The semblance of a life the IDPs lead in the Jalozai camp makes one question whether the operation that promised them freedom from tyranny was actually worth it.
It was a Sunday morning in Peshawar, and we had just arrived at the hotel to dump our luggage and head off to Jalozai Camp. Without a clue as to where exactly the camp was located or what might lie in store for us there, we decided one fine day to survey the conditions at the camp. Armed with very little information except curiosity and the first-hand details passed on to us by a journalist friend, we arrived here on a whim.
A friend offered to drive us to the camp. Little did I know that he himself was an IDP — something I discovered en-route to the camp. “My family and I are registered as IDPs from Barra, Khyber Agency, but we don’t live in the camp because unlike others we are relatively better off,” exclaimed Nazir, on the drive to the camp.
After a 40 minute drive and a long conversation about what was going on and how things were over there, we arrived in a quasi-market place with a board at the end that said ‘Jalozai Camp’. I peered out of the window and asked in amazement “why these relief goods on sale?” — Everything from mosquito nettings, to solar panels, buckets labelled UNHCR and more, were displayed by the roadside. “They take what they can and sell what they don’t need. It’s their way of making a living,” explained my friend. “Is this how relief goods end up?” I muttered under my breath.
At the end of the road, there was an opening with thousands of tents, spread out under the burning afternoon sun, spread out as far as the naked eye could see. A pick-up truck, laden with bags labelled “from UAE”, entered the compound, chased by men and children converging from all sides. This is Ramzan special package. “They get more than their share of the ration during Ramzan,” said my friend. As we neared our destination, we passed many boards with similar labels and flags — everyone from the UN to the EU had established their presence in this place.
Finally, we parked outside a brick structure with a flag hoisted atop. “This is the office of the Khyber Union. A lot of people from the camp support it.” There are other offices here too; I saw some flags of parties that I recognised. Later, it was revealed to us that many of these parties are sources of nepotism in currying favours within the camp — favours such as an extra bag of grain or some basic amenities have seemed to gain political currency in this strange place.
At the office, we were greeted by Saleem, a man in his 50s, and his sons. He sat down with us in the shade, as more people came and joined us. Conversation followed:
“I worked in the transport sector in Tehsil Barra before coming here, four years ago. We have been abandoned by the government and we try to manage as best as we can. We can’t go home because of the fight between the army and the Taliban. We fear for our lives so we had no choice. They asked us to leave and we left. We have resigned to this miserable fate,” complained Saleem.
A teenager limped towards us in crutches; his leg was missing. He was shot by the security forces in Barra. This was Mumtaz, an intermediate student of medicine, who volunteers around the camp as a polio worker. “I don’t let my disability deter me, I am studying to become a doctor,” he told us as we asked about his leg. “I was on my way home from college when without any warning, a jawan (soldier) shot me in the leg. I lay there wounded on the road till some villagers close by took pity on me and carried me to the hospital. After lying in the hospital bed for a few hours, I was informed that my leg was beyond repair and had to be amputated.”
“Why did they shoot at you?” I asked. “They made an announcement that no one is to ride a motorbike or wear a black dress, because the Talibs wear black and I was wearing black that day and they confused me for a Talib so they shot at me. I wasn’t aware of the announcement. I was going to join the army after two days of the incident. I no longer have the same conviction after what they did to me,” recounted an angry Mumtaz.
“Are there others like you,” we asked. “Yes, many have been shot by the security forces without warning, there were many here in this camp but they might not speak to you for fear of being picked up, even I shouldn’t be saying much,” he clamoured.
Shaken by this young man’s ordeal, we moved on to an open field, where droves of men both old and young were sitting under the sun. Seeing the camera, they rushed towards us and showered us with complaints. “We’ve been waiting out here in the sun since morning,” shouted one. “We have no jobs, our food rations aren’t proper and they never meet our quotas,” shouted another. They’d been waiting there in the heat for the Ramzan rations and more kept pouring in. As we tried to make sense of what was happening, we heard a squabble in the corner. I saw guards arguing with my friend. A few minutes later, he explained, “They say, no crowds… terrorists take advantage of a large congregation,” pointing to a crater nearby. “They used explosives on a crowd a while back so a large gathering isn’t allowed.”
Next, we were escorted to some tents where we met a family gathered around a stove pouring green tea. We hear more complaints and then we met Qasim, a 60 year old, who refused to go home unless his conditions were met; “I want them to rebuild my home that was shelled, I want peace there, only then will I go back.
Otherwise, I will resign myself to this fate,” he exclaimed angrily. “Weren’t the Taliban threatening your life and property?” we inquired. “Of course, we don’t agree with the Talibs but that doesn’t mean that we agree with the security forces either. They are all the same. Look at our fate, would we rot for this long if this operation was to eliminate them?” was the response we got.
On our way out we met an IDP from Bajaur, “Why are you still here? Haven’t people from Bajaur gone back due to the cessation of hostilities?” we ask. “I stay here because I had a dispute with a local landlord who refuses to let me return, he’s joined hands with the Talibs so I can’t cross him and go back,” he said.
At that point I had taken in all that I could, so I moved away from the crowd, only to be surrounded by eager children who had stopped playing cricket and shouted “ball” and something else in Pushto I couldn’t comprehend. “He wants money to buy a ball,” an elder explained. More kids joined in and repeated the request. “Nishta” was my response as I shared candies with them instead. I motioned to my friend, telling him was time to leave.
As I left I had more questions than answers; why was it that it’s been over four years and these people still rotted in these camps? What kind of an operation results in innocent civilians getting shot by the security forces? Surely, if these people were to return, what were they to return to? Their homes are in shambles and what little livelihood they had is now gone. At present, their fate remains uncertain and what semblance of a life they lead in these camps makes one questions whether the operation that promised them freedom from tyranny was actually worth it.
Names have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees. This essay was originally published by The News International.