EIDAK, Pakistan -- The excitement among a group of elderly turbaned tribal leaders in a remote village in northwestern Pakistan is palpable.
After suffering a decade of terrorist oppression and years of displacement due to an antiterrorism operation by the Pakistani government, Eidak’s clan chiefs are overseeing the construction of a new bazaar.
The market will be part of the village, home to an estimated 40,000 residents who live in sprawling mud houses amid green fields and orchards, surrounded by gray dry hills. Single-story red-brick shops are slated to dot the market, which will take up two intersecting roads.
“Anyone can buy a shop here, but no one can rent to an outsider,” said Abdul Hamid Shah, a tribal leader with a flowing white beard. “We hope there will be brisk business. We expect the government to provide services to this market, which we are building ourselves.”
Most of those who live in Eidak are members of the Daur tribe, one of the first communities among some 1.5 million North Waziristan residents to have returned to their homeland. More than two-thirds of North Waziristan’s civilians were forced to leave their homes and businesses in June 2014 after the Pakistani military began a large-scale military operation along Afghanistan’s border to cleanse the region of what amounted to nearly a decade of terrorist occupation.
After the demise of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001, North Waziristan emerged as the global headquarters of a range of Pakistani, Afghan, Arab, and Central Asian militants grouped in diverse factions including the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. While these hard-line militants were blamed for attacks across the region and in the West, the region’s civilians bore the brunt of their violence, facing suicide attacks, assassinations, and torture on an almost daily basis.
North Waziristan’s residents also paid with blood during Pakistan’s military operations and suspected U.S. drone strikes against the members and leaders of militant factions who virtually controlled part of the region’s vast territory -- 4,700 square kilometers -- as fiefdoms.
Nearly half of North Waziristan’s displaced civilians, mostly members of the Pashtun Daur and Wazir tribes, have now returned to rebuild their livelihoods and communities. While Islamabad maintains it is doing all it can to help them start life anew in their homeland, many are not happy with the modest assistance they are receiving after having suffered so much.
“We knocked on every door and even met the head of the Pakistani military,” said Naik Paiyo Khan, the leader of North Waziristan’s traders. “We’ve filed our claims, but we have yet to receive a single rupee [in assistance].”
Pakistan has said it has killed more than 3,500 militants in the Zarb-e Azab operation since its launch in North Waziristan in June 2014.
“Our objectives were for this operation to be indiscriminate [against all militants] for a total elimination of terrorism and to avoid collateral damage while upholding human rights,” Pakistani military spokesman Asim Bajwa told journalists on September 1.
On the ground, the offensive nearly completely demolished the region’s two major towns, Mir Ali and Miran Shah. Intense air strikes and artillery fire reduced their once-teeming bazaars into rubble, leaving thousands of shop owners and businessmen destitute.
“We don’t know what we did to deserve this,” said Abdul Hamid Khan, a trader from Miran Shah. “We are now asking the government to protect our future generations by helping restore the businesses that once employed many.”
Khan said that during the past year traders in North Waziristan brought a simple demand to Pakistani officials.
“We asked them to give our properties back and pay for all the damages we have sustained,” he said.
The military, however, is rebuilding the markets without even consulting the traders, according to businessmen and tribal leaders.
“The tribes of North Waziristan demand that Pakistan cease its atrocities against us,” read a September 9 press statement by North Waziristan’s community leaders. “The government should provide a fair account of our losses and hand over the reconstruction of markets, gas stations, and other properties to their owners.”
Officials in North Waziristan say the government is taking a holistic approach toward reconstruction in the region. Kamran Afridi, North Waziristan’s political agent, the most senior bureaucrat, makes frequent trips to the newly rebuilt hospital in Miran Shah to assure its doctors that the government is working to provide around-the-clock electricity, spare parts for machinery, and more staff.
Afridi said he is proud of a new school that will have a running track and basketball and tennis courts. He said its Montessori approach will enable the region’s students to compete with the best in Pakistan.
“The thinking is changing here. People are now united for a better future,” Afridi said.
He is now working on restoring what he calls North Waziristan’s backbone. “This [trade with neighboring Afghanistan] is the most important milestone in restoring stability to the region,” he said. “This will benefit both the state and the general population at large.”
For now, all trade through North Waziristan -- once a major trade artery with Afghanistan -- is suspended because Islamabad wants to build a proper gate to regulate all cross-border trade.
As North Waziristan’s residents scramble for government attention, some officials are engaging in a bit of hyperbole to highlight their achievements in the region.
"Shawal is like Switzerland now," Bajwa recently said of a remote valley where pine nuts grow in abundance. “Terrorists were selling the pine nuts to fund themselves, but now the locals will benefit.”
Shawal residents, however, tell a different story.
Malik Shamtullah, a leader of the region’s Jani Khel clan, said the authorities are reluctant to allow residents to harvest the pine nuts, which involves cutting cones from the trees and heating them to remove the shells.
“We are asking that we be allowed to harvest the pine nuts so we can generate some income for our families for next year,” he said.