By Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 7, 2009
GOLRA, Pakistan, May 6 -- Hajji Karim and his extended family of 70 were camped in a dirt-floor stable 10 miles outside Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. It was as far as they could get from the Swat Valley, where thousands of people are fleeing from the ravages of the Taliban and the imminent prospect of war with government forces.
When Taliban fighters first entered Karim's village last month, he recounted, they said they had come to bring peace and Islamic law, or sharia, to Swat. But the next day, two of the fighters dragged a policeman out of his truck and tried to slit his throat. Horrified, a crowd rushed over, shouting and trying to shield the officer. The fighters let him go, but the incident confirmed the villagers' worst suspicions.
"We all said to each other, what sort of people have come here? And what kind of sharia is this? Cutting off people's heads has nothing to do with Islam," recounted Karim, 55, a bus driver. "The people were filled with great rage, and great fear."
Authorities in North-West Frontier Province said that with the conflict intensifying, they expect half a million people to flee the once-bucolic Swat region near the Afghan border, much of which is now occupied by heavily armed militants. Officials announced Tuesday that they plan to open six refugee camps in the safer nearby districts of Swabi and Mardan, but until then, many who leave home to escape the violence are facing the arduous task of finding their own shelter.
As the refugees begin streaming out of Swat and the neighboring Buner district in northwest Pakistan, they carry with them memories of the indignities and horrors inflicted by occupying Taliban forces -- locking women inside their homes, setting donkeys on fire -- as they tried to force residents to accept a radical version of Islam.
The government has not helped, refugees said, with its erratic, seesawing efforts to appease and fight the militants. Some said they felt confused and trapped, unsure whether to trust the peace deal forged by the government and Taliban leaders last month, or to flee in anticipation of the fighting that has begun as the peace accord collapses.
Sher Mohammed, a property dealer from Mingora, the main town in Swat, was one of the first people to reach a new refugee camp in the Mardan district with his wife and children Tuesday night. On Wednesday, he kicked the dirt outside their tent despondently, saying that after enduring two years of fighting and Taliban abuses, he had had enough.
"I feel like I have lost my mind," he said. "I work hard to make a respectable life and educate my children. Now we are living in a camp, and my sons are talking of guns."
Mohammed said he did not understand why the country's powerful army had not been able to defeat the militants before they took over the valley. Even now, after a week of sporadic fighting, military officials have not announced an offensive against the militants who occupy much of Swat and Buner. The Taliban has repeatedly rejected government overtures to salvage the peace deal, in which the militants agreed to disarm if sharia courts were made the exclusive form of justice in Swat.
Army officials said 35 militants and three soldiers were killed Wednesday in Swat in sporadic fighting, including a shootout near several emerald mines that Taliban forces are using as hideouts. They said militants looted three banks and occupied police and civil administration buildings in Mingora. The military reported that an additional 50 militants had been killed in Buner.
The United Nations humanitarian office in Islamabad said it has already registered more than 2,200 families in new camps, "many of them arriving with little more than the clothes they are wearing." In a statement, the office said it would also increase assistance to help about 6,000 additional families in existing camps for Afghan refugees.
One private relief agency based in Swat said that it has been relocating hundreds of families at scattered sites in the cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi but that no local government or international agency had offered to help. Its officials said they were concerned that Taliban fighters would try to recruit displaced people relocated in large camps.
"People in Swat are angry and confused, because the government is reaching out to the Taliban and fighting them at the same time," said Mohammed Riatullah, a relief agency official. "There are huge numbers of people with nowhere to go. We are trying to provide them with decent shelter and support, but we need more help so they won't fall into Taliban hands."
Pakistan has hosted millions of refugees from conflicts in Afghanistan during the past two decades, with networks of camps in the northwest and in the southwestern province of Baluchistan. There have been frequent accusations that militant groups infiltrate the camps to use them as sanctuaries and recruiting pools. Military analysts say they suspect that the Taliban leadership of Afghanistan uses refugee camps in Baluchistan for these purposes.
Since militants began staging attacks and occupying territory inside Pakistan several years ago, thousands of inhabitants of the northwest tribal region have been displaced by fighting and have relocated to camps around Peshawar.
In Buner, army forces have been battling Taliban fighters for the past week, and the army said Wednesday that the operations were going smoothly. But several people who have fled from Buner to the provincial capital of Peshawar, or who were reached in Buner by cellphone, said that the situation was dire and that Taliban forces were still occupying many homes,
They said Buneris were especially vulnerable to Taliban attacks for several reasons. The district is famous for its Sufi shrines, where people practice a mystical form of Islam that is anathema to the fundamentalist Sunni Taliban. In addition, residents formed militias to resist the Taliban last year, and one village paid dearly for its defiance when voting stations were bombed in December, killing 42 people.
"When the militants entered our area, the people held a jirga to discuss what to do. They said they would never accept them and vowed to fight to the death," said Sirmir Khan, director of an educational charity in Buner who fled to Peshawar last week after Taliban forces occupied his offices. "They are not Muslims, they are criminals who are defaming our religion, and the people of Buner are not their friends."
Afsar Khan, the mayor of a town in Buner who had also fled to Peshawar recently, said that the militants had burned many houses and fields in his area and that last year he had joined an armed posse that attempted to drive them out. "We only had about 100 men, and the militants were coming down from the mountains," Khan recounted. "They fired on us from 5 p.m. to midnight and we were running out of ammunition. We called for help, and the officials kept telling us helicopter gunships were coming, but they never did. Finally we told all the farmworkers to run away, because we could not protect them, and we had to give up."
In a relief agency office in Islamabad on Wednesday, two teenage sisters from Buner huddled on a flour sack next to a few cooking pots, covering their faces with veils. They said they had fled their village four days ago after their father, a farm laborer, was warned by his landlord that the Taliban was coming.
"I don't know what the Taliban are, but everyone was very afraid," said one of the girls, who gave her name as Abzanan. "I am very worried because my father went back to get my brothers, and we don't know what happened to him."
Khan reported from Mardan.