Miram Shah, North Waziristan—On a sweltering August afternoon in the Pakistani city of Bannu, Malik Ghulam takes a phone call from a relative in Afghanistan. Ghulam is one of the younger elders of the Madakhel, a clan of the Wazir tribe whose members have property on both sides of the Durand Line, the de facto Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The phone call leaves him worried: Someone is crossing the border from Afghanistan onto his tribal land and harvesting pine nuts, one of the few sources of income he has.
Ghulam’s home, along with the tract of pine trees, is on the Pakistani side of the border, in North Waziristan Agency, part of the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Thickly forested and mountainous, his district of Datta Khel is bisected by the Tochi River, along which runs a main road from the city of Miram Shah to a border checkpoint with Afghanistan’s Paktika Province in the west.
He has not seen the pine forest since 2014, when the Pakistani army launched a counterinsurgency operation in North Waziristan and ordered more than a million locals to leave. Pakistan says more than 500 soldiers and 3,500 Taliban and Al Qaeda militants have been killed in North Waziristan in the operation, and that the entire area has been cleared, yet Ghulam and the other Madakhel tribesmen are among more than 13,400 displaced families who and are still waiting for permission to return to their homes. From the little information sympathetic army officers give him, Ghulam has learned that his home, like thousands of others in North Waziristan, has been leveled.
Bannu, the gateway into North Waziristan, is now the closest he can get to home: Thousands of troops man checkpoints between Bannu and Datta Khel, and only those belonging to tribes allowed to return home are waved through. Tribesmen with money or better-off relatives live in homes as far away as Peshawar, Islamabad, and Karachi, waiting for the phone call from elders like Ghulam that will bring the news that they can return. Ghulam spends his days making the rounds to check in on the poorest of his tribesmen, around 4,000 families that have been living in tents in the open just outside Bannu for more than three years.
Every few weeks, the elders get phone calls inviting them to Bannu for traditional meetings, or jirgas, to discuss the operation with military officers, but many have stopped coming. “I have absolutely no heart in it anymore,” says Malik Said Rahman, who fled before the military operation. Taliban militants, Rahman says, had forced him to rent out a room to them in a home he owned. When he went to local authorities to complain, he was told there was no way to force the tenants out, so he left North Waziristan altogether, fearing he might be targeted in a drone strike or be arrested by the military and accused of helping the Taliban.
Like many in the tribal areas, Rahman would like the autonomy granted to the tribesmen to be replaced with the same laws as in the rest of Pakistan. “That old system, the idea of the tribes being able to defend themselves and having this great relationship with Pakistan…it was worthless.”