BANNU, Pakistan -- They toil under the blazing Gulf sun for years to send precious remittances to families, which inevitably boosts Pakistan’s struggling economy.
Islamabad, however, has imposed security restrictions that effectively prevent many from visiting their families over holidays that typically come only once every few years for the migrant laborers in the oil-rich region.
Thousands of tribesmen working in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are now required to obtain approval from authorities before returning to the North Waziristan tribal district.
Security officials say entry to North Waziristan is subject to thorough verification and security clearance. It is one of the seven tribal districts they claim has been won back from Taliban control during a two-year Pakistani military offensive called Zarb-e Azb.
Islamabad requires all family or individuals above the age of 10 to obtain an identity badge, called the Watan Card, before returning to or visiting North Waziristan.
Obtaining the Watan Card requires residents to complete forms and undergo security clearances. Purportedly, the cards take a week to process.
For the tribespeople working as laborers in the Gulf, however, this mostly proves a challenge only a few lucky ones are able to surmount. Though with difficulty, they manage to obtain permission to see their families, but many only make it to Bannu, a northwestern Pakistani city close to North Waziristan home to most of the nearly 1 million displaced North Waziristan residents.
Laborers from Pakistan and Afghanistan working in Gulf countries, mostly as construction workers and drivers, number in the hundreds of thousands.
“I spent 28 days of my monthlong leave in Bannu. I will be going back to the United Arab Emirates without seeing my children,” said Ihsan Khan, who is visiting home after three years in the Arab country.
Khan spent more than three weeks awaiting permission. In desperation, he ended up walking to an army checkpoint on the edge of North Waziristan. He had hoped that his valid passport and national identity card would allow him to see his family, who are still stuck in the region that Islamabad claims is free from terrorists.
“The soldiers sent me back to the civilian officials, who then directed me back to the army personnel,” he said. “We are in a bind. [We don’t know] where to go or what to do.”
Karim Khan, another worker in the United Arab Emirates, now faces the same fate. He is staying at a hotel in Bannu in the hopes of being allowed to visit his family in North Waziristan’s Mirali region.
“I got two months’ leave after working a hard-labor job in Abu Dhabi for two years,” he said. “But I’ve been in Bannu for more than a week, and I still don’t know when I will be cleared to go home.”
“The Watan Card is our visa to Waziristan,” said Azim Khan, while waiting outside the Political Administration offices in Bannu.
His relatives are among the 82,000 families languishing in the city since Zarb-e-Azb began in June 2014. Another 100,000 North Waziristan residents have moved west into the southeastern Afghan province of Khost.
Locals say that while some regions in North Waziristan were spared the agony of displacement, Islamabad has been very slow in helping the more than 1 million displaced Waziristanis to return home.
Suraj, a young Mirali resident, says most Pakistanis are free to go anywhere without restrictions, but only those from Waziristan are banned from visiting their homeland.
Officials from the Political Administration, a special civilians civil service office tasked with governing the tribal areas, have said they allow Gulf workers from Waziristan to go into North Waziristan once a week. But only those possessing Watan Cards are allowed to venture into their homeland on Tuesdays.
Muhammad Anwar Khan Sherani, a civilian administrator in North Waziristan, said they are allowed to address requests from visiting Waziristani workers when the number reaches 200.
On August 4, Abdul Quadir Baloch, a Pakistani cabinet minister in charge of the tribal areas, reiterated that all displaced tribespeople will be helped to return to their homes by end of the year.
But few of those displaced from North Waziristan trust such pronouncements.
“This is the fourth or fifth time they are [making promises] and giving such a deadline -- only to then backtrack,” said Malak Nisaar Ali Khan, a North Waziristan tribal leader.