PESHAWAR: Ahsan Khan, 35, has lived in Peshawar almost all his life. He never imagined he would one day consider moving away – but that day has come. Because of ongoing hostilities between different groups, the young businessman, his wife and two small children are seriously considering leaving the capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). For the past week, Pakistan Army troops have been battling militants in the remote Khyber Agency, which lies just west of Peshawar district and is in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region of Pakistan. The operation began after fears were voiced that the militants might attempt to take control of Peshawar and enforce their hard-line brand of Islam.
These fears were strengthened by an incident last month when unknown militants seized 16 Christians from a residential area in the city and warned them against ‘immorality’. The Christians were released unharmed but their abduction created heightened panic in the city. “It’s very frightening for us all. I don’t want my wife, who is an active working woman, to be intimidated or forced to wear a veil. Also, in the future, I do not want my children to grow up in such an environment,” Khan said.
Attempts to negotiate a settlement with militants in various parts of the NWFP have broken down. As a result, conflict has resumed and the sense of uncertainty affecting thousands is likely to continue for some months to come, having an adverse impact on education, security and threatening further displacement as families seek safer places to live, according to local residents.
The military operations are intended to appease the fears of people such as Khan, but local residents now worry about a violent backlash by the militants in the future. At least two dozen people have died in fighting so far, many others have been injured and observers say the fighting could continue for some time yet. Already, fighting in at least three of FATA’s seven agencies, which border Afghanistan in the west and NWFP in the east, has sparked fear and displaced hundreds, possibly thousands, local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say.
No exact figures are available given that many people move out for short times, return and then flee again in a continuing cycle. However, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has estimated tens of thousands have been affected. Injuries to civilians, including women and children, in clashes have been reported in the FATA agencies of Kurram and South Waziristan, which lies nearly 200km south of Peshawar, and in the NWFP district of Swat.
“Lots of people have moved away. Some from Waziristan have gone away permanently because of the disruption fighting causes to business and education and so on,” Kamran Arif, a Peshawar-based human rights activist, told IRIN. He added that fighting had destroyed the once flourishing fruit business in Waziristan, which provided a livelihood to many.
“We considered going back recently because there had been peace for weeks. But now that fighting has resumed, we will just settle in Peshawar and enroll the girls at school here. My husband will commute regularly since he runs a general store in Mingora,” said Abida, adding that the closure of girls’ schools in Swat by militants was a factor in their decision to move. “I want my daughters to be well educated.”
The provincial government, elected in February this year, had attempted to reach a peace agreement with militants in Swat, but this broke down a few weeks ago leading to a resumption in hostilities. Many civilians have been affected by the ongoing fighting, officials say. The numbers are difficult to determine, with access to the tribal areas for the media or neutral observers extremely limited.
Within the tribal areas, access to healthcare is limited and hostilities have compounded the problem. “My 10-year-old nephew, who lives in Parachinar town in Kurram Agency [about 140km southwest of Peshawar], was very sick last month with appendicitis. But because of fighting, the area was under virtual siege and they couldn’t get him to a hospital for nearly two days,” said Abida.-SANA