Pakistan begins to send Swat refugees home

SHERGHAR, Pakistan — The Pakistani army on Monday began allowing people who'd fled its 11-week offensive against Taliban extremists in the Swat Valley to return to their homes, but the numbers who went were far fewer than expected amid fears the Taliban really hadn't been vanquished.

"They (the army), have cleared the roads but the Taliban are in the mountains," said Mohammad Shakirullah, a 37-year-old businessman as he waited to board a government-provided bus at the huge Jalozai refugee camp, in Nowshera, where he spent the past two months. "I will go of course, as it is my home, but I'm pretty sure that I will have to come out again."

More than 2 million people fled the army's offensive, one of the largest sudden movements of humanity in recent years. Just 647 families — around 4,500 people — returned on to their homes on Monday. The army had hoped that 3,000 families would go back on Monday.

Even that number created a dramatic scene. Buses, trucks, vans and cars bursting with possessions and people formed a half-mile long line at an army checkpoint, where they waited all day in sweltering temperatures before getting the go-ahead to drive. Security was tight. Military helicopters flew overhead, and many of the vehicles flew white flags.

"I hope that we can restore Swat to the way it was, when it was known as the Switzerland of Pakistan," said Fazl Raheem, a 40-year-old who was waiting at Sherghar with 12 accompanying family members. "I had a business in Swat before I was turned into a beggar (by the evacuation). But I am glad that the army took action."

Swat is a mountainous area with cool temperatures, and was once famous for its fruit orchards and gushing streams before a Taliban takeover about two years ago. Since the Pakistan army launched its offensive, Swat's refugees have endured grim conditions, living in vast, sun-baked tent cities or crammed into the homes of relatives and friends. The weeks living in squalid conditions showed on the faces and filthy clothes of the returnees.

"It is better to die there (in Swat) than live in the conditions in the camps. The children just keep getting ill in this heat," said Fazl Elahi, a 57-year-old teacher who had 18 relatives with him. "At least we'll have back our fields and houses."

Many at the Jalozai camp said, however, that they hadn't signed up to return out of concern for their security or because they had yet to receive the 25,000 rupees ($300) official compensation due to each family. Some said that they felt compelled to go as the government was providing free transport and they couldn't afford to go on their own, while several elderly people were confused about whether they had been asked or told to return.

Despite the government's claim that Swat has been cleared of the Taliban, the army continues to report skirmishes and detentions, and some aid agencies said the refugees are being sent home too soon.

"The Pakistani government is sending people home far too early," said Kristele Younes, a senior advocate for Refugees International, a group based in Washington. "Displaced people should be the ones to determine whether it is safe for them to return, and we fear the government is not providing them with clear and accurate information."

Privately, officials at the United Nations also expressed unease about the return to Swat. The U.N. hasn't had access to the valley to determine the conditions there.

One reason for the rush is that the annual monsoon season is approaching, which may make the camps unlivable, and the refugees also are occupying 4,000 schools that need to be emptied for the school year to start after the summer break.

The pace of the return is expected to escalate sharply later this week, especially when the authorities open the way to Mingora, Swat's main city.

The entire process of return will take around five weeks, said Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed, who's in charge of the Pakistani army's special unit to help the displaced. However, the majority are expected to go back within the next two weeks.

"When things start, there's always tension and fear. But the response has been good," Ahmed said. "We need to remember that this is a voluntary return."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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