Bannu: Sunday may be Funday elsewhere but in North Waziristan, Sundays have become synonymous with staying home and dormant. Since 2006, the people of this tribal district have yet to see a Sunday without a curfew.
In addition to Sundays, curfew is also enforced whenever there is VIP movement in the area, which is quite frequent after Zarb-e-Azb – the military operation launched in June 2014 to stamp out militants from the district bordering Afghanistan.
“There were times when tribesmen, insulated as they are from the rest of the world, were not even acquainted with the word curfew,” Madad Khan Dawar, a tribal elder, told News Lens.
“It is altogether different now. Where once the government stayed in offices and tribesmen were free to move, we now have to strictly follow curfew and government directives issued from time to time.”
Dawar, 95, recalls the days of his youth when the district was under the British rule, saying they would not impose curfew even if ghazis – or freedom fighters fighting the British – attacked a convoy of the British army.
“I don’t remember them ever asking us to stay home,” says Dawar, staring into empty space as he recalls a distant memory.
“I heard this word curfew for the first time a few years ago.”
Curfew was new to tribesmen and they were unfamiliar with how it was enforced. Misunderstandings often lead to death when locals were shot for violating curfew, according to tribesmen.
“How could one stay at home all day long?” says Haji Akbar Khan from village Khaddi in NWA.
“We have to go to our fields, bring fodder for the cattle and water our fields. I have to leave very early for the fields, to avoid crossing the main road between Mirali and Miranshah during curfew hours.”
Khan said on the day of the curfew, he only came back late in the night once the military convoy had stopped moving on the road. If something went wrong during its movement, he said, he had to stay with his relatives near his fields.
In NWA where the security forces have been fighting a brutal militancy for over a decade, the conflict took a turn for the worst in 2005 and 2006. After scores of bomb blasts, IED explosions and suicide attacks on security forces enforced curfew on all roads of the tribal district.
At the time, the local political administration would announce curfew on the local radio station and vehicle mounted loudspeaker system right before the movement of army convoys. Curfews were more frequent due to regular troops’ movement in the district, say tribesmen. After the tribal elders approached the army officials through a Jirga seeking relief, it was agreed that the security forces would only move on Sundays to avoid collateral damage in case attack from militants.
“It was after several requests and meetings that the army granted our wish to reduce curfew regulation to a single day,” said a Jirga member, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information.
Still, even a single day of curfew could mean inconvenience at best and a tragedy at worst for the tribesmen. They say restriction on movement during curfew makes it challenging to acquire supplies. There have been innumerable deaths because they can’t take patients to hospitals in time.
A local of Spinwam tehsil in NWA told News Lens that he lost his sister-in-law when she couldn’t access hospital for child delivery on a curfew day.
“We waited for relaxation in curfew, appealed to the troops at the security check post to let us go but they wouldn’t,” said the tribesman whose name is withheld to protect his identity. “That afternoon, my sister-in-law died because of abnormal delivery and lack of proper care.”
According to the local people, there have been instances when tribesmen displaced by the military operation have not been allowed to take their dead back to villages for burial. They have been stopped at Bannu, the nearest city to NWA where the displaced have found refuge, waiting for as long as 24 hours before relaxation in curfew to take their dead to villages.
“My uncle died in Peshawar and we needed to shift his body to our village in NWA but on reaching Bannu, we were told to wait till curfew was lifted,” says Ijaz Khan, a local tribesman, adding that his entire family and other people from the village were made to wait for more than 24 hours to bury the dead.
Officials, however, contend that due to heavy losses to the security forces, it is essential to impose curfew to avoid the kind of incidents army faced in 2005 and 2006.
“We feel for the local residents and the inconvenience curfew causes but there is no way out,” said an official in the political administration who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media.
Political Agent North Waziristan Kamran Afridi said the timing of curfew had been reduced to “a great extent.” He said gradually things would work out fine but it would take time.
“We cannot take any risks in the wake of Operation Zarb-e-Azb,” said Afridi. “Miscreants out there may be looking for a chance to set back the peace process.”
He said the civil administration and the security forces were aware of the challenges tribesmen faced due to curfew but it was crucial to bring complete peace to the region.
“What does it matter to us if the region has been cleared of militants when we still have to live under curfew?” asked a tribesman from Mirali.
“If the militants have been flushed out from NWA, why is the government making life difficult for us?