Chatting in Code on Walkie-Talkies in Pakistan's Tribal Areas

How people communicate in one of the most dangerous places on earth.
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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 else."

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 percent.

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 else."

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 widespread. While 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 admitted that 75 percent or more of their stories are about terrorism or conflict .

"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."

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Panthea Lee is the author of a forthcoming study on the information landscape in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas and a principal at Reboot, a social enterprise working on issues of governance and international development.

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