BANNU, Pakistan -- For a generation, millions of war-weary Afghans flocked to Pakistan, their neighbor to the east, to seek shelter, access international aid, and establish new lives away from their war-torn homeland.
But in what is seen as a major embarrassment for Islamabad, thousands of Pakistani tribespeople have now crossed into Afghanistan in the wake of a major Pakistani military offensive launched in their North Waziristan homeland in mid-June.
The embattled district of North Waziristan is part of Pakistan's restive northwestern tribal region, where the military has fought and made uneasy peace with an assortment of Al-Qaeda-allied Pakistani, Afghan, and Central Asian militant groups.
More than 80,000 North Waziristan residents have met a warm reception in the Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktika. Even outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a passionate radio appeal to his countrymen to help the displaced, who maintain strong tribal ties with some southeastern Afghan border regions.
By contrast, the nearly half-million displaced Waziristanis who went to Bannu and other cities in northwestern Pakistan were welcomed by scorching heat and little government help. Two of Pakistan's most affluent provinces, Sindh and Punjab, imposed an unspoken ban on their resettlement there.
In Bannu, everyone has a story of misery and suffering. "It is the second day that I have been waiting in line to get some food, but have so far received nothing," Saifullah, a young displaced resident of North Waziristan, told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal while waiting for his turn in a seemingly unending queue at a sports stadium. "I know that we are extremely unfortunate, but the government has also failed to help us."
It took Naik Badshah, another displaced tribesman from North Waziristan, four days just to complete the paperwork required for accessing Pakistani government aid. "I have many small children and we have been living in the open in a local market. We don't have a tent or even drinking water," he said. "I have been trying to get some help since June 22 but so far have not received anything," he told Radio Mashaal on June 29.
Many of the IDPs belong to families that used to be well-off in their native towns and villages. They suddenly feel like beggars, have lost or left behind their riches, which include agricultural lands, sprawling homes, shops, cattle, and orchards.
Muhammad Amin, 40, a once-affluent cloth merchant in the North Waziristan town of Mir Ali, now queues for a few kilograms of wheat flour and sugar in Bannu. "My two shops, worth nearly 400,0000 rupees (eds: roughly $40,000), were destroyed in an air strike this month," he said.
Many residents of Bannu and the nearby districts of Lakki Marwat and Karak rushed to help North Waziristan's displaced by sharing their houses and food. But many home-owners, hoteliers, transport providers, and shopkeepers also preyed on their vulnerabilities. Prices in the city have skyrocketed as the displaced are being charged extremely high transport fares and house rents.
Saleem Zaib, a young truck driver, is among the handful of people who went back into North Waziristan over the weekend to help evacuate besieged relatives. "It is very difficult to describe in words the miseries of the people who are still stuck there or are on their way to Bannu," he told Radio Mashaal. "It is a hell on earth. In three or four places I saw women wailing over the dead bodies of their young children, who were killed by the intense heat."
With temperatures soaring above 40 degrees Celsius, hundreds of displaced children are being admitted every day to Bannu's only children’s hospital. Doctors there have placed up to three children in a single bed to cope with the unexpected influx. Most children are suffering from sun stroke, dehydration, high fever, and diarrhea.
Days of harsh criticism in the media finally prompted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to rush to Bannu on June 27 in an apparent move to speed up relief efforts.
But even his visit was not without controversy. A delegation of North Waziristan's tribal leaders refused to participate in a meeting with Sharif after members were allegedly prevented by officials from publicly presenting their grievances.
"Officials wanted us to stay away from the prime minister, as they knew we would inform him about the real situation on the ground," Sher Mohammad Wazir, a tribal leader, said. "We also wanted to inform the prime minister that all local and foreign troublemakers [militants] had left North Waziristan before the launch of the military operation. Therefore, we wanted to ask him to direct military authorities not to destroy our houses and markets."
In Bannu, such complaints are rampant. Shafatullah, 30, has been queuing in vain for three days. "We left behind everything, even our clothes and shoes," he told Radio Mashaal. "Now we are roaming around like beggars."
Karim Mehsud, a lawyer from Waziristan, said the government's failure to help the displaced has generated bitterness toward Islamabad. "I wonder what the future will bring if the army fails to cleanse North Waziristan and rehabilitate the uprooted families in the coming few months," he said.