As Army Declares Success, Swat Refugees Start to Return Despite Niggling Doubts

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

MINGORA, Pakistan, July 13 -- The slender young man hung upside down, strung up by his feet from an electric transmission tower just outside the Swat Valley. The police officer who smiled next to him, and the villagers walking past, heeded the message taped to his shirtless corpse.

"If anyone takes down this body, he will meet the same fate. This is a warning to the Taliban."

It was not clear whether the army or angry residents had strung up the corpse. But the point was unmistakable: A favorite Taliban intimidation tactic has been adopted by the Islamist militia's opponents, reflecting the desire of at least some here in the Swat Valley and neighboring areas to ensure that the Taliban, now officially gone after a fierce fight, stays away.

A caravan of trucks and buses carrying hundreds of war refugees passed by the dangling man Monday on its slow procession to Swat. After fleeing the Pakistani military's war with the Taliban and spending weeks away from their homes, the returning refugees were met by politicians throwing fistfuls of petals.

The politicians spoke of battles won and peace restored. But this did not feel like a particularly joyful day. None of the returning refugees could be sure exactly what they were coming home to. The valley has changed hands several times between the Taliban and the government in recent years. Residents remain fearful that the Taliban will be back, and they have little faith that the government will protect them.

"I hope God will make it safe," Bacha Zada, a baker, shouted from atop a truck crossing into Swat. "This is our new life."

For two months, soldiers and insurgents have fought amid the rice paddies and apple orchards of this verdant valley. The fighting forced more than 2 million people out of what was once a tourist destination and into crowded tents and relatives' homes in adjacent areas of Pakistan's northwest. The military said it has driven the Taliban from the valley, and on Monday it began repatriating the first small batch of residents.

Ahead of these returnees, a convoy of provincial politicians and their armed guards toured the valley, driving into Mingora, the area's largest city and the scene of some of the worst urban combat. Although most of the villages and towns in Swat seemed largely intact, albeit deserted, evidence of a battle here was plain to see.

Bombs and artillery shells have demolished houses and turned schools and police stations into rubble. There are fire-blackened storefronts and roll-down shop gates crumpled like foil. Around Green Square in downtown Mingora, windows of hotels and shopping plazas are blasted out.

"This is our main city," said Khalil ur-Rahman, a leading politician in Mingora. The Taliban has "destroyed everything," he said.

It was at the center of the square that Taliban fighters used to dump their victims' bodies when they controlled Mingora. These gruesome killings initially occurred on Thursday evenings, Rahman said, but then became nightly affairs. Eventually, the area was dubbed Slaughterhouse Square.

"They gradually got stronger. They were given support because there was no opposition. The people used to think the army and the Taliban were friends, brothers," he said. "Then they began slaughtering the people, police, public officials."

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