Pakistanis want to know if army has beaten Taliban this time

Christian Science MonitorJune 1, 2009 

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — As Pakistan's military operation to clear the Taliban from the Swat Valley enters a decisive phase, it's won support from an unlikely group: residents who had to flee the fighting and who may find their homes and business destroyed when they return.

However, that backing is declining as internally displaced persons (IDPs) taking shelter in camps, community centers and other people's homes wait in vain for news of key Taliban leaders being killed or arrested — and as temperatures top 110 degrees.

Some worry that this Pakistan offensive may turn out like the two previous ones in Swat since 2007: a military defeat, and an even stronger Taliban.

"Although our houses were destroyed, businesses suffered, near and dear ones killed, even then we shall be happy if the Army eliminates the Taliban chief (Maulana) Fazlullah and his key commanders," said a local elder from Matta Tehsil in Swat who's living in a rented house in nearby Mardan District.

"This whole practice (operation) shall be no more than a farce if they (the Pakistani army) conclude the operation without killing Fazlullah and his commanders, who are responsible for the destruction of Swat," he continued.

Pakistan's Army has reported significant progress since it launched its current offensive, Rah-e-Rast ("The Right Path") last month, and on Monday, the Pakistani military lifted curfews in seven Swat towns to allow residents to get food and other supplies.

Officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross who toured some areas in Swat over the weekend were "alarmed" by what they saw. "There is no running water, no electricity, and food is scarce," team leader Daniel O'Malley said in a statement Sunday.

Meanwhile, an estimated 2.5 million residents from Swat and neighboring Buner and Lower Dir districts, where fighting has also occurred, have fled elsewhere for shelter, food and water.

Most aren't in government-run camps. Instead, private groups and individuals are caring them for. According to estimates by aid groups and other nongovernmental organizations, of the 2.5 million people who've been uprooted, only some 200,000 are living in the dozen or so camps set up by the government with the help of the United Nations. The bulk of the IDPs are living in government schools and hujras (community guest houses) or with friends and relatives.

In the Swabi and Mardan districts, many residents have opened their homes to the refugees. One wealthy family in Swabi is sheltering and feeding some 17,000 IDPs from Swat and Buner in seven private camps.

On Monday, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari called for the immediate release of 500 million rupees ($6 million) to help refugees, adding that he'd ask for more foreign aid.

Refugees in Peshawar, Swabi, and Mardan interviewed by the Monitor over the past week, however, had few complaints about the availability of food, water, or medicine. In some areas, so much aid is available that IDPs were seen selling their food in markets.

The greater concern appears to be whether the latest operation in Swat will actually clear the Taliban.

"We want nothing from the government but to vacate our areas from Taliban and let us go back and live in peace as early as possible," said Sajida, a housewife from Mingora.

Two weeks ago, she and her husband Jamal fled 30 miles by foot with their newborn baby to Mardan District, where they share a room in a hujra with 10 other families. With only five beds in the room, some women and children sleep on the floor, on mats provided by aid groups.

Muhammad Omar, a resident of Buner who's living in a government school with his wife and four children, said their hopes of returning home soon were starting to dim.

"It has been more than a month since we are living in this hovel, and there is no sign of return. Our hopes of returning to our areas are fading with each passing day," he says.

The government has sought to root out militants hiding among the displaced people. Last week security forces arrested 45 people from different camps. Investigations are under way, said provincial Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain.

The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has established two cells to collect information about the presence of militants from people living in the camps. According to intelligence reports and camp dwellers, some militants have shaved their beards and trimmed their long hair to flee Swat and live among the IDPs. Several have sent their families to camps while they hide in the mountains.

The exodus of people adds to some 500,000 people who were displaced last year by Pakistani Army operations in the Bajaur and Mohmand agencies in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which border Afghanistan.

Some of the earlier refugees have complained that the government didn't offer them as much assistance when they were displaced. Some staged demonstrations last week to protest the "discriminatory" attitude of the government.

(Khattak is a Christian Science Monitor correspondent.)

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