First batch of displaced Pakistanis return home from Afghanistan

By Hanif Ullah

North Waziristan Agency Surgeon Dr. Zakir Hussain (centre) welcomes displaced tribesmen returning from Afghanistan on the Pakistani-Afghan border January 16. [Hanif Ullah]

North Waziristan Agency Surgeon Dr. Zakir Hussain (centre) welcomes displaced tribesmen returning from Afghanistan on the Pakistani-Afghan border January 16. [Hanif Ullah]

MIRANSHAH, Pakistan -- Thousands of Pakistanis who fled to Afghanistan to escape fighting between the army and militants began returning home last week, two years after their displacement, officials said.

The first batch of displaced people from North Waziristan Agency, numbering about 2,000, were greeted by officials at the Ghulam Khan border crossing January 16, North Waziristan Political Agent Kamran Khan Afridi told AFP.

Around 200 families were expected to arrive back every day until the end of the first phase on January 26, he said.

However, heavy rains have slowed the process, and only a total of 550 families have arrived so far, according to the FATA Disaster Management Authority (FDMA) director of operations Muhammad Arif Khan.

Afridi said the displaced will be accommodated first in camps before returning to their villages and towns.

The details of the next phases are forthcoming.

Pakistan's army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in June 2014 to wipe out militant bases in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Estimates vary on the number of people who were displaced by the fighting. According to Pakistani government figures, about 9,000 families from North Waziristan fled to Afghanistan after the launch of the military offensive.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as of December 2014, more than 291,800 individuals crossed into Afghanistan, most settling in the Golan camp in Khost Province. By May 2015, Khost and Paktika provinces hosted 32,576 families comprising more than 205,000 individuals.

Happy to return home

Malik Saleem, 45, a Miranshah tribal elder, recently returned from Golan camp.

"We are happy that the government of Pakistan has started the return process and has restored peace in our area, and we are also thankful to the Afghan government for its hospitality and care," he told Pakistan Forward.

As many as 200 families of the Payi Khel and Muhammad Khel tribes started their journey back home from Khost on the first day of the repatriation process, Miranshah Assistant Political Agent Muhammad Anwar Khan Shirani said.

"All families have received transportation from Ghulam Khan to Bakakhel camp and the administration has arranged vehicles and food for [them]," Shirani told Pakistan Forward.

"We are very happy that we have returned here after two years, that peace has been restored here and that security forces have full control here after the operation against militants," 28-year-old Sardaraz, a returnee from Poha Muhammad Khel village, told Pakistan Forward.

"We are now in Bakakhel camp in Bannu District, and it is expected that soon we will return to our native villages," he said.

Emergency relief, health services

The FDMA is providing relief items to displaced persons returning to Pakistan.

"Emergency relief items like shelters, tents, kitchen sets and food items have been given to the returned families, while a Rs. 25,000 (US $238) return package and Rs. 10,000 (US $95) for transportation will be provided when they return to their hometowns," FDMA director Khan told Pakistan Forward.

The FDMA is paying for those supplies and transportation.

On the third day of repatriation, January 18, Khan said 324 families had arrived at Bakakhel camp.

The returnees include 415 men, 591 women and 704 children who are staying at the camp on a temporary basis, he said, adding that the displaced people will eventually return to their respective areas. He did not provide a date for that journey.

The FDMA also set up a temporary camp at the Ghulam Khan border to provide an overnight stay for returning families who reach the border in the evening, he said.

A temporary health centre has been established at the border to provide emergency and first aid treatment to those who need it, said Dr. Zakir Hussain, agency surgeon of North Waziristan.

An army medical team and health department officials are providing treatment to the temporarily displaced tribe members who arrive at the border, he told Pakistan Forward.

"We have also arranged polio vaccination for the children of the displaced families," he said.

Compensation for damaged homes

Pakistani authorities say 67,000 homes in the tribal belt were completely destroyed, but there has been no independent assessment of the scale of the damage, AFP reported.

The country has asked the international community for US $800 million (Rs. 83.9 billion) to "rebuild and rehabilitate" the tribal areas.

The political administration of North Waziristan Agency on November 26 distributed a total of Rs. 170 million (US $1.6 million) among the owners of houses that were damaged during Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

In a ceremony held in Miranshah, North Waziristan Assistant Political Agent Muhammad Anwar Khan Sherani distributed compensation cheques among 553 temporarily displaced persons from the Boya, Saidabad, Land and Muhammad Khel areas.

The political administration also gave the owners of 346 completely damaged houses Rs. 400,000 (US $3,816) each, while the owners of 207 partially damaged houses received Rs. 160,000 (US $1,526) each.

In the Mir Ali area, also on November 26, Muhammad Irfanuddin, another North Waziristan assistant political agent, distributed cheques worth Rs. 350 million (US $3.3 million) among 207 affectees from the Daulatkhel, Umarki, Wazirabad, Machikhel, Muhammadi, Wazikhel, Khudri, Nawana and Kashmir Killi areas.

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