Heading Home, in the Face of Lingering Fears
Refugees Trickle Back as Pakistan's Government Deems Buner Largely Secure

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 9, 2009

CHENGLAI, Pakistan Those who cannot wait any longer have loaded themselves into rented trucks or passing cars or horse-drawn carts. They have balanced in these precarious caravans what little they fled with -- a bundle of clothing, a plastic bucket, a goat -- to begin a cautious journey back into what was until recently Taliban territory.

"We don't know how things are further up the road," said Sayid Dulamin, an appliance shop owner, his borrowed pickup parked on the shoulder of a one-lane mountain pass here in northwestern Pakistan. His wife, five sons and the motorcycle he escaped on two months ago filled the truck bed. "It's just very difficult to stay away so long from your home."

Over these hills and along the rocky stream beds, Taliban fighters advanced from their Swat Valley stronghold into neighboring Buner earlier this year. This audacious show of force, about 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad, sparked the Pakistani military's ongoing offensive against the Taliban in Swat and nearby areas. The subsequent fighting has driven more than 2 million people from their homes and into relatives' houses and vast refugee camps. Only a fraction of those who fled have risked returning.

The military now considers Buner largely cleared of Taliban fighters, but it estimates that fewer than 10,000 of the 67,000 families that left have returned, said Lt. Col. Waseem Shahid, a member of the special support group for the displaced people.

"I think the majority of people are waiting for the call by the government . . . to go back," he said. "Of course, it is safe to return."

In Buner, and among displaced residents still waiting to go back, there is far less confidence.

"The people are so scared. They are confused. The Taliban might come back. The government might attack," said Ali Aqbar, 70, who has given shelter to more than two dozen relatives at his home in Buner.

Some of these relatives loaded bed frames and stacks of twine-wrapped blankets onto a waiting truck Tuesday afternoon. But they were not headed home. A bomb had exploded in the district the day before. Now they were fleeing farther away, to another relative's home outside Buner and away from the fighting.

"That bomb forced us to rethink our plans," said Hayad Mohammed, a 43-year-old farmer.

His initial escape in May followed artillery shelling and aircraft bombings that occurred perilously close to his home. Dozens of his wheat crop bundles burned. He counted his casualties: "Two water buffaloes, one ox, one cow, one calf." His father, Gul Sharif, 75, tried to hold out, spending five nights alone under a rock outcropping on a hillside near his home. He left after some soldiers screamed at him and pointed their rifles. "They would have killed me," he said. "They were ready to shoot."

"God forgive me, it was a very strange time," he said.

In some parts of Buner, where residents grow tobacco, mine rock quarries and tend to honeybee boxes, the rural tranquillity seems undisturbed. There is little obvious sign of damage from fighting or evidence of military presence. Some police checkpoints along a main road sit empty.

But it's an uneasy quiet. The lack of overt protection worries several residents, who said they did not believe all of the Taliban fighters had been driven from the area. Some said they did not know whether to comply with the authorities' orders to refrain from growing their corn crop along the roads -- to deny the Taliban cover during their ambushes -- or whether to accept government handouts and risk angering the fighters.

"There is a fear among the people that when they will go home, the militants will start attacking them, saying, 'You have taken money from the government, you have taken food from the government against us,' " Sharif said.

Liaqat Ali Khan, a local councilman, said eight of the 27 jurisdictions in Buner are now stable. "Even in these eight, there was last night some fighting, and two or three houses were destroyed by army forces," he said.

Several residents said they were willing to accept this upheaval in their lives if it drove away the Taliban, who quickly sought to impose their brutal rule when they arrived in Buner. Khan recalled a meeting he held with five Taliban fighters to hear their demands for a system of Islamic law.

"We told them, 'Do not terrorize the people. If you have any message, you can go to the mosque peacefully and tell the people, but you should not terrorize them,' " he said. "The reply was that 'we have been good to you people. Our orders were to butcher you and slaughter you from the back of the neck. And we've been slaughtering your people from the front.' "

Khan said a young boy who accompanied the fighters to the meeting, held about 10 days before the military operation began, was wearing an explosives-laden vest.

"If we did anything wrong or said anything wrong, they would kill us," Khan said. Even though a relatively small number of fighters operated in Buner, he said, their influence was daunting. "People were paralyzed. It was like everyone was bitten by a snake."

After two months away from home, however, some have decided the time has come to return.

Bakht Munir, 35, and his three brothers spent five days walking their herd of livestock out of Buner when the fighting got ugly, but keeping cattle at a relative's house proved difficult.

"They go to other people's fields; this bothers the neighbors. They destroy the crops. We're having lots of problems," Munir said, as he stopped for gas along his route home.

The women and children sat fanning themselves on the roof of the truck rented for the equivalent of about $100, while 10 cows, four goats and a donkey jostled in the bed below.

"Our children are sick. We're not used to such hot weather; in the mountains, it is cooler. The medicine is not working. We need to go home," added Munir's brother, Bakht Zeb.

In the refugee camps, many more have chosen to wait. In the Shah Mansoor camp in Swabi outside Buner, some said delays in the registration process for a $300 government payment has forced them to wait. But the most pervasive sentiment was fear.

"Roads are closed. There are curfews. The people who are returning are taking extreme risks crossing into difficult areas on overnight journeys," said Nawab Khan, 26, a camp resident. "How can people feel secure?"

Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.

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