To the east of Afghanistan’s volatile Kunar Valley, Bajaur was the setting for Pakistan’s first all-out war against the Taliban.
The most northerly of the country’s lawless tribal agencies, during the 1980s Bajaur became a staging ground for the Mujahadeen in their battle against the Soviet army in Afghanistan. More recently a back base for the insurgent factions linked to Al-Qaeda, Bajaur’s mountains once again became a strategic launch pad, this time for strikes against American forces.
In 2008, the Pakistan Taliban took de facto control of Bajaur. Under a climate of fear, government institutions were shut down, schools were closed, women forced to stay indoors and the men ordered to cultivate poppy.
Considered the most important militant stronghold outside Waziristan, the Pakistan army responded with an operation that would be a showdown in the country’s new war against terror. The ensuing conflict was long lasting and brutal. Towns, villages, fields and forests along the frontier were flattened by aerial bombing and artillery in a bid to root out a resilient insurgency. Bajaur became depopulated. Almost half a million civilians who had braved the Taliban takeover ran for their lives.
Helping hands that first welcomed the wave of Bajauris into the disused schools and official camps around Peshawar soon vanished as Pakistan was engulfed by a further 3 million IDPs escaping conflict in the Swat Valley the following year. Families who had nothing received no more aid and their places of refuge were closed down.
Finally de-notified as a conflict zone by the military in 2012, and uneasy peace has since been restored to Bajaur. Facing widespread destruction to their homes and livelihoods, only around half of the families who fled have ever returned to rebuild their lives in the devastated province.
Five years after the Taliban took power, thousands of homeless Bajauri families remain on the margins of society in Pakistan. Facing acute unemployment and poverty, many have been forced to sell their lands in order to survive. With no place go, they are the forgotten victims of an unseen war.