PESHAWAR -- Medical professionals forced to stop working in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are returning to work and health care in the area is improving, health officials and local residents say.
"We took a long leave out of fear when the Taliban threatened us to stop working in 2010, but we came and rejoined our jobs in 2015 when the Pakistani army cleared the area and established peace," said Dr. Noor Jamal, a medical officer in South Waziristan Agency.
He and about a dozen other doctors and paramedics temporarily moved to other places for their safety, Noor said.
"We are thankful to the army for evicting the militants and paving the way for smooth operations of the health facilities," he told Pakistan Forward.
Improvements already in place
Mushfiq Ahmed, a local resident, said he witnessed firsthand the improved conditions of health facilities.
"A week ago, surgeons operated on my son for appendicitis and he is fine now," he told Pakistan Forward. "Two years ago, people had to go to Bannu and other cities of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa [KP] for treatment of minor ailments as the local facilities didn't have doctors."
"There is a tangible improvement in health facilities' operations as doctors and other staff are present in at the Agency Headquarters Hospital in Wana, South Waziristan," he said.
Long history of violence
Taliban militants targeted health professionals for years, destroying 150 health facilities across FATA since 2005, depriving citizens of treatment.
Taliban militants also targeted health centres and health workers in KP, Dr. Ghulam Qadir said.
"Militants have bombed 70 facilities, including hospitals, dispensaries and basic health units in KP, since 2005 as part of their anti-patient agenda," he told Pakistan Forward.
"In Malakand Division alone, militants harmed 55 health facilities from 2007 to 2009, but now the situation has returned to normal and all the damaged outlets have been reconstructed," he said.
But now, with the improved security situation, the local governments and security forces are working with medical personnel to reverse the situation.
A Taliban suicide bomber struck the Bajaur Agency Headquarters Hospital in April 2013, causing authorities to close the facility whose 135 doctors and 110 paramedics treated about 12,000 patients per month.
The hospital re-opened after only a month's hiatus with help from the Pakistani military, said Dr. Ghulam Rasool, a senior medic at the hospital.
"Now the army is guarding the hospital," he told Pakistan Forward. "The patients who travelled to Charsadda and Peshawar for treatment during the unlawful rule of the Taliban are now getting treatment here."
Nearly half of the 20,000 staff at FATA-based hospitals went on leave or stayed absent from their duties to avoid the Taliban's wrath, but now all have returned to their duty places, according to Pakistan Medical Association Secretary Dr. Ghulam Qadir.
Shamim Ara, a charge nurse at Mohmand Agency Headquarters Hospital, said she fled to Charsadda in 2012 when Taliban militants warned her to stay away from the hospital.
She returned a year later, after the military cleared the area.
"Now I am on duty, and there is no threat," she told Pakistan Forward in a telephone interview. "Most of my colleagues who left the area have also returned with the improvement in security situation."
"The Taliban's warnings to health workers badly harmed health delivery," she said. "Many patients developed avoidable complications."
"Patients, especially women, are sighing in relief after the return of health workers to their duties," she added.
FATA has enough health facilities to serve its population of 9m, said Director Health Services FATA Dr. Jawad Habib Khan.
Militancy had rendered the health system ineffective, he said, but the army's operations have put things back on track and the people are receiving free treatment in FATA health facilities.
"There are 26 hospitals, 10 rural health centres and 419 community health centres in seven tribal districts that receive about 5m patients every year," he told Pakistan Forward. "We offer all specialties at the well-equipped facilities to provide quality treatment."
Hurting women and children
The Taliban's destruction of health facilities in FATA and KP hurt women and children the most.
According to the World Health Organisation, 250 women die per 100,000 live births in Pakistan annually, but the situation is worse in areas hit by militancy, where about 300 women die per 100,000 live births.
Furthermore, in 2012, the Taliban used intimidation and threats to obstruct vaccinations in FATA, leading to an outbreak of polio, according to Deputy Director Health Services FATA Dr. Ikhtiar Ali.
Dr. Ikhtiar gives high marks to the Pakistani army for a reduction in polio cases in recent years.
"In 2014, [FATA] recorded 179 cases, more than any province in the country, 16 in 2015 and only two in 2016 so far because of our ability to vaccinate 99% of the 1m target children," he told Pakistan Forward.
"The army action has proved a blessing for the children who are now safe from poliomyelitis," he said. "Soldiers not only protect vaccinators; they also administered oral polio drops."