This is what I saw in Bannu

Published: August 5, 2014

The basic health units, district health units and the public hospitals are primarily without health care professionals and have little or no medicines. There are several case studies where Panadol was offered for a variety of ailments. PHOTO: AFP/FILE

Recently I had the opportunity to visit Bannu district, where the majority of the 500,000 plus Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), primarily from Mir Ali and Miranshah in North Waziristan Agency, have moved to escape the military operation called Zarb-e-Azb (apparently) against the terrorists who continue to threaten the people of Pakistan.

This is not the first displaced population I have seen or engaged with close up, but the feeling of being overwhelmed never fails to leave. As one enters the garrison town of Bannu, visibly under the control of and closely monitored by the military, roadblocks line all entrances of the town of approximately one million (Pakistan has not had a census in 15 years). Hence, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how a sleepy forgotten town has suddenly become the centre of attention, it is palpable. The streets, which are single lane dirt roads, badly paved, potholes all over, are crowded with the new male residents, sitting on the roadsides on charpoys, broken walls, huddled in groups all over town.

Some of the smaller distribution points, of relief goods, from the world food program, are recognisable by the haphazard lines of turbaned Waziris crowding around an area for the relief goods. There is no sign of women, local or visiting, North Waziris in these public spaces. The only women I saw in public were in the clothing section of the main bazaar. 10-15 shops where shuttle cock clad women were shopping for the upcoming Eid, browsing through bangles, reams of cloth for their Eid outfits or buying henna, heaped on carts, to decorate their hands in celebration of the end of Ramadan.

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

The collected data, to date, suggests that over 75% of the internally displaced people are women and children. So naturally, one wonders where the women and children in this small town are. More importantly, is the relief effort targeting women and children? If these women are not visible, is the effort seeking to find them?

I was informed any attempt of the displaced women to access the distribution points is met with aggressive denial, both by the local Bannu elders and the Waziri men; they object to women directly receiving relief goods or standing queues alongside ‘others’ publicly. Hence, after (apparently) a few violent incidents where men were seen beating women out of relief goods queues, the army issued a public notice that no women would be allowed to come into the main distribution point at the sports complex.

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

The problem with this is obvious; since there is absolutely no way to ensure women and children are receiving the relief that is their share; we have no way of knowing if goods and services are getting to the most vulnerable.

Furthermore, there are many (the numbers of whose are unclear Khwande Khor has an assessment of 90 families in February, 2014) women -headed households, widows, single women, women with elderly men/unwell men/young male children, who are unable to access these goods or services on their behalf. This was an assessment they made before the operations started, but the first wave of IDPs had started to come to Bannu. There is an inter cluster (UN multi-sector assessment underway), which is supposed to provide a better idea of needs across sectors which includes vulnerable families.

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

In the searing heat thousands lined up (men only), like sardines in tight lines, under a thin straw canopy outside the Bannu sports stadium. Guarded and monitored by the army, these displaced citizens wait for days on average, I am told 24 hours to three days, to go through ‘security’ before they are let into the sports complex, where the largest of the five distribution points of both food and non-food items are stored.

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

The following is the procedure of verification for the internally displaced:

1. Go to NADRA office to share your CNIC card, proving you are from NWA, and receive a blue (if from Peshawar) or Green (from Bannu) card providing you eligibility for relief goods.

2. If you do not have a CNIC card, you will have to prove you are from NWA. This proof is established at the District Coordinator’s office, where two ‘maliks’ from NWA (I assume they are from Mir Ali and Miran Shah), who question you and ‘authenticate’ your credentials of the claim you have come from NWA. Once you have the verification card you may go to the distribution points to receive goods and services.

3. The sports complex is the largest distribution point where WFP and various relief charities have set up camps to give relief items. If you cannot access the sports complex you are unable to receive the total available relief goods offered to IDPs.

4. Inside SRSP managing the NFI for WFP who also give another separate receipt, once a package is handed over, monitoring the family member’s entitlement of receiving a monthly package for three months. This data is uploaded in a database.

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

I saw separate distribution tents for each ‘agency’ donated by different agencies/government officials/non-governmental organisations:

1) UNHCR/World Food Program, managed by Sarhad Rural Support Program Army or armed forces: food packages and water

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

2) Army or armed forces: food packages and water

The armed forces packages are food item

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

3) Best, a non-governmental organisation

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

4) Government of Punjab: food packages and water

5) Government of Azad Kashmir

6) Zong/UBL: distributing cell phone Sims and separate counters for cashing the transfers once activated

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

7) Registration desk of SRSP on behalf of Fata Development Authority to register IDPs and register in the Database of WFP of the number of NFI distributed to the families to avoid duplication.

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

7a) Two women SRSP registration officers in a separated tent to facilitate women

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

8) Lone social welfare official: responsible for assisting and facilitating children, minors, ‘orphans, lost from families, traumatised or drop out from schools’; this activity and department is currently ‘supported’ by UNICEF and will be further strengthened by the induction of SRSP support staff.

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

A very obvious observation is, since it is next to impossible to enter the sports complex unless you are male who has a CNIC card with a registration card, you cannot access the relief goods or services on offer. Thus, in light of the following constraints:

1. Televisions are not common in Bannu; hence, public messages are difficult to share. I did not see any loudspeakers or public screens giving relevant public information targeting the internally displaced families.

2. Radios are also uncommon amongst most families.

3. Since the host shelters primarily consist of the 600 schools across Bannu, there are no public information message platforms from which these people can access information.

4. I did not see NADRA mobile units or any messaging from them in public spaces. It is very clear that children, and many of IDP men and women, especially women have no identity cards. The cultural barriers of limiting women have not been overcome and this is highly problematic. Both, for human rights and security reasons, the state cannot allow ‘cultural’ reasons to continue to deprive women from their basic right to have an identity card, which is a tool through which they can independently access relief goods and services.

5. The Sim card scheme is not accessible to women either. They aren’t allowed to enter the sports complex (where this service offered), nor can they avail this option. Once again, the cultural barriers limiting women from having a ‘phone’ has denied them the cash transfer of Rs7000 from KPK, Rs8000 from Punjab and Rs30,000 Ramadan package from the federal government.

I am not sure how the majority of the IDPs, who may not have CNICs, B-forms for minors, or do not have the physical capacity to stand in line for days, are accessing relief?

6. If you are a minor or a young adult, there is no way of accessing the social welfare services on offer inside the sports complex to register your grievance. I spoke to the officer inside the complex and asked him how he expected children to get to him? He was visibly embarrassed and agreed, but said someone from outside lets him know there are children who need assistance and he brings them in. He shared some data; thus far, since July, 2014, 1400 children had been ‘registered’ as missing from parents, orphans, traumatised, dropout from schools’. The services they offer are restricted to counselling as they have one psychiatrist. There is also assistance for reunion with parents through the help of the army. I asked if providing them with a B-form from NADRA was on the menu of services. The answer was non-committal.

7. Since women cannot enter the sports complex, their only access to any services are at the other smaller distribution points which excludes the charity relief packages, including the Zong Sim card cash transfers: Rs7000+8000+30,000=Rs45,000, thus far.

Outside of the Sports Complex

There are 600 schools in Bannu that have become shelters for the internally displaced families. These are also the centres in which non-governmental organisations are allowed to operate in Bannu to provide direct services, carry out surveys of needs and provide some relief to women and children who are barred from public spaces and the sports complex distribution point.

For example, SRSP has a mobile truck service, which visits several ‘school/shelters/hosting areas’ daily, dropping off NFIs and providing information otherwise unavailable. Thus far, out of the 600 schools 250 have been visited. The problem is, if the IDP has no green registration card they are unable to receive relief goods. Thus one hopes the SRSP develops a list of these individuals/families, so that NADRA can visit them in these specific sites to rectify this gap.

Another relief organisation, Khwendo Kor, also has made the rounds of these ‘school/shelters/host families’ to gather information and develop lists for the relevant authorities to bring them into the net of the official data. The cultural challenges have hindered efforts to access them and develop self-help coping strategies and mechanisms. This will be a huge challenge to overcome in the coming months when ‘friendly spaces’ are being designed to assist women to help themselves.

One more huge challenge, as a result of the ‘cultural norms’, has been in the health sector. Because of the intensity of purdah, women are unwilling to go to or allow medical professionals to assist them. On the other hand, there are next to no health facilities in Bannu which are functional. The basic health units, district health units and the public hospitals are primarily without health care professionals and have little or no medicines. There are several case studies where Panadol was the only medicine offered for a variety of ailments.

The barriers, as a result of the cultural norms, will have to deal with any design intervention with women and children. This will be a huge challenge. Women have no or little concept of self-help, self-esteem or idea that they are able to seek or develop skills to cope in this current crisis. The psycho-social assistance will need to be designed at a very basic level to introduce the idea of self-help.

I had the opportunity to observe the following; these schools are in pretty bad shape, are hosting multiple related families, and the water and sanitation situation is dire. The challenges of not being familiar with the importance of hygiene, knowledge of use of sanitation facilities and non-functional facilities available are huge.

At the end of August these schools are required to be available for the children of Bannu. It is quite clear these facilities will need to be revamped, in a serious effort to restore them to some functional standard.

The educational assistance for the IDP children will need to be aware of the following factors: the IDP population is primarily illiterate; it doesn’t matter if they are children or adults, men or women. The literacy levels are in single digits. Thus, any emergency educational intervention has to keep this in mind and have multi age/gender sensitive literacy programs. In fact, many told me (including Waziri children) schools in NWA have been closed for the past 12-18 months anyway. I do not see Waziri families allowing their girls to go too far for educational services either. Hence, the new abode in which they will be transferred, too, will need to be close to ‘schooling’ facilities if girls are expected to attend. Alternative models of home schooling can be developed if the local teachers or NGOs are allowed to operate in Bannu.

Access to Bannu

Very few organisations are allowed to operate inside Bannu; without an NOC from FDMA PDMA (cleared by the armed forces), no organisation is allowed to operate.

Foreign organisations are banned from operating in Bannu, this includes most UN agencies except WFP and UNHCR who also operate through partner organisations and operate from Kohat or Peshawar. SRSP, Khwendo Kor and Sabayon are one of the few local organisations who have offices and are present in Bannu.

Camp management/lack of IDPs in camp

The message that the IDP have chosen not to live in camps because of cultural reasons is a myth apparently. The reason IDPs have not shifted to camps is because the state of the camp management and facilities are abominable. The camps have very low quality shelter, water and sanitation facilities which are disconnected from shelter facilities and infested with dangerous creepy crawlies with no shade for miles. Furthermore, the armed forces refuse to allow professionals to set up or manage campsites. Also, camps have been set up in inaccessible areas where movement inside and outside is highly restricted. These restrictions will have to be lifted (alongside management of camps and developing better facilities) before schools open and the current residents are transferred to alternative shelter arrangements.

I would highly recommend cash-for-work options, developed for multiple services including developing camps for IDPs moving out of the 600 schools, to keep Bannu clean and for community watch or security arrangements.

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

There are too many young Waziri men doing absolutely nothing. This is undesirable for many reasons. They lack basic life skills and this crisis will further exacerbate the situation.

In the bazaar

There was normal activity in the bazaar, indicating the local economy hadn’t been disrupted. There were no relief items being sold, which was a good sign that goods weren’t been overly distributed. Although, I later heard from Bannu cousins, that in the outer smaller bazaars some relief items have begun to be seen in the shops. I did not see this myself. Media or on ground verification is necessary for this. Nevertheless, food items are not in shortage. In fact, there are a lot of food items, which have been stored by the government.

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

There is a curfew in Bannu most of the day, hence, shopping is done at specific timings and those allowed to leave their homes are all busy buying before they are back under lock and key.

The food stalls were full; fruit vegetables were available in plenty. There were many chemists’ shops; thus basic medicines are available if you have the money and some knowledge of what to take.

Khwendo Kor meeting

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

Photo: Nilofer Qazi

They are doing excellent work and probably the only organisation present in all 49 union councils of the Bannu district. They have networks of women and men, therefore, are an excellent platform for training and accessing locals and IDPs. They have been operating in Bannu since 2003.


1. Lift restrictions on women accessing direct relief goods and cash transfer SIM facilities.

2. Increase the distribution points. The current number is too few to cater for such a large number of families.

3. NADRA has to increase mobile facilities and activities to seek women and children, to provide them with CNIC/B Cards. This will have to be accompanied with innovative public information campaigns, keeping in mind information barriers in Bannu.

4. Cash-for-work programs need to begin immediately. There are too many young male adults, out of school and work, just doing nothing. With the restrictions on NGOs/INGOs from operating in Bannu, there is no reason why this potential workforce cannot be mobilised to both help and self-help.

5. Partner with Khwendo Kor, who is present in all 49 union councils in the district of Bannu through their women organisations and men organisation networks. They have developed trust with the local families and have the ability to access places others cannot.

6. Multi-sector programs need to be developed which targets the regressive, restrictive and destructive cultural norms preventing women from helping themselves. Life skills, both income/non-income generating, and hygiene have to be introduced. Many of the barriers are cultural, hence, (whether education, hygiene, skills, access to information) all of these facilities will have to be designed keeping in mind and designing programs to ‘bring out’ the women. These programs will naturally have to first target the men or elders and the decision makers/army, to convince them that these programs, designed to encourage women to participate, are necessary for the wellbeing of the family, community and purpose of Zarb-e-Azb!

7. Programs, which will target families with local host families in Bannu, will have to include those host families. Whether it is about food stipends or any other direct services, this step needs to be taken to avoid friction and discrepancies between IDP-host families.

8. Emergency education programs will need to be cognisant of almost 100% illiteracy, amongst all age groups and both genders. Children haven’t attended school in either, at least, 18 months or ever.

9. Currently the size of the family is considered to include husband, wife and approximately six children. However, the reality of NWA average family is 13-15 members, with multiple wives. This discrepancy excludes registration of more than one wife and the size of the ‘family packages’; both in terms of cash transfers and food/non-food items.

10. Consider relaxing the NOC for relief organisations, especially those who can manage ‘camps’ and work with women and children.

These steps will help bring a certain standard of living for these people – God knows they deserve it.

Nilofer Qazi

Nilofer Qazi

She is a social political activists, liberal and has secular views. Also a public policy specialist with an interest in the visual arts. Supports Sahil's work, as volunteer, currently fundraising for Sarhad rural support program for programs and activities in support of the IDPs from NWA. She tweets as @ninoqazi (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.