Today there are some 60 million refugees in the world, living precariously and fearful of what the future may hold.
The aid agency term for refugees uprooted by violence and oppression in their own countries is internally displaced persons or IDPs. To the public at large they are usually anonymous. So, film director Ammar Aziz decided to put a face to one man and his family in his documentary A Walnut Tree.
Baba lives with his family in one of many tarpaulin covered tents at the Jalozai colony, near Peshawar, Pakistan. Originally set up to house refugees fleeing from the Afghanistan civil war in the 1980s, Jalozai has since become home to thousands of internally displaced persons, including Baba and his family, who were forced off their land by fighting between the Pakistani Army and insurgents.
The film opens with a few verses from Baba’s poem, also titled “A Walnut Tree”, expressing his longing for home. A retired schoolteacher and a poet, he is desperate to go back to his village home and the walnut tree planted by his grandfather.
Baba lives with his son and daughter-in-law among more than 50,000 other refugees from ongoing conflict in the tribal areas of Pakistan. He cannot go back to his village because everything has been destroyed and there is little hope of things returning to normal in their new “home”.
Baba’s son works as a security guard in the camp and his wife is frightened of going out alone, as she is surrounded by strangers. In one scene, Baba breaks down in front of his son and daughter-in-law, saying that he cannot adapt to living conditions in the camp. In the end Baba runs away, ignoring the pain he causes his family and the danger to his son who sets out to look for him. It is a poignant tale that echoes a long history of people being uprooted.
Ammar Aziz is an independent documentary filmmaker and social activist based in Lahore, Pakistan. He has worked widely on labour-issues and his films have been shown at several international film and human-rights events. Asked why he decided to make a film on internally displaced persons and why he chose Baba and his family to tell their story, Aziz replied:
“Displacement and nostalgia for one’s homeland have always been very personal themes to me. We grew up hearing about the green fields and mango orchards of Hoshiarpur from where my grandmother migrated to Lahore during the partition. When I went to the Jalozai camp [photo below], I started spending time with a lot of people and we were actually filming three different families. But there was something about Baba which kept us more involved in him. His sense of loss and the way he expressed it – perhaps because he was a poet – certainly was one reason we chose to tell the story through him. However, until the day he disappeared, I had a very different approach for the film in my mind. I wanted to have at least two parallel stories of different families in the film. It was never meant to be the story of one person. Though now I feel that this one person reflects the shared pain of that land so well. He becomes a metaphor of a cultured past which has been demolished because of proxy wars.”