When a stray bullet fired by Taliban militants became lodged in her spine last August, 22-year-old Shakira Bibi gave up all hopes of ever leading a normal life.
Balwan Singh, an 84-year-old shopkeeper living in Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, is well past retirement age, but any illusions he may have had about living out his golden years in peace and security have long since been dashed.
Residents of the Khyber Agency, one of seven administrative districts that comprise northern Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), are in the worst possible predicament: either course of action they choose now, they say, could result in death.
For girls living in northern Pakistan’s sprawling tribal regions, the struggle for education began long before that fateful day when members of the Taliban shot a 15-year-old schoolgirl in the head, and will undoubtedly continue for many years to come.
Imagine traveling for almost an entire day in the blistering sun, carrying all your possessions with you. Imagine fleeing in the middle of the night as airstrikes reduce your village to rubble. Imagine arriving in a makeshift refugee camp where there is no running water, no bathrooms and hardly any food. Now imagine making that journey as a pregnant woman.
Saleema Bibi graduated from medical school 15 years ago – but to this day, the 40-year-old resident of Peshawar, capital of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, has never been able to practice as a professional.
Between government efforts to wipe out insurgents from Pakistan’s northern, mountainous regions, and the Taliban’s own campaign to exercise power over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the real victims of this conflict are often invisible.
Muhammad Tufail, a 22-year-old resident of Mardan, one of 26 districts that comprise Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, has recently become a volunteer aid worker.
Some fled on foot, others boarded trucks along with luggage, rations and cattle. Many were separated from families, or collapsed from exhaustion along the way. They don’t know where their next meal will come from, or how they will provide for their children.
Three days ago, Rameela Bibi was the mother of a month-old baby boy. He died in her arms on Jun. 28, of a chest infection that he contracted when the family fled their home in Pakistan’s North Waziristan Agency, where a full-scale military offensive against the Taliban has forced nearly half a million people to flee.
It has been just two weeks since the Pakistan army began a full-blown military offensive - codenamed ‘the sword of the Prophet Muhammad strikes’ (Zarb-e-Asb) – to eradicate the Taliban from the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), particularly from the sprawling North Waziristan Agency.
Shaukat Ali, a shopkeeper originally hailing from Miramshah in the Northern Waziristan Agency of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), looks exhausted as he sits outside a makeshift shelter with his family of 10.
With its lush valleys and well-watered plains, Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province produces plenty of food for the local population, including 10 million tons of wheat every year. So why are the people of this bountiful mountainous region going hungry?
Minority communities in Pakistan have long had a raw deal. Accounting for just 10 percent of this country’s population of 180 million, they are no strangers to marginalisation, discrimination or even violence.
Already saddled with a veritable catalogue of crises, Pakistan’s largest province, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) now finds itself on the verge of industrial collapse, as extortion and kidnappings drive away all prospects for production or employment.
Blaming Afghan refugees for a surge in crime, Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has placed restrictions on the movement of those who do not possess legal documents to stay in the country.
Every night in his sleep, Rizwan Ahmed sees his sons being killed. “When he wakes up, he starts crying. He realises they are dead and it was the nightmare he has been having,” says Dr. Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the psychiatrist treating him.
Mushfiq Wali, a 22-year-old shoemaker in northern Pakistan, loves watching films in the local Pashto language. But he says the Taliban are a killjoy: their bomb attacks have led to the closure of movie theatres, again. “They don’t spare anything that brings happiness.”
Following scattered defiance of the Taliban earlier, a new wave of students is now heading for education in schools and colleges across the troubled north of Pakistan.
Pakistan is in the midst of a heated debate on continuing military operations against the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), especially after the brutal killing of 23 army soldiers last month.
Pakistan may have low prevalence of HIV/AIDS, with only about 9,000 officially confirmed cases, but the country is at high risk, particularly due to a growing number of injecting drug users (IDUs), say experts.