Fear and Worry Pervade Refugee Camps As Pakistanis Flee Assault on Taliban

By Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 11, 2009

MARDAN, Pakistan, May 10 -- As they waited in rows of empty white tents, refugees from fighting in the Swat Valley said Sunday that they had been repeating a Koranic verse from the sayings of the prophet Muhammad.

"He who recites this will receive my blessing and protection," one woman read from a pamphlet in Arabic. "If he is hungry, he will find plentiful food. . . . If he has fear of a cruel ruler or enemy . . . the fear will be gone."

The army has launched an offensive in Swat against armed Taliban extremists, and for now at least, there is enough food, water and shelter for the estimated 200,000 refugees who since Thursday have poured into four camps set up by the United Nations and the government of this northwest Pakistani city.

But there is a pervasive sense of loss and worry among the families that keep arriving in overcrowded farm trucks and rented vans. In interviews in two camps Saturday and Sunday, some refugees said their homes had been destroyed in the fighting. Others said they had to abandon their goats and cows. And some, in their rush to escape, even had to leave their children behind.

"When the shelling started, my wife and I ran out to gather the children. It was like a hell outside, and we just started running," recounted Taj Mahmad, 35, a vegetable-cart puller. "I realized that my son and my smallest daughter were missing. She is only 3. But my wife cried and said the rest of us would be killed if we stayed, so we kept going. I have no idea what happened to them."

The army lifted a military curfew in Swat on Sunday, allowing thousands more people to stream out of the area after being stranded for several days, sometimes in areas of heavy shelling and gunfire. Many people walked or rode on donkey carts to the main road, then hitched rides toward Mardan or were picked up by relatives who had waited with vehicles at military checkpoints Saturday, hoping to reenter the conflict zone and retrieve them.

The army said Sunday that 180 suspected insurgents had been killed in the past 24 hours. Officials also said about 140 bodies of suspected insurgents had been discovered in Shangla district, next to Swat. As it lifted the curfew, the army encouraged as many people to leave the region as possible, suggesting that it may be preparing to further escalate its assault.

In the relative safety of the camps, where officials said they expect an additional 600,000 people to arrive in the coming days, the fear has receded a bit. But people still burst into tears or stammered when they related what they witnessed and endured during nearly two years of intermittent Taliban occupation, before the army launched its offensive across Swat last week.

Enayat Khan, 23, a watchman from Mingora, the main town in Swat, said he was coming home late one night and heard screams. Then he saw several masked figures with guns holding a white-haired man. One of them, a slender boy no older than 15, had a large knife and was severing the man's head.

"I saw the blood gushing from his throat, I saw him squirming like a chicken. Even today I see it and I cannot sleep," Khan said. The next morning, the headless body lay in the town square with a note pinned to it. "The paper said he had been a government spy and warned people not to move him. No one did," he said.

Not all accounts of Taliban behavior were as gruesome. Some people said the patrolling insurgents behaved like moral vigilantes, asking men to go to mosques instead of chatting in tea shops, or telling them to write down names of thieves or land-grabbers and promising they would be punished.

Other refugees described techniques used by the militants to recruit boys and young men from their villages, sometimes by letting them hang around the fighters and handle their guns, sometimes by inviting them to join religious study classes and then not allowing them to leave.

"My landlord's son used to sit with the militants, trying out their guns. Then one day he disappeared," recounted Khan, the watchman from Mingora. "The father searched everywhere. He went to their camp and begged to have his son back. But they would never let him return to his parents."

A few people said they had been treated well by the Taliban and were grateful that they had attempted to bring a better justice system to the region. One young man from Mingora, named Ajmal Khan, said he had been studying with the militants before his family had to flee the fighting. He refused to allow his photograph to be taken, saying it was un-Islamic.

Over the past week, the refugees said, their lives had become a chaotic nightmare. Several described Taliban fighters firing at army helicopters from rooftops and then vanishing, leaving residents at the mercy of airborne army assaults. Many families said they had been trapped inside their homes during the crossfire between the army and the well-armed insurgents.

"The Taliban dug trenches and started shooting one soldier after another. Then the Cobra helicopters came and starting bombing, so we fled," said Sabzali Khan, 55, a dignified village elder who walked for miles to reach the highway to Mardan, leading his family and a goat who had just given birth to two kids. In Khan's tent Sunday, the baby goats suckled while a boy went to find grass for the mother.

"The government is partly to blame, but the Taliban are worse. They are a threat to the West and a threat to the Muslim world," said Khan, who is illiterate but said he follows the news closely. "I want to thank America, and France, and Canada, and all the countries who want to help us. We want to be brothers with all humanity, and the Taliban do not speak for us."

Special correspondent Hussain Shaiq in Mardan contributed to this report.

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