Hugging the wall: state, institutions, everyday day life and the resettling of NWA TDPs in Pakistan

 By Dr.Elisabetta Lob

I shouldnt have, but I went there one hundred times

I was so weak I hugged the wall at times

Without any bread, I was close to starving at times

Not seeing any way out, I was going mad at times

I had a weak soul, but I was still patient

(M. A. Yousufi, Mirages of the Mind, Haryana, 2014)


Wars and, at times, military operations have their own love stories. They are stories of affection, betrayal, despair and tears. As soon as Zarb-e-Azab was launched in North Waziristan on June 15th, they leaped out off the pages of the innuendos at the whole Pakistan. Over 900,000 persons poured into the neighbouring regions and towns, and became de facto refugees or, to put it with the official jargon, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Their relationship with the Pakistani State, its institutions and the whole nation is at heart of the plot of a complicated yet fascinating love story. Its characters have gone through decades of difficult times, misunderstandings, long waits and rejections. They are now entering a crucial, critical stage.

In early September 2014, Pakistan’s Foreign Office directed all disaster management authorities and concerned departments to call IDPs Temporary Dislocated Persons (TDPs). Despite government servants’ skepticism, this linguistic subtlety is far being a captious question. It tinges with hope the depth of all uprooted persons’ homesickness by formally highlighting the temporariness of the current rehabilitation provisions. For those who are accommodated in camps, life therein may be an alienating experience. It implies the inclusion within an individual’s private affairs and the exclusion from his/her public life (Dilken and Lausten, 2005; 58). Unsurprisingly, 35 per cent of the 385 refugees who were interviewed by the Coordinated Assessments for their MIRA, complained about the overcrowding of their provisional shelters. Furthermore, a perceived lack of privacy and security caused concern among a further overall 24 per cent of the sample. One should be circumspect about not jumping to the wrong conclusions. What NWA TDPs miss are not the proverbial “four walls”. Home is not merely the building where people enjoy family life. In the collective imagination, it embodies the spirit of the kot, where well-oiled hierarchical mechanisms, social balances of power and mutual relationships allow individuals to be part of a community of known and respected persons.

Age-old fears lurk then in many TDPs’ minds, and make of their feelings of insecurity and intrusion into their private and public lives a tangible reality. “By God, I will hold [Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif and [Army Chief] Raheel Sharif by collar on the Day of Judgment. First, we were forced to leave our homes and then we are humiliated here for a small quantity of food”, denounced to the Dawn Noor ul Almin, an Ahmadzai Wazir, who took shelter with a host family in Serai Nowrung (Dawn (online edition), 27th June 2014). Food is widely acknowledged to be a symbolic source of security. It brings back memories of home, and family and friends around a laid table. Its shortages embroil Pakistani institutions in a situation fraught with peril. In Bannu, demonstrations and sit-ins are a daily occurrence. Protesters persistently pressurize different State authorities into bringing an end to their crisis. On Sept. 10th, a group of refugees took the streets to force the government to either meet their basic, everyday needs or repatriate them. Earlier on, in late July, 500 persons had blocked the roads of the former Edwardesbad and violently protested against security forces. TDPs’ malcontent spares no one. On August 25th, some of them harshly lashed out at the PTI-led provincial government and the party leadership for letting them alone. For decades, the Army has been one of the most trusted institutions in the FATA region. It was second only to local jirgas’ members (Shirwani, 2012; 50). Now, as Noor ul Almin’s anger reveals, even military personnel is in the dock. In refugees’ eyes, Pakistani civil and military institutions are progressively “losing the plot” of their resettlement. Marches do not merely display TDPs’ acrimony towards state and government representatives. In fact, they are real acts of citizenship (Isin, 2008; 15-39). During the early weeks of the military operation, grievances were voiced through the traditional institutional channel of the local jirga. The recent atomization of the protests suggests that refugees are creating new sites and scales of struggle. Their new way of ‘being political’ aims at sensitizing public awareness of their plight, and highlighting their sense of civil belonging to a community.

TDPs and their rehabilitation are a further test of the provincial institutional harmony, national unity as well as the full and equal enjoyment of the constitutionally established rights of citizenship. Notionally speaking, ideas of belonging to a wider community as a legally recognised subject are trapped in a complicated and, at times, intangible tangle of mutual expectations. Solidarity and a friendly – no matter whether institutional or not – hand in time of need are indeed the other side of the coin where citizenship and, to a certain extent, even nationhood are symbolically depicted. The hardships NWA TDPs have to undergo for the sake of the security of the whole nation demand some kind of compensation. At grassroots level, these challenges appear quite easy to take up. The misfortunes of those TDPs who had found a provisional shelter in Bannu educational institutions moved to tears the whole country. With the start of a new school year approaching, refugees were supposed (and asked) to relocate elsewhere. Many refugees angrily reacted to the news by refusing to vacate their provisional ‘homes’. Some others voluntary left the schools where they had been temporarily resettled, to allow students to attend their classes. Still, their experience lifts the curtain on an informal everyday fraternity that helps TDPs overcome their loneliness and feel (a loved) part of a community. Indeed, locals first hosted homeless refugees in their homes and then allowed them to set up a camp on a nearby field. Well-rooted and codified social practices turn then into an informal institution that shares the responsibility for reifying the empathy of the whole nation.

By contrast, federal and provincial authorities as embodied by their bureaucratic branches have bungled any attempt to set out a cohesive, consistent plan for the provisional resettlement of NWA refugees and the integration of their personal state of transition within a community-oriented social framework. For instance, the failure of the local administrative authorities to find a plot of land where TDPs can bury their dearest ones, has redrawn the social and geographical borders of sorrow. Corpses often cross the great divide via Afghanistan or the Kurram Agency. Rites and rituals of burial are not being performed within the traditional and reassuring extended family or village context. Giving a relative a burial is often the result of long and difficult negotiations with locals. Grief tinges then with the new and so far unknown nuances of loneliness and disorientation. The state may then frequently come across as being administratively ‘violent’. Its everyday bureaucratic practices and inefficiency throw into confusion TDPs’ understanding of their social and life worlds (Das, 2007) and lifts the curtain on the arbitrariness of the politics of state-led welfare processes (Gupta, 2012, 23-4).

The initial reluctance of the Government of both Sindh and Punjab to allow TDPs to enter their provinces sparked off a fierce debate that echoed those on and around the resettlement and the rehabilitation of Partition refugees back in 1947. Most of all, any attempt to restrict the free movement of persons might have violated internationally and constitutionally enshrined rights. Still, the heart of the matter was (and is) not a mere legal controversy. To the average uprooted person, the doubts about the advisability of any ban on their provisional resettlement in a province other than KPK are legalisms. For many displaced persons, Bannu is – at times just ideally – the first stage of a longer journey. Indeed, family members scattered across the country are ready to welcome their less fortunate relatives with outstretched arms. A simple equation lodges in many refugees’ mind. Having been forced to leave their homes for the good of the nation, family reunion and the search for a home away from home are non-negotiable rights. They somehow belong to that immaterial constitution that underpins the written one.

Some of the main institutional and party figures involved in the rehabilitation of NWA refugees share the very same socio-historical background. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his younger brother Shahbaz and PTI chairman Imran Khan all hail from a family of (Partition) displaced persons. They are on a familiar yet dangerous ground. The credibility of the institutions and the parties they head does not depend on an eventual failure on the ‘high-politics’ market. Indeed, the Sharif brothers and Imran Khan know quite well that the litmus test of the TDPs’ thinking, and their authoritativeness are the everyday and its basic needs. Homes, food, family reunion, social intimacy and domesticity are indeed the receipt for succeeding in the rehabilitation of NWA uprooted persons. Pakistani institutions and political parties are then playing for high stakes. The ball is their court. Love, the adage goes, cannot wait.

Dr.Elisabetta Lob is PhD from the University of London. Her PhD thesis was on,
”A Betrayed Promise? The Politics of the Everyday State and the Resettling of Refugees in Pakistani Punjab, 1947-1962.” She has taught in Institute of Social & Cultural Studies, Punjab University, Lahore. Its abridged version was published in ‘Peace & Security’, newsletter of CPSS.


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