war on terror

Ghost towns and battle scars: A journey to Pakistan's terror hub of Waziristan

The Pakistan Army recently concluded anti-terror operations in what was once called one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Former US President Barack Obama, in his attempts to give legitimacy to the US army’s merciless drone attacks against the Taliban, called Waziristan one of the most dangerous places in the world. Due to its treacherous landscape and the frequent suicide bombings and attacks by US armed drones and Pakistan army, it may have been very unsafe then, but now it looks different. With Pakistani flags lazily fluttering at mud forts and hill tops in parts of North Waziristan, the depopulated barren spaces suggests a medieval battle ground where the guns have fallen silent and the army has retired to its barracks.

From Pakistan army’s Mi27 helicopter (perhaps at an altitude of 5,000 feet), which ferried a group of South Asian journalists to the Federally Administered Tribal Region or FATA last month to show how it has successfully concluded anti-terror operations, it was still possible to gauge the ferocity of the battle that took place in this parched and inhospitable terrain: most of the houses were roofless (I got to know the reason later) and there were just no people in sight. Even when the chopper landed at the Ghulam Khan Fort after taking a full chukkar (round), there was just no one to even stare at the sky to see its landing – a usual practice in the villages of South Asia. There was only Pakistan army soldiers who greeted the visitors by shouting: “Pakistan Zindabad. Narai Tadbeer.”

The briefing site of the Ghulam Khan fort was stunning in many ways. One had to just sit there and soak up the history of invasions, wars, and great ambitions by just staring at the phenomenal geography of the place. Afghanistan is a few kilometers away from here and then there are long winding roads beyond the hills that lead to Central Asia. Partition of the two countries have denied India these land routes to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Vital links

Ghulam Khan, considered to be the third most important pass, is now a trade terminal with Afghanistan. Former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, inaugurated this terminal in April. The briefing by Brigadier of Pakistan army is short, but underlines the importance of this historical pass and how the Pakistan government proposes to improve trade with Afghanistan as well as control the movement of militants from across the border. Islamabad is also fencing the border here, much to the annoyance of the government in Kabul, which never recognised the Durand line that separates the two countries. Therefore, a visit to Ghulam Khan is important to plot North Waziristan’s strategic importance on the map of Pakistan and how it serves to remind many of the contestation between the two countries on the issue of Durand line.

It is the town of Miram Shah that the Pakistan army wants to showcase to the visiting group of South Asian journalists, especially the ones from India. Pakistan’s Director General Inter Services Public/Press Relation, General Asif Ghafoor, in his briefing to the delegation, had wondered why India makes so much about the Mumbai terror attack of 2008 when Pakistan had faced bigger threats to its sovereignty from terrorists. A visit to FATA in his reckoning will prove how successfully the Pakistani army had fought and won against the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

Background to the battle

After the Taliban were ousted from Kabul in 2001, bulk of the Talibanis and foreign mercenaries began to converge in Miram Shah, which is the main city of North Waziristan. Media reports of that period suggest that suddenly this frontier town began to boom. Show rooms of second hand SUVs opened up with mercenaries from Central Asia flaunting big wads of money. Scared local people, who were forced to provide refuge to the Afghani Taliban, watched with trepidation as they lost control over their land and lives.

Initially, General Pervez Musharraf allowed the local Chieftains or Amirs to run their affairs, with the commitment that they would not provide refuge to the outsiders. At Durand Line, how could they control the Pashtuns living in Afghanistan and others who belonged to the Taliban? Expectedly, the US government leaned on a desperate Musharraf with a threat that either Pakistan sends its troops or they would. For the first time since the British Raj, Pakistan army entered Waziristan in the name of fighting Al Qaeda. It was a messy and bloody engagement in which there were no clear victors. Waziristan’s terrain of deserts, high mountains and forests provided ample protection to its hardy residents who used guerilla tactics to first hide and then hit at the Pakistan troops.

After Pakistan army flushed out the radicals from Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, the stand-off worsened. Most of them were radicals that were Pashtuns from Waziristan or Khyber Pakhtunwa. This was a bloody war between Pakistan Taliban, which was an assertion by tribal Islam led by a Mehsud, a Pashtun tribe and the army. The region was aerially bombed, but the Taliban could not be quelled and they continued to wreak havoc with the stability of the country. Scores of suicide bombings took place all over the country. Hundreds of Pashtuns were killed. The drone attacks from the US hurt this region grievously. The number of internally displaced people in Pakistan built in an avalanche when the army launched in 2014 an operation called Zarb-e-Azb or the cutting edge. The Pakistan army seems to have followed what British Viceroy Lord Curzon prescribed many years, but did not execute it. His view was that Waziristan cannot be stabilised “until the military steam-roller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start that machine.”

The steamroller

Zarb-e-Azb was that steamroller that Curzon recommended. More than a million Pashtuns left this region and dispersed all over the country. It is towns like Miran Shah and their traditional market and other buildings were destroyed in aerial bombing. Those who stayed back in this region were told to remove their roofs so that they could be subjected to surveillance by air. The entire city, to repeat Curzon, was steamrolled and now rebuilt in a manner that the refugees, who decide to return would find it difficult to recognise as their own.

While the military operation brought peace to geographical space called Waziristan, but now entire Pakistan has become Waziristan with angry Pashtuns asking tough questions about their displacement and their unending misery caused by the military operation. There is a full blown “Save Pashtun movement” led by a young leader, Manzoor Pashteen, who is asking tough questions about 30,000 odd Pashtuns that have disappeared due to the military operations.

Expectedly, Miram Shah seems like a ghost town. There were buildings, but no people. Army has built a new market, whose shops have not been allotted, but army spokesperson claimed that it would be done in the coming days. The army has built a swanky stadium, which is named after cricketer Younis Khan. Some matches have taken place in the past, but like many other buildings that have been built by the armed forces it looks undisturbed. There is a large part of the city that is still devastated due to bombing and it will take some effort to put it together again. What will be hard to restore are the memories of a town that was once the epitome of the inventiveness and the free will of a hardy people.

This article first appeared on Hardnews.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.