Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA's Citizens of Nowhere

For years, the nomadic tribespeople of FATA have been living lives without identities, depriving them of basic and vital socio-economic opportunities.

At the crack of dawn every day, 15-year-old Kashmali steps out of his house alongside Kohat Road in Peshawar’s Badaber area, where many of his fellow Umerkhel tribespeople reside, to graze the many sheep that his family owns.

A shepherd by day and a watchman by night – keeping an eye on animals owned by his father and their neighbours – Kashmali wishes he’d have been neither. Almost every day he crosses paths with students walking to and from school. He has tried multiple times to get an admission, but in the absence of ID documents of any kind, not many schools are willing to take him.

Rounding up his animals using a stick on a sunny April afternoon near a green patch on Cherat Road, Nowshera, almost 30 kilometres away from his place of residence, he fishes a mobile phone from the pocket of his shabby shalwar kameez to see a received text message. Buying a SIM card also requires a Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC). Kashmali says he knows enough people to at least have that sorted.

There are many like Kashmali who are confronted with this dilemma on a daily basis. His tribespeople have been moving in and around either side of the present-day Durand Line. But he is no Afghan. He was born in Pakistan but he is not a Pakistani.

For centuries, numerous tribes in the area today marked by the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have made nomadism into a way of life. On a constant search for food and water, they would migrate up north to Swat, Dir and Chitral during the summer and descend to the plains of Peshawar, Charsadda, Nowshera and Mardan during the unbearable winters.

Makeshift houses built by nomads near Ring Road, Peshawar. Credit: Musharraf Ali

Makeshift houses built by nomads near Ring Road, Peshawar. Credit: Musharraf Ali

Emphasis on travel documents and the precarious law and order situation has not only restricted their mobility, but has also forced them to live with no identity.

Following the 1998 census, Miankhel, Ahmadzai, Yasinzai and Sulaimankhel tribes people were declared Pakistani citizens and issued National Identity Cards (NICs). In the early 2000s, their NICs were upgraded to the newly rolled out CNICs.

However, by 2007 the mounting pressure on then ruler Pervez Musharraf resulted in an intensification of Pakistan’s war on Terror efforts. Henceforth, the National Database and Registration Authority began blocking CNICs issued to these tribes people.

Negotiations between elders of the four tribes and the interior ministry provided some respite, but by 2013 the process of blocking began once again.

Anwar Ali Khan, 44, is a resident of Nowshera where he runs his business. As chief of the Ahmadzai tribe, he moved the Peshawar high court with regards to this issue. On January 25, 2017, a division bench comprising chief justice Yahya Afridi and justice Ikramullah Khan directed deputy commissioners, political agents and NADRA to devise a standard operating procedure for processing ID applications of Ahmadzai, Sulaimankhel, Miankhel and Yasinzai tribes.

A woman watches over a herd near Chamkani, Peshawar. Credit: Musharraf Ali

A woman watches over a herd near Chamkani, Peshawar. Credit: Musharraf Ali

Officials were also directed to appoint focal persons from each tribe within 30 days. There has been little progress since.

Columnist and researcher Saad Ullah Jan Barq, author of numerous titles on Pashtun history such as Pashtun aur Nasliyat-e-Hindukush, classifies these nomads into two categories: those who are associated with agriculture and those who travel to sell their cottage industry produce.

This has been a way of life in the area for a long time, however, following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, these migrations turned into an influx due to the security situation in the neighbouring country.

However, these nomads were never recognised as refugees. Unlike other tribespeople of Afghan origin, they have no United Nations body to regulate them and provide them with sustenance. United Nations high commissioner for refugees spokesperson Qaiser Khan Afridi says they deal only with those who possess proof of registration cards. “They have neither approached us nor [do] they have PoR cards to prove that they are refugees therefore no efforts are being made for them,” he says.

Makeshift houses occupied by nomads near the motorway in Peshawar. Credit: Musharraf Ali

Makeshift houses occupied by nomads near the motorway in Peshawar. Credit: Musharraf Ali

As stateless people, they become fodder to the ongoing conflict since all sides see them as soft targets. Zia Ur Rehman Marwat is the assistant political agent of Khyber Agency’s Jamrud sub-division. He says due to security concerns, these nomads are discouraged from living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Both militants and law-enforcement agencies see them as suspicious.

Around 19 families of the Umerkhel tribe live in a squatter settlement in Chamkani area of Peshawar. Their tents are not good for any season and things get worse when it rains. Inside, there is little other than clay utensils, rundown mattresses and rickety charpoys.

Every now and then, police officials show up at their houses for search operations and identity checks. Some of the residents are then taken to police stations for interrogation. Saeed Gul, 38, chuckles for a bit and then sighs, recalling the routine.

He then says, “Everything is good as long as we are close to our sheep. The problem starts when we are away from them.” The livestock that they hold is their only source of sustenance and livelihood. Every now and then, these animals get stolen and there is no one that these people can go to for help. “These sheep are all that we have,” says Hikmatyar, 42. He says some years ago, these families owned about 300 animals. Today, that number has shrunk to 118.

This article originally appeared in the web edition of Herald