Landmines killing people in Pak’s South Waziristan
The silence as you stand in the centre of Makin, the birthplace of the Pakistan Taliban, is striking.
Nestled among the rocky mountains of this remote corner of northwestern Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal district, Makin was once the base of feared Pakistan Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
Today, save for a few scattered, mostly abandoned mud and stone houses, a large army checkpoint and a few stalls in the market, there is virtually nothing here.
Across South Waziristan, village after village has been left abandoned. The empty streets contradict the Pakistani government’s claims that more than half a million people, who had fled the area in the wake of a military operation in 2009, have been resettled in their homes.
Umar Din lost the fingers on his right hand and was completely blinded in his left eye in a landmine explosion [Al Jazeera]
Residents began to tentatively return to the impoverished tribal district in 2012. But the fragile calm in the area has been broken, periodically, by a series of deadly explosions.
The wave of violence has left many locals too afraid to return, putting the government’s plans to repopulate and normalise life in this remote, underdeveloped area at risk.
These, however, are not signs that the Taliban are returning: they are, instead, the remnants of what Pakistan’s bitter war against them has left behind.
Umar Din sits quietly in the corner of a protest camp in Tank, the closest major town to South Waziristan, about 65km east of Makin.
The 15-year-old always wanted to be a doctor, he says, softly, his voice barely audible over the sound of nearby traffic. As he speaks, he shifts his right arm uncomfortably, tucking it further into his scarf and away from view.
In April, Din was playing in his front yard in the remote South Waziristan village of Badr when there was a huge explosion.
“When the blast occurred, I couldn’t see anything from either of my eyes,” he told Al Jazeera. “I felt pain all over my body, and I felt like I was bleeding heavily.”
The fingers on his right hand were blown off, and he was left blinded in one eye. His sisters, Maryam and Shamila, were also hit by shrapnel.
The explosion had been caused by a landmine. It took four hours for him to be shifted to the nearest major hospital, in Dera Ismail Khan, about 135km away.
Since residents began returning to the war-torn district, at least 77 people have been wounded in explosions caused by landmines or leftover improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the Mehsud Tahaffuz Movement (MTM), a local rights group, says.
At least 18 of those people were killed, MTM says.
Tribal leaders say they have been demanding that the military clear the explosives, but that not enough is being done.
“As the State, as the government, as those who said the area had been cleared, it is [the military’s] responsibility that they clear these bombs, mines, or whatever they are, so that our children are safe there,” says Saeed Anwar, a tribal elder from the town of Ladha.
Many are angered because they had returned to areas explicitly declared safe by the military.
“We went back only because we were told it was safe,” says Khan Rasool, 55, a farmer whose daughter and grandson were badly wounded in a landmine explosion on January 14.
“In 2015 they told us that our area was ‘cleared’ – we only went home on the name of this ‘cleared’.”
‘They never came’
Din’s family returned to the village last year out of desperation, as they could no longer afford to pay rent in the town of Zhob, about 150km south of Makin, where they had fled when the military operation began, and where government services are better.
Since they returned, Islamuddin, his uncle, says there have been at least six explosions in his area alone.
The military, he said, does nothing to clear the mines.
“They know all about it. But they say that this is not our job. They say there is a [special team] that will have to come and do it,” said Islamuddin. The team never came.
The account from Badr was borne out by residents of several other villages that Al Jazeera spoke to.
“In my area, these explosives are scattered all over the place. I have taken pictures myself of unexploded artillery shells,” says Alam Zeb, 25, a student from Ladha.
Zeb says he approached the military three times to clear the shells from his village but was rebuffed each time.
Three months later, he says, soldiers did arrive: but they were not there to remove the mines. Instead, they threatened his family and warned him to stop complaining about the dangers of living in their village on social media.
“So for three months they weren’t able to send a unit, but then [on my Facebook post] they took such rapid action?”
The situation gets even worse, residents say, if a soldier is wounded in such an explosion.
“They immediately accuse us of planting the device, and demand that we tell them who did it,” says Anwar. “Then for a whole month, they will keep everyone in the village in jail.”
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the military said it investigates the possibility of residents facilitating attacks against security forces, but that its inquiries are “strictly as per local [tribal] traditions”.
Officially, the military denied to Al Jazeera that it has been slow to react to landmine or IED explosions, saying it dispatches soldiers to clear ordnance that has been identified by villagers and offers medical aid and compensation to those wounded in such explosions.
Posters warning against the dangers of unexploded ordnance are also visible in the district’s main towns.
“A colossal number of mines, IEDs and booby traps have been neutralised,” according to a military statement in response to Al Jazeera’s questions.
Officially, the military denies it ever laid any landmines in the district, blaming Taliban forces for doing so.
Privately, however, security officials concede that this is a difficult problem for the military to solve.
At the height of hostilities in 2010, when soldiers were fighting pitched battles with Taliban fighters and battling daily IED attacks, the military was forced to “sprinkle” mines across the district as an emergency defensive measure, said a senior security official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
As a result, the army does not have a clear map of where all of the hundreds of mines laid by either themselves or Taliban forces are currently buried. Moreover, over the nine years since the operation began, rain, floods and erosion may have moved many of the mines from where they were originally laid, the official said.
A specialised team of bomb disposal experts has been scanning through each sector of the district, he said, but it is painstaking work. Every day, he said, they work for 12 hours but may find just one or two mines.
There are hundreds more, buried in the hills, waiting for an errant foot. Villagers say they advise their children to stick to well-worn paths, where walking in others’ footprints or tire tracks from vehicles offers a sense of safety.
“But believe me, if I place my foot even a little to the left or right of the main path, I begin to feel an itch in the soles of my feet,” says Anwar.
“No one is safe, anywhere. In all of Waziristan, not a single place is safe. Anything can happen.”
Back in Makin, the cold silence hangs heavy over the main bazaar. Many of the houses resemble archaeological ruins, crumbling mud and stone structures worn down by years of wind, rain, and war.
Unless the explosives are cleared, it may be years yet, locals say, until they are inhabited again