By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009
SWABI, Pakistan, June 4 -- Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, declared Thursday that the tide had "decisively turned" in the military's battle against Taliban extremists in the Swat Valley, but displaced Pakistanis in a sprawling tent city here said it was still unsafe for them to return home.
The Shah Mansour camp was one of two that Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, visited Thursday. Located south of Swat in North-West Frontier Province, its population has swelled to more than 20,000 in the three weeks since it was set up.
In a message he repeated several times, Holbrooke told the Pakistanis here that President Obama and the people of the United States cared about them and were helping their government to aid them. Even as he spoke, he said, Obama was reaching out to Pakistanis and other Muslims around the world in a major address in Cairo.
More than 3 million Pakistanis have fled their homes in fighting that began with a government offensive in the northwest early last month. Most have taken refuge with relatives, friends or strangers, but at least 200,000 are in hastily erected camps. The Obama administration is concerned that Pakistan's leaders will risk a Taliban return by failing to permanently secure and reconstruct areas devastated by the fighting.
Holbrooke is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the camps, and he spent several hours meeting with aid workers and refugee representatives and walking among the rows of room-size tents baking in the 110-degree heat. When someone looked out of a tent, he asked whether he could come in, then stooped to enter amid staring children and their nervous parents.
He asked refugees where they had come from and what had happened to them. All told more or less the same story: They had fled their cool mountain towns and villages in a rush, bringing nothing but the clothes on their backs, as the army began its air and ground offensive against entrenched Taliban forces.
They had eventually arrived in this broad, arid flatland between the Indus and Kabul rivers, where Pakistani and international relief organizations established camps for them. They hated the heat and the food and had nothing to do but worry about what they had left behind.
"Are you glad the army came in, even though you were driven out of your homes?" Holbrooke asked a group of men gathered to greet him.
"We will be happy when there is peace," one answered. A gray-bearded elder shouted from behind him, "We want this thing to end so we can go back to our own land. We are fed up with living like this."
"America has given a lot of assistance and food," Holbrooke said. "But it's up to the Pakistan army to give you security. That's not our job."
On Wednesday, Holbrooke met with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on arriving in Islamabad, the capital, and announced that Obama had asked Congress for an additional $200 million in emergency aid for the crisis.
The army issued a news release Thursday quoting Kiyani as saying that "major population centers and roads leading to the valley have been largely cleared of organized resistance by the terrorists," but that "isolated incidents of violence will continue and will have to be managed."
But the people Holbrooke spoke to said the word from home was that the fighting was not over. There was no electricity, gas or food, they said, and they would not return until their safety was assured.