A five-month stay at the troubled yet intriguing Wana which is still waiting to share its stories and colours with the world
In 2003 my friend, Salman Rashid, wrote and I quote, "it will be years before another hill walker from Lahore or anywhere else in Pakistan will go walking in Waziristan and return to tell the tale."
I would never have been one to comment on that prediction, if it were not for what fate had in store for me: I was to experience South Waziristan in November 2015, when I was posted to Wana as the assistant political agent (APA Wana).
I could never be a hill walker as Salman; nonetheless, I could still narrate the story of my time in Wana.
This certainly did not mean that I had not tried to climb hills in Waziristan. In the snow-clad ridges next to Sra Kanda Narai pass, I once had to approach the highest visible nomad camp to make queries related to the monthly polio eradication drives. On another occasion, it was in a nullah bed above Zalay, where the water was still frozen in spots that the sun’s rays could hardly reach, and where we began our ascent to search for chukars on the hillsides. Visible on the hilltop was an assortment of rocks with coloured flags that wobbled in the wind. Possibly this was a shrine.
Pir Ghal is the highest peak of South Waziristan. It is located well inside the Mehsud tribal territory, while Wana subdivision is basically Ahmedzai Wazir, Dottani and Suleman Khel countryside. Unlike Mehsuds in the north, Ahmedzai Wazir, Dottani and Suleman Khel tribesmen have never faced mass dislocation during the present war on terror. Despite the severity of the Wana operations of 2004, these three tribes had managed to flush out militants through the strength of tribal unity, and this is aptly reflected in their pride and confidence, as I felt during interactions with all three tribes.
Wana subdivision is a strange world with a million different colours. On the road to Wana through Gomal, one gets to admire the grandeur of a small mountain river which has been dammed in the middle. It gives birth to a huge and magnificent lake of the most beautiful shape: the Gomal Zam Lake. The jade green shade of the lake tempts one to take a plunge and discover what lies in the depths.
Further on south lie the badlands of Gul Kach, the Gomal River and the lowly hills of Toi Khulla, while in the central region, sandwiched between Wana and Zarmillan plains, is the dry stony wadi of Chinu Khwa, where thousands throng to see the lonely tree that provided shade to a tired saint on his way to offer prayers on a rock slab underneath.
Towards the east lay the rugged saline plain of Spin, and finally in the west- north stand the Black Oak, Chilgoza Pine and Deodar forests of Shakai and Birmal. The variation that nature has blessed this great expanse with is mind-boggling.
In fact, despite all that may have passed, nature has not abandoned Wana. On the Tanai-Gul Kach road, I have seen an occasional see-see partridge hunting for a mouthful of grain. The Zarmillan plain still hosts houbara bustards on their way to or back from Pakistan; and during a rainy March, there are frequent sightings of demoiselle cranes.
What I could not find anywhere but just here were sandgrouse -- in a place which was suited for anything but them.
In Wana, I stayed at the APA Bungalow located in the South Waziristan Scouts Camp, known in short as the SWS Camp. The SWS Camp is a collection of government establishments, as well as the political administration and the paramilitary militia South Waziristan Scouts. The camp is located at the place where the boundary delimitation commission (named Waziristan Delimitation Commission), tasked with delimiting the border of Afghanistan and British India, had set up camp in 1894. The camp, merely a tent village at the time, came under a heavy attack by Mehsud tribesmen but was defended successfully by Brig. Gen. Turner’s units acting as the military escort to the Waziristan Delimitation Commission. The fighting was over after a long night of close quarter battle. In the present war on terror too, this camp has seen more than its due share of harsh times.
Jamil, a leading Ahmedzai Wazir malik and a shrewd tribesman, is a frequent visitor to the APA bungalow at the camp in Wana. An aged man, he shows pictures he has brought along of Wana as it was three decades ago. I get to see men perched under an aged pine tree, sitting precariously in a sea of snow, tired after a long day in pursuit of game on the higher forested slopes of Birmal. I can also see people squatting around a fire lit in the midst of tents perched on the Zarmillan plain.
But, the last picture I see is of a squished junk of metal which is difficult to comprehend.
It is a picture of Malik Jamil’s vehicle, he tells me. He was in it when an assassination attempt was made on him. This was just one of the many such attacks targeting leading maliks of the Ahmedzai Wazir tribe after they had pledged to drive out terrorist elements from their territory as per the 2007 peace agreement concluded with the government. While Jamil survived, though not entirely unscathed, many other maliks had not been so lucky.
Back in the camp, I was reminded not to leave this secure place until the sun had already crept up the hill in the east. I was also told to be back at the camp before sun down, and my frequent visits to the now notoriously infamous Zarmillan plains were written off as ridiculous. The reality of the threat that I had taken rather lightly sunk in on a windy afternoon when I was sitting in the lawn of the bungalow, fiddling with my newly purchased Mauser binoculars, and I tried to locate the source of a most irritating whizzing sound coming from above. The sound was coming from drones, the dreaded device of death, not just one but three of them, in the sky that evening.
I spent nearly five months in Wana, South Waziristan. I have not regretted spending time in a conflict-ridden, far-off zone. I managed to see and learn a lot more than I can put into words. That being said, I just hope that there will be a time when people can go and enlighten us on the stories and legends of the area like that of Michin Baba who purportedly slept on a charpoy strung of snakes. But, it will be some time before things improve for the troubled region.