‘Living in a cave is no life’: Pakistani villagers trapped by Taliban and poverty

Seven years after fleeing army clashes with militants, 100 families eking out an existence on a hillside near the Afghan border are unable to return home

“Don’t talk to me about the government. They don’t help.”

Ninety-year-old Shah Mast is angry. He has been living in the cave he calls home for seven years, ever since an offensive by the Pakistan army against the Islamist militant group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) destroyed his home.

“I swear to God, no one has helped us. No charity or anything,” he says.

In 2014, the Pakistani army began an offensive against insurgents in the Tirah valley close to Afghanistan, after negotiations with the militants broke down. What followed was a violent campaign to root out the fighters, whose main objective is to overthrow the Pakistani government. In August 2017, Lt Gen Asif Ghafoor announced the mission complete, but the battle continues today.

While the Taliban was sweeping to power in neighbouring Afghanistan a month ago, the TTP carried out more attacks against the Pakistan army in the border region of North Waziristan, just south of Tirah. In September alone, 10 soldiers were killed in TTP attacks. The recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan threatens to fuel instability in the mountainous border region, meaning those displaced may never be able to return home.

The dry riverbed near Charwazgi Mulankali village
The dry riverbed near Charwazgi Mulankali village, which is home to internally displaced people (IDPs) from Pakistan now living in caves. Photograph: Oliver Marsden
  • The dry riverbed near Charwazgi Mulankali village, where internally displaced people (IDPs) from Pakistan are now living in caves

The Pakistani government in Islamabad is refusing to grant the families the status of internally displaced people (IDPs) as officials say they can return home. But the army will not let them return while the fighting continues. Even if they were allowed, many families living in the caves could not afford the journey and their homes have been destroyed.

Militant Islamist groups around the world have been emboldened by what they see as the Taliban victory over the US, but none more so than those in Pakistan. On 5 September, a suicide bomber drove his motorcycle into a Frontier Corps post in Quetta, a city in Balochistan province, killing at least four of the paramilitary force and injuring 18 civilians. The TTP claimed responsibility for the attack. On 20 September, the England men’s and women’s cricket teams called off their tour of Pakistan, citing security concerns.

Furthermore, Afghanistan’s access to financial resources, such as grants and loans, has been frozen by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank after the Taliban’s takeover of the country. Without the funds to purchase goods from Pakistan and with foreign direct investment a major source of external financing in developing countries – being severely curtailed, Pakistan’s economic woes look likely to intensify.

According to the World Bank, Pakistan’s rate of inflation is close to 10%, nearly 4 percentage points above that of war-torn Afghanistan. As a country reliant on imports, including energy and now food, Pakistan is dangerously susceptible to the price fluctuations that drive inflation.

Shah Mast, 90, sits at his home in a cave
Shah Mast, 90, sits at his home in a cave above a dry river bed in Charwazgi Mulankali, near Peshawar, Pakistan. Photograph: Oliver Marsden
  • Shah Mast, 90, sits in his cave. His family could take very little except for their livestock when they fled from their home

Sitting on his bed in the hot and airless cave, Mast says he and his family are in trouble. With rising inflation and a lack of daily labouring work for his sons, the family are struggling to feed themselves. He has three wives and 21 children – nine sons and 12 daughters. One of his sons is still able to find work in a nearby quarry and another is a shepherd. He says he would have liked his daughters to be educated and to work, but this has not been an option.

“We can’t afford food, so how could we afford books?”

Mast was forced to flee his village in the Tirah valley of Pakistan with about 50 members of his extended family. He travelled on foot, first crossing over the border to Nangarhar in Afghanistan, before crossing back into Pakistan and finally settling more than 80 miles (130km) from his home in the cave complex close to the village of Charwazgi Mulankali, near Peshawar.

The journey was a gruelling one. He and his family walked for three days over the harsh rocky landscape. They led the goats and sheep saved from the attacks, but lost many of them on the journey. According to Mast, there was no warning from the army of their impending attack and the animals were all they had time to take.

“We had to leave late at night when the strikes started. We left everything behind.”

The living space outside the caves of Shah Mast
The living space outside the caves of Shah Mast and his wives in Charwazgi Mulankali near Peshawar, Pakistan. The cooking is done on open fires and the family rely on solar power for their electricity. Oliver Marsden Photograph: Oliver Marsden
  • The living space outside the caves of Shah Mast and his wives in Charwazgi Mulankali, near Peshawar, Pakistan. The cooking is done on open fires and the family rely on solar power for their electricity

Perched above an arid riverbed and pockmarked across the rugged hillside, the cave complex houses about 100 families, all from Tirah. The dark caves keep their heat in the winter and stay cool in the summer, fortunately for the residents as temperatures can reach 40C (104F) in Peshawar. Inside the caves, families hang colourful sheets and fabric over the walls for decoration and to conserve the heat. Each home relies on solar power for electricity and Mast hangs a single lightbulb and a small fan from the ceiling above his bed.

Outside, soot climbs the walls from the fire lit daily for cooking. Fire pits and small clay ovens are dug into the ground outside the caves belonging to the women. Water is scarce, collected from a single well. For food, Mast and his family either sell or kill one of his son’s flock, or walk across the rocky riverbed and up the hill opposite to the highway that connects Peshawar to Jalalabad, where a scattering of shops line the road.

Aftab Ali, 14, sits in a dark and sparsely decorated cave he shares with his parents and three siblings. Aftab wants to go to university to study medicine but with his family facing such hardship, he does not think that will now be possible. His father used to juggle two jobs as a day labourer and a nightwatchman at the industrial estate in nearby Bara, but his daytime work has all dried up.

The IDPs living in caves in Pakistan
Fourteen year old Aftab Ali sits in the cave he shares with his parents and three siblings. He sleeps on the floor with his family surrounded by sacks of dry leaves and bundles of firewood they have collected for the winter Photograph: Oliver Marsden
The doorway and kitchen area to Shah Mast’s wife’s home
The doorway and kitchen area to Shah Mast’s wife’s home in the caves of Charwazgi Mulankali near Peshawar, Pakistan. Soot from the fire climbs the wall outside the cave. Solar panels provide the electricity but water is harder to come by. Oliver Marsden Photograph: Oliver Marsden
Janas Khan jokes with his son and daughter outside their cave home
Janas Khan jokes with his son and daughter outside their cave home Photograph: Oliver Marsden
  • Clockwise from top: Aftab Ali, 14, sits in the cave he shares with his parents and three siblings. He sleeps on the floor with his family, surrounded by sacks of dry leaves and bundles of firewood they have collected for the winter. Janas Khan jokes with his son and daughter outside their cave home. The doorway and kitchen area of Shah Mast’s wife’s cave

Aftab and his family have a similar story to Mast’s. Once fighting broke out between the TTP and the army, they were forced to flee and walked the same journey from Tirah to Charwazgi Mulankali.

As the midday heat rises from the dry riverbed below the caves, young girls dressed in the traditional brown burqa begin to flow down the hillside from the local madrasa, or Islamic school. Aftab’s neighbour, Khayal Muhammad, watches them and laughs when he says the name of the village – Charwazgi Mulankali means the “village of scholars”. The irony is not lost on him.

“There is only one primary school in the area. The problem is no one can afford the transport to get to the secondary school.”

Muhammad is less concerned with the financial situation than with the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan. The increased security threat is hampering his chances of returning home.

“Almost all the people living here in the caves want to go home, but the army won’t let us back as the situation is not safe,” he says.

Khayal Muhammad sits in a cave in the village of Charwazgi Mulankali near Peshawar, Pakistan.
Khayal Muhammad sits in a cave in the village of Charwazgi Mulankali near Peshawar, Pakistan. Photograph: Oliver Marsden
  • “Almost all of the people want to go home,” says Khayal Muhammad, “but the government will not let them go back as they say the situation is not safe”

“The army didn’t have enough intelligence. When the villagers came out of their homes the army thought they were TTP.”

Pakistan’s financial woes, and the prospect of an emboldened TTP wreaking havoc across the country, mean it is likely that the families will have to wait longer to return home. If the government recognised the community from Tirah as IDP, they might receive aid. Until then, Muhammad’s demands are simple: “Either recognise us as internally displaced people or allow us back to our homes. Living in limbo in a cave is no life.”

The cave complex in Charwazgi Mulankali that has been home to scores of families for seven years
The cave complex in Charwazgi Mulankali that has been home to scores of families for seven years Photograph: Oliver Marsden
  • The cave complex in Charwazgi Mulankali that has been home to scores of families from Tirah for seven years

Oliver Marsden

The GuardianTramp

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