Bannu: Dostmal Khan, a retired school teacher with a fragile constitution, stands waiting in a long queue at the door of National Bank in Miranshah Fort. He is waiting for his turn to get pension from the only bank in North Waziristan Agency.
The state-owned National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) is the only bank in North Waziristan Agency (NWA). All others left for the relatively safer district of Bannu adjacent to NWA after several incidents of bank robbery and looting 2004 onwards, when brutal militancy shattered life and institutions in the agency.
According to local people, the militants, mostly foreigners assisted by the local Taliban, would rob a bank or stop the armoured cash-in-transit vehicles at gun point to loot valuables and cash.
“They (the militants) did not even spare the postman who was robbed several times of whatever little cash he had in his pocket,” said Umar Khan, a local of Mirali who owned a shop before it was destroyed in Zarb-e-Azb, the military operation against militants.
Over the years, as militants became deeply entrenched, challenging the writ of the state and running a veritable Taliban emirate from NWA, banks and the post offices at Mirali and Miranshah, the two main towns in the agency, shifted their services and branches to the bordering town of Bannu. People from the militancy-wracked agency still travel here to receive cash, calls and letters.
“For a long time we had to come to Bannu to get our salaries and pensions from the banks and the journey was hell for an old man like me,” said Dostmal Khan.
According to local people, this state of affairs affected the students most because they could not receive calls and roll-slips from their education institutions in time. Equally badly was affected the businessmen in the agency, taking tremendous risk to life and money while carrying cash to the banks in Bannu or elsewhere.
“Whenever I used to carry cash, I always used to recite verses from the Holy Quran because no one was safe at the time,” Umar Khan told News Lens Pakistan.
Khan says for long ten years, the business community of the area suffered and in many instances people lost lives and hard-earned money in incidents of loot and dacoities on main roads at a time when they needed financial and physical security the most.
“Most foreign militants were Uzbeks and Tajiks against whom the administration was totally powerless to stop brutal acts of militancy and protect the public,” said Tariq Khan, a local of NWA.
Even though Operation Zarb-e-Azb has restored a semblance of security to NWA, the agency still has to get back its civil infrastructure and institutions.
Like Dostmal Khan, scores of government employees, retired or serving, have to go through cumbersome stages of security checks and waiting in long queues to enter the Miranshah Fort – a high security zone – to access the lone NBP branch for salaries and pension each month.
While for Khan and others, who had to go to Bannu to get salaries and pensions from banks, this is an improvement of sorts. For others, access to bank is still a source of stress.
“We have to confirm our entry to the Fort area a day before transaction with the Bank,” said a clerk of Education Department, who wished not to be named because he works for a government department and does not want to be seen criticizing local conditions.
According to Fata Disaster Management Authority (FDMA), more than 60 percent of NWA population displaced by Zarb-e-Azb has repatriated to the agency. However, save for the one branch of NBP inside the Miranshah Fort, the agency has yet to get back banks based in Bannu.
For those who have accounts in banks in Bannu, travelling to the neighbouring town in a tough security environment is a huge inconvenience. Those who have returned to NWA have started setting up small businesses to sustain themselves but they still have to depend on Bannu for banking transactions.
“I have to go through multiple security layers on daily or alternate days when visiting Bannu to draw money,” said Guldar Ali, a shopkeeper at in the newly constructed market in Khaddi area of NWA. “It is not only time-consuming but also expensive for a new businessman like me.”
More than 500 new shops have been built in the jurisdiction of Mirali tehsil in villages of Khaddi and Eidak but there is no bank for financial transaction.
Wali Khan, a banker, said the private bank he works for was in touch with the security and political administration to get permission to establish a branch in the new markets.
“It will be of huge benefit to the locals but first we need clearance from the local authorities,” said Wali Khan. He said the locals have been asking his bank to return to the agency.
Khan, however, hinted that the shifting of banks would only become possible after complete repatriation of people.
“Those who have not repatriated will have trouble going to NWA [if banks shift there] while those who have, have to come to Bannu for transaction now,” said Wali Khan. He said it had been a decade since his bank left the town of Mirali and Miranshah.
He said before conflict forced them to close shop in NWA, there were ten banks operating in the two towns of Mirali and Miranshah. Each branch would deal with about 200 customers daily, with transaction worth more than Rs. 5 millions.
With many tribesmen working in the Gulf states, absence of banks in their hometowns have forced them to use hawala – hundi – to transfer money.
“If my family needs money and we have no banks in the vicinity, I have no choice but to use hawala for the purpose,” Nizamuddin, a local of Ziraki village in NWA who works as a driver in UAE told News Lens on phone. He said the government should shift banks back to NWA because dealing with them on money matters was safe and legal.