched." He said, "We left with just the clothes we were wearing and left behind everything in our large house, which was built like a mud fortress, as is the norm in Tirah."
Afridi went back to check on his home recently. "I was shocked to see that nothing was left of our home. Only if you had seen it in the past, or would compare it to photographs, you will believe that it once was a very large house," he said. "This is what has happened to every Afridi family in Tirah."
Afridi has a large family including his parents, wife, and children in addition to the families of his five married brothers. As is common in Tirah, they all shared one house and lived on the modest income they derived from agriculture and trade, the main sources of livelihood in the tribal areas.
"Out of every 100 houses, only one or two have survived. We had never heard about such destruction in our history," he said. "It is true that there has been a lot of destruction across the tribal areas during the past decade, but the suffering in Tirah is unmatched."
The Pakistani government began repatriating Tirah's displaced earlier this month. Arshad Khan, a senior official with the FATA Disaster Management Authority, told journalists that fighting had displaced some 13,000 Afridi families.
Khan said some of them had already returned. "We hope to facilitate nearly 8,000 families in moving back to Tirah," he said.
Shahab Ali Shah, the Political Agent or most senior civilian official in Khyber, said that Pakistani security forces have cleared Tirah of terrorists and militants. "I have been to Tirah and can tell you that the area has been secured. We have established civilian administration and enough security forces are staying behind," he said. "Our aim is to ensure that the displaced people we send back are not forced to flee again."
But some Tirah residents are not convinced. Noor Halim, a young Afridi tribesman, said Tirah residents remain fearful. "Our people are afraid of returning because they do not want to go through the pain of leaving again," he told Radio Mashaal. "This is what holds most people back. They are traumatized."
Momin, another Tirah resident who goes by one name only, said that what he has heard about conditions in Tirah is not encouraging. "There is nothing for the poor there. There are no hospitals and the government is offering little help in rebuilding our homes, and is offering little food aid," he said.
"The government should either help us in rebuilding our lives or send us to another country."