Shumal Khan remembers home with a clear view of snow-peaked mountains, where the stillness of the day was broken by the sound of a nearby stream. That was about five years ago, at Tirah village, which falls under the Khyber “agency” of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). A primary school teacher, Khan taught at the village school for over two decades. That was until the Pakistan’s army campaign against the Taliban, which started in 2011, displaced him, and thousands like him, from their ancestral lands.
In his documentary A Walnut Tree, filmmaker Ammar Aziz follows Khan, around 70 years of age, as he passes his days at the Jalozai camp and reminisces about his homeland. “There are several layers to this man’s personality. He is a poet, has been a teacher, and despite threats from the Taliban against teaching, continued to do so,” says Lahore-based Aziz. The 92-minute film had its world premiere in Delhi last week.
The film opens with a few verses from Khan’s poem, also titled “A Walnut Tree”, which symbolise his longing for home. Khan lives with his son and daughter-in-law at Jalozai, the largest camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) 35 km from Peshwar, which is home to over 50,000 conflict refugees from the tribal areas of Pakistan, referred to as “agencies”. “The story of this man summarises everyone’s suffering in that camp. He cannot go back to his village anymore because everything has been destroyed; and their new homes offer little hope of things returning to normal,” says the 26-year-old filmmaker, who shot the film in the Khyber agency part of FATA and at the Jalozai camp.This is his first feature-length documentary.
As Aziz followed Khan’s family for over three months at the camp, the audience is made privy to their many intimate moments. For instance, when they squat on the floor of their tent for an evening meal; the son who works as a security guard in the camp; and the wife who remains apprehensive of stepping out alone, as she is surrounded by strangers. In one scene, Khan breaks down in front of his son and daughter-in-law, describing how he cannot adapt to living conditions at the camp. According to official estimates, over a million people have been displaced by the internal conflict in the tribal areas.
Aziz says he was able to relate closely to the Khan’s suffering. “My grandparents fled from Hoshiarpur and Patiala in (Indian) Punjab and could never return. I would hear stories of how life was in their home town,” says Aziz, who is a left-wing activist in Pakistan and was named in Christian Science Monitor’s “30 under 30” global list. His next film is based on two Hindu families resettled in a camp at the Bannu agency.