Chatting in Code on Walkie-Talkies in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas – The Atlantic
How people communicate in one of the most dangerous places on
A soldier stands guard on a road while a vehicle carrying
internally displaced people flee military operations in Tora
Warai, a town in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal
Areas, on July 9, 2011. (Khuram Parvez/Reuters)
Sharif loves using his mukhabera. “I use it daily,
mostly at night time, because signals are clear at that time,”
he says. “I am in touch with most of my friends this way.”
Mukhabera means walkie-talkie in Pashto. For Sharif,
this tool is what a mobile phone might be to other young men
around the world: a cheap, reliable way to keep in touch with
friends and family, so long as they are within an 18-mile
range. Every week, he spends about 100 rupees, just over one
U.S. dollar, on batteries. In the evenings, his group of
friends all tune in to “hang out” on the same frequency.
“Everyone in my village is schizophrenic. You hear screams in
the middle of the night from people having bad dreams about the
drones. Everyone is always angry or suspicious of everyone
Sharif likes to stay connected, and not only for fun. His life
depends on it. Sharif, 28 years old and unemployed, lives in
Datta Khel, a town located on the border with Afghanistan in
Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
FATA is one of the most underdeveloped regions of Pakistan.
Decades of crisis, underpinned by poor governance and regional
conflict, has kept the region in a perpetual state of
instability, poverty, and isolation.
Sixty-six percent of FATA
‘s residents live below the poverty line. Unemployment is
estimated at 60 to 80
Datta Khel is also a dangerous place. Since 2008, U.S.
intelligence operations have launched over 40 separate drone
strikes in Datta Khel,
killing more than 240 people . One particularly lethal
attack in March 2011
killed approximately 40 people and sparked anti-American
protests across Pakistan.
“Everyone in my village is schizophrenic,” says Zahir, a
24-year-old man from North Waziristan. “You hear screams in the
middle of the night from people having bad dreams about the
drones. Everyone is always angry or suspicious of everyone
In the face of enduring insecurity, FATA’s residents use
mukhabera as lifelines for gathering and sharing
information about the threats around them. When they learn of a
drone strike or other attack nearby, they immediately contact
friends in search of anyone with first-hand knowledge of what
happened. Often they speak in code.
“I hear today’s match was thrilling,” one person might say,
implying that clashes in the area were intense. “Did the
players hit any balls into the crowd?” someone on the other end
of the line will ask, which means did mortars or rockets hit
houses in the village.
The downside to mukhabera, essentially a two-way
radio, is that FATA’s residents never know who else is
listening. Talking in code helps evade informers for militant
groups who might be on the same radio frequency.
Residents regularly discuss and analyze the information they
gather with those closest to them, fact-checking for veracity.
They often only trust friends and family. Other credible
sources are in short supply.
Across FATA, residents face severe constraints accessing
reliable information on the issues and events that most affect
their lives. At
less than 5 percent , internet connectivity is far from
64 percent residents have access to a mobile phone ,
signals are intermittent at best. Satellite dishes remain a
luxury that is out of reach for many, given that FATA’s
$250 annual per capita income is half the national average.
The media that penetrates the region most widely, namely Radio
Pakistan and Pakistan Television, are state-owned and heavily
censored, focusing overwhelmingly on conflict reporting. A 2012
study found that over half of the journalists surveyed in FATA
75 percent or more of their stories are about terrorism or
“All the time, we have to select [news] topics which have the
potential to be linked with terrorism,” explains Farooq, a
radio producer in North Waziristan. “For example, the simple
and general problem of inflation can be linked with the
economic depression and destruction caused by terrorism.”
While the conflict narrative in FATA’s news media is a
reflection of its people’s most pressing concerns, reporting
often lacks relevance to their daily lives. News stories tend
to cover incidents rather than patterns and challenges rather
than solutions, offering little in the way of useful knowledge
for personal security or community development.
In the absence of alternatives, FATA’s residents turn to each
other, relying on the breadth of their social networks to
secure the information they need to navigate an environment of
ongoing existential threats and longstanding underdevelopment.
This communal nature of information-gathering can be limiting.
Information passed from person to person introduces error and
bias, keeping residents even further from reliable sources. But
the premium placed on finding eyewitness accounts and credible
media is also empowering a subtle shift in the social fabric of
Traditionally influential sources of information, such as
tribal elders and religious leaders, are increasingly unable to
answer for their communities’ most pressing challenges —
militant activity, drone strikes, and persistent poverty. In
some cases, they are even distrusted. Many feel the rise of
mullahs in politics over the last 15 years has undermined their
authority as trusted spiritual leaders, making them one less
source of credible information and one more source of possible
Abdul, a researcher in North Waziristan, claims, “[P]eople have
realized that they are being used by the mullahs and other
religious leaders… People have become mature now and they
know that they have been used in the name of Islam.”
Disappointment with traditional leaders is, however, matched
with a rise in the social status of those with access to
information from a variety of sources.
Barbers, for example, are seen as well-informed about local
news because they converse with a wide range of people daily.
Despite the mobility constraints in many parts of the region,
all men — rich and poor, educated and uneducated — still go
to the barbershop. Sultan, a barber in Khyber, thinks of
himself as “a computer where people feed and receive
Similarly, diaspora populations are increasingly important
providers of information to FATA’s residents. Living outside of
the region, migrants often learn about local events before
their families and call home when they do. In the past, when
his phone rang at 4 a.m., Atif from Orakzai would think, “What
has happened to someone that I love?” Now he worries, “What
might be happening to me?”
As technology increasingly — albeit slowly — penetrates the
region and opens new channels for information access, the
influence of the literate and technology-savvy is also growing
among FATA’s communities. Young people, especially those with
higher education, are the strongest example of a demographic
becoming the “eyes and ears” of their communities as a result.
In decades past, “youth were not allowed to sit on chairs or
charpoys [traditional bed] in front of the elders even,”
explains Subidah, a teacher in neighboring Khyber
Pakhtunkhwa, “but now the technology is changing this whole
The nature of the shifts occurring in FATA today points to a
potentially more encouraging future where access to information
both within and about the region is more widely available.
Despite the U.S. government’s
“targeted killings” of militants narrative, many ordinary
people in FATA live in fear that they could be caught in the
crossfire of the conflict engulfing the region. A more nuanced
picture of FATA’s residents can inform an honest accounting of
the policies that affect their lives.
This article is an adapted excerpt from a forthcoming
study on the information landscape in FATA. The names of
individuals in this article have been changed to protect their