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One Million Pakistanis, Still Displaced, Face Hardship Going Home

A Pakistani Army soldier stands guard as internally displaced persons from the South Waziristan tribal areas, where the Pakistani Army is engaged in a full-scale military operation, prepare to return.
A Pakistani Army soldier stands guard as internally displaced persons from the South Waziristan tribal areas, where the Pakistani Army is engaged in a full-scale military operation, prepare to return.

Efforts to return around 1 million Pakistanis after a military crackdown forced them to flee their homes along the Afghan border have been hindered by underfunded aid, damaged infrastructure, and the continuing risk of insurgent attacks by the Islamist militants that the government sought to root out.

The fighting in northwestern Pakistan over recent years has displaced some 5.3 million people, about 1 million of whom have yet to be resettled through a program the government hopes will help contain extremist violence.

The deeply conservative frontier regions, largely cut off due to rough terrain, have long been sanctuary to fighters from Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other groups.

Pakistan’s army says most of the militants have been removed, from the region, but for a permanent solution, locals must return and form a functioning society, said Abdul Qadir Baloch, the minister for states and frontier regions.

"This is a great responsibility that is on our shoulders," Baloch said. "We should do it so as to rid ourselves, this country, of terrorism; not only ourselves, but the entire world."

The displaced families are generally anxious to return after living in refugee camps or makeshift conditions in towns since being forced to leave the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

More than 4 million have already done so, and the government wants the remainder resettled by the end of this year.

Backed by international powers such as China and the United States, Pakistan plans to rebuild bombed-out roads, irrigation networks, schools, and hospitals in what is one of the country’s poorest areas.

"We want to launch a mini-Marshall Plan to develop this area," Baloch said, referring to the financial aid package to Europe after World War II.

Aadil Mansoor, assistant country director at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), estimated around $800 million would be needed to resettle and rebuild the region over the next two years.

Though there is financing in place for long-term infrastructure projects, short-term aid has been harder to come by as donor nations focus on humanitarian emergencies in Syria and Yemen, Mansoor said.

Lola Castro, country director for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), said her agency was about $50 million short in donor support to provide food and early recovery aid to displaced and returning families this year.

"This is a very critical year, and unfortunately, as I see it, it's the year where Pakistan is being left to itself."

Additionally, the government program is short by tens of millions of dollars if it hopes to restore basic services and kick-start the local economy, according to UNDP. Without basic infrastructure, few options will exist for those who go home.

"People who don't have basic social services -- health, water, sanitation, food, education -- what do they do?" Castro said. "They move. They simply move."

Syed Halim Dawar, head of a 14-member family forced to leave North Waziristan in 2014, said he heard that some who had returned had no drinking water or electricity, and that the bazaar where he used to run a successful business was now destroyed.

But the 55-year-old said he would rather go back than live in a small house in Peshawar, where he has been unable to open a new shop.

Most people slated to go back this year are from North and South Waziristan, two areas where fighting was particularly intense and where militant groups have warned people not to come back.

"We will fight the army until the government vacates the area and an Islamic system is imposed in the country," said Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban's Sajna chapter, which operates in both areas. "If (internally displaced people) come here, they will face many problems."

With reporting by Krista Mahr for Reuters