“Don’t talk to me about the government. They don’t help. “
Ninety-year-old Shah Mast is angry. He has lived in the cave he calls home for seven years, ever since an offensive by the Pakistani army against the militant Islamist group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) destroyed his home.
“I swear to God, no one has helped us. No charity or anything like that, “he says.
In 2014, the Pakistani army launched an offensive against insurgents in the Tirah Valley, near Afghanistan, after negotiations with the militants broke down. What followed was a violent campaign to eradicate the fighters, the main objective of which is to overthrow the Pakistani government. In August 2017, Lieutenant General Asif Ghafoor announced the complete mission, but the battle continues today.
As the Taliban came to power in neighboring Afghanistan a month ago, the TTP carried out further attacks against the Pakistani military in the North Waziristan border region south of Tirah. In September alone, 10 soldiers were killed in TTP attacks. The recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan threatens to fuel instability in the mountainous border region, meaning the displaced may never be able to return home.
The Pakistani government in Islamabad refuses to grant the families internally displaced (IDP) status, as officials say they can return home. But the army will not allow them to return as long as the fighting continues. Even if allowed, many families living in the caves could not afford the trip and their homes have been destroyed.
Militant Islamist groups around the world have been emboldened by what they see as the Taliban’s victory over the United States, but none more so than those in Pakistan. On September 5, a suicide bomber drove his motorcycle at a Frontier Corps post in Quetta, a city in Balochistan province, killing at least four of the paramilitaries and wounding 18 civilians. The TTP claimed responsibility for the attack. On September 20, England’s men’s and women’s cricket teams suspended their tour of Pakistan, citing safety concerns.
Furthermore, Afghanistan’s access to financial resources, such as grants and loans, has been frozen by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank after the takeover of the country by the Taliban. No funds to buy Pakistani goods and with foreign direct investment – An important source of external financing in developing countries: Severely restricted, Pakistan’s economic problems are likely to intensify.
According to the World Bank, Pakistan inflation rate is close to 10%, nearly 4 percentage points above war-torn Afghanistan. As a country dependent on imports, including energy and now food, Pakistan is dangerously susceptible to price fluctuations that drive inflation.
Sitting on his bed in the hot, airless cave, Mast says he and his family are in trouble. With rising inflation and a lack of daily work for their children, the family is struggling to feed itself. He has three wives and 21 children: nine sons and 12 daughters. One of his sons can still find work in a nearby quarry and another is a pastor. He says he would have liked his daughters to be educated and to work, but this has not been an option.
“We can’t pay for food, so how can we buy books?”
Mast was forced to flee his village in Pakistan’s Tirah Valley with some 50 members of his extended family. He traveled on foot, first crossing the border into Nangarhar in Afghanistan, before returning to Pakistan, finally settling more than 130 km from his home in the cave complex near the village of Charwazgi Mulankali, near Peshawar.
The journey was exhausting. He and his family walked for three days through the harsh rocky landscape. They led the goats and sheep that were saved from the attacks, but lost many of them on the journey. According to Mast, there was no warning from the army of their impending attack and the animals were all they had time to take.
“We had to leave late at night when the strikes started. We leave everything behind. “
Perched on a barren riverbed and pockmarked on the rugged hillside, the cave complex is home to about 100 families, all from Tirah. The dark caves keep their heat in the winter and stay cool in the summer, fortunately for the residents, as temperatures can reach 40 ° C (104 ° F) in Peshawar. Inside the caves, families hang colored sheets and fabrics on the walls to decorate and keep warm. Every home relies on solar energy for electricity and Mast hangs a single light bulb and a small fan from the ceiling over his bed.
Outside, soot crawls up the walls of the fire that is lit daily for cooking. Holes and small clay ovens are dug in the ground outside the women’s caves. Water is scarce, it is collected from a single well. To eat, Mast and his family sell or kill one of his son’s herds, or walk along the rocky riverbed and climb the hill facing the road connecting Peshawar to Jalalabad, where a series of shops line the road.
14-year-old Aftab Ali sits in a dark, sparsely decorated cave that he shares with his parents and three siblings. Aftab wants to go to college to study medicine, but with his family facing so many difficulties, he doesn’t think it’s possible now. His father used to juggle two jobs as a day laborer and night watchman at the industrial estate near Bara, but his day job has run out.
Aftab and his family have a similar story to Mast’s. Once fighting broke out between the TTP and the army, they were forced to flee and make the same journey from Tirah to Charwazgi Mulankali.
As the midday heat rises from the dry riverbed below the caves, girls dressed in the traditional brown burqa begin to flow down the slope of the local madrasa or Islamic school. Aftab’s neighbor Khayal Muhammad looks at them and laughs when he says the name of the village: Charwazgi Mulankali means “village of scholars.” The irony is not lost on him.
“There is only one elementary school in the area. The problem is that nobody can pay for transportation to go to secondary school. “
Muhammad is less concerned about the financial situation than about the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan. The biggest threat to safety is hampering your chances of returning home.
“Almost all the people who live here in the caves want to go home, but the army won’t let us go back because the situation is not safe,” he says.
“The army did not have enough intelligence. When the villagers came out of their houses, the army thought they were TTP. “
Pakistan’s financial woes and the prospect of an emboldened TTP wreaking havoc across the country means families are likely to have to wait longer to return home. If the government recognized the Tirah community as internally displaced, they could receive help. Until then, Muhammad’s demands are simple: “Either they recognize us as internally displaced or allow us to return to our homes. Living in limbo in a cave is not life. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism