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Buner's Displaced Heading Back Home Despite Lingering Dangers

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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.

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"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.


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