BANNU, Pakistan -- Life is gradually returning to normal in North Waziristan following a terrible decade in which its estimated 2 million residents endured terrorist tyranny and displacement.
The youth in this remote, mountainous tribal district along Afghanistan’s border in northwestern Pakistan are determined to rebuild their livelihoods and their shattered homeland.
Shan Zeb, who is in his 20s, has lived in exile in nearby Bannu district for more than two years. He was among the region’s estimated 1.5 million residents who fled into Bannu and neighboring Afghanistan’s border provinces following the onset of a major Pakistani military offensive in June 2014.
The displacement shattered his dream of attending university. Pressure to contribute to his large family finances forced him to open a tea shop on the main road linking Bannu with North Waziristan’s administrative center, Miran Shah.
“I loved my education, but I couldn’t continue after being displaced,” he said. “Our situation was dire, which prompted me to open a tea stall. But I am determined to resume my education when I can.”
Zeb was among North Waziristan’s estimated 85,000 students who were forced to abandon their schools and colleges at the onset of Zarb-e Azab, the formal name of the Pakistani military offensive.
Islamabad maintains that the operation has killed thousands of militants and ended North Waziristan’s status as the global headquarters of Al-Qaeda and allied Central Asian, Pakistani, and Afghan militants.
In the decade before the offensive, North Waziristan’s residents were targeted in suicide bombings, beheadings, and targeted assassinations by militants. They also suffering during Pakistani military forays and U.S. drone strikes that aimed to target Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders.
Khan Wazir, a North Waziristan activist, says they learned hard lessons during the years of oppression. He says the suffering has politicized the region’s population and made them more open to modernity and pressing for their rights.
“We were not aware of our civic rights,” he said. “But we now know what our right are, and we have been introduced to activism and how to employ protests, media, and social media to press for our rights.”
Wazir says even Islamabad can now sense that the residents of North Waziristan and the rest of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are no longer willing to accept the draconian, century-old legal regime that prevents the region’s estimated 7 million to 10 million residents from gaining rights and joining Pakistan’s political, economic, and legal mainstream.
“Our people are serious about change, and I can sense the government is now considering some reforms,” he said.
In August, a government committee outlined proposed reforms in a 49-page report. The plan envisions a decade-long development drive in FATA to bring its human development indicators on par with the rest of Pakistan. The reform package will extend the jurisdiction of Pakistani courts to the region. The country’s legislature, however, will still not be able to make laws for FATA.
Another activist, Gohar Wazir, says that unlike the prevalent stereotypes, the youth in Waziristan hate violence. He says they suffered badly during displacement but that it changed their outlook on life. He says North Waziristan’s youth have gained a lot of political awareness and have joined numerous political parties and even formed organizations of their own.
“It was easy to spill someone’s blood in Waziristan, but it was almost impossible to donate blood to save lives,” he said, recalling life under the militant control that virtually ruled the region from 2004 to 2014. “But now, if someone from Waziristan needs blood, he can find many volunteers ready to donate.”
But integration back in Waziristan remains a tall order as the government plans to help all of the region’s displaced residents to return to their homeland by the end of this year.
Adil Afghan, a teenage student, says he has not seen a classroom for more than two years after fleeing North Waziristan when he was about to graduate from high school in 2014. With much difficulty, Afghan completed his high-school diploma last year, but college still remains a distant dream.
“The government just opened an office for the North Waziristan college students here in Bannu,” he said. “But they have not provided us any facilities for college. We don’t have any classrooms. I’m not sure what sort of education I can expect when we return.”
Islamabad says it is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to help the displaced tribespeople in Waziristan and the rest of FATA to return to their homes and rebuild their livelihoods.
“The FATA reforms will only be meaningful if the TDPs (eds: displaced civilians) return home and they are assisted to reconstruct their homes and shops damaged during the operations,” a government report said in August. “It will also mean the re-establishment of destroyed or damaged infrastructure including those in the transport, sanitation, health, and education sectors.”
But a young resident of Miran Shah, Usman, who goes by one name only, resents the fact that Islamabad has so far failed to honor their commitments to provide employment to the youth in FATA.
“They promised us that none of Waziristan’s youth would remain unemployed,” he said. “Sadly, the government never acted on its promises. Even those who are educated and skilled cannot find jobs.”
Wazir says that after so much suffering, Waziristan’s residents deserve to enjoy the same opportunities as their fellow Pakistanis.
“The state needs to see us as equal citizens -- equal to those [in the eastern cities of] Lahore and Rawalpindi. That would be a step toward a brighter future for us,” he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Umar Daraz Wazir in Bannu, Pakistan.