The sprawling complex of tents housing tens of thousands of Pakistanis at Jalozai camp is home for Miza Khan and his family. The tents provide little relief from the scorching summers and the frigid winters. It has been that way for three years now.
Like the other refugees, the Khans fled fighting between Pakistani troops and militant groups including the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the mountainous areas near the border with Afghanistan.
“I came here thinking it would be a few months, but three years have gone by,” Khan said while sitting by the side of a dirt road running through the Jalozai refugee camp. “If there were peace today, I would go back.”
However, there is no peace. Although Pakistan has been reluctant to root out militants who carry out attacks against US forces in neighboring Afghanistan, it has shown much less hesitation in going after insurgents who aim instead to topple the government in Islamabad.
It is a battle that has come at great cost to Pakistan, something not always recognized by critics who say the country is not doing enough in the war on terror. About 30,000 people have been killed by the bloody insurgency in the country’s northwest, which includes the seven tribal regions and the nearby Swat Valley.
About 5 million people have had to flee their homes because of Taliban militants and Pakistani operations against them, in both the tribal regions and the Swat Valley.
Those who have returned often find destroyed homes, a lack of jobs and a militarized landscape marked by checkpoints, curfews and the threat of renewed Taliban attacks.
About 1 million still cannot go back, and still more are fleeing as operations against the militants continue.
About 90 percent of the displaced people rent houses or live with relatives, making it challenging for the government or aid agencies to get them often urgently needed supplies. It is unknown how many have found jobs.
About 65,000 refugees from the tribal regions are currently living at Jalozai, a Pakistani government camp about 30km southwest of Peshawar and run with the help of international aid agencies. It is one of three camps in the country for Pakistanis displaced by the fighting.
Many residents complain that the food rations are not enough, especially when they have large families. Taj Ghul, from the Khyber tribal region, said he and his extended family have been supplementing their rations with food he was able to purchase only by selling the family’s vehicles.
“That’s all gone in the stomach. There’s nothing left,” he said.
Still, hardly anyone regrets leaving their home.
Azrath Khan, 60, said he fled the embattled Khyber town of Bara about a year ago.
“Even before the government started its operation [in Khyber], the main problem with the Taliban was that they were kidnapping whoever was a little wealthy — and for the poor, the Taliban were pushing them to get along with them,” Azrath Khan said.
Others spoke of how the Taliban tried to enforce their own brand of religious justice, often forcing men to grow beards and beheading or hanging opponents.
However, refugees also were critical of the Pakistani military, saying soldiers had little regard for civilians caught in the crossfire. If the militants fire one mortar shell, the army fires 50 shells in response, Miza Khan said.
A Pakistani military official who has served in the tribal areas said this was an exaggeration and that the military was disciplined in its use of firepower. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters on the issue.
Returning home can also be fraught with difficulty.
People usually get six months of food from the World Food Programmeand compensation from the government if their houses or property were destroyed in the fighting, but many complain that the compensation is delayed.
Many report that schools and hospitals have been destroyed or that the doctors or teachers have not returned. The civilian government’s presence has never been especially strong in the tribal regions, one of the country’s least developed areas.
Zahid Mahsud said when he returned about a year ago to his home in South Waziristan, he saw that the military had built markets and was renovating damaged schools, but he was still waiting for compensation for his destroyed house.
Others complained about the military’s presence. Abdul Sattar, who returned with his five children to his South Waziristan home last month after three years as a refugee, said soldiers remain everywhere.
“We are facing great difficulties because of army checkpoints and their checking procedures. Sometimes we cover a distance of an hour in almost four hours,” he said. “Peace is in the area, but this peace is like you are in jail.”