Pakistani refugees escape Army offensive – and Taliban rule
Their fear of the Islamic militants may not translate into support for the government, whose attacks in Swat forced them to flee.
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The two hospitals in Mardan are treating victims of shelling – mostly children like Pakhtoon – but are not yet overwhelmed. That reflects the difficulty of getting the wounded out, according to an ambulance driver who said they could not get anywhere near the front.Skip to next paragraph
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According to one refugee who fled with his family from Mingora, Swat's capital, many were left behind. "We never thought there would be so many people dead, and there was nobody to pick them up and put them in a grave," says Adnan Babar.
Doctors at the Mardan hospitals are bracing for more. "In the coming days and weeks it is not possible it will get better – it will get worse. The operation just started in Swat so people will come from that area," says Dr. Shahid Durrani at the main public hospital.
Not only was there concern about the counteroffensive getting more bloody, but of the Taliban regrouping and striking here. The private hospital across town has enlisted undercover police.
Taliban rules alienated people
These twin fears – of both Taliban rule and the Army's offensive – are mirrored in the attitudes of those fleeing Swat and Buner, who feel caught in the middle. Several refugees express anger that the government didn't give them enough warning or time to leave before raining down fire.
"Even if you ask a small kid who do you want to join – do you want to join the government or the Taliban – they will say we don't want either one of them – we just need peace," says Mr. Babar.
A university student, Babar paints a picture of Taliban rule that initially garnered local sympathy but soon alienated the Swatis. The Taliban started by preaching on FM radio and telling people they wanted to build a big mosque. They didn't ask for money, and given the cause, people pitched in their labor for free, he says.
"In the beginning, they started in the name of God. Then they started changing when they saw a lot of people coming to the mosque," he says.
They began asking for money, pressuring women to turn in their gold jewelry so they could buy trucks. Public punishments – often 15 to 20 lashings with a bamboo and leather cane – became normal. "They would do it in the squares, whenever they felt like it."
They even organized a stoning of a suspected rapist, before canceling at the last minute for lack of evidence.
An inkling of such street justice reached the outside world in a form of a video of a woman being flogged. The film shocked many and put pressure on the government to crack down on the Taliban.
For Babar's mother and sisters, life grew harder as the Taliban first restricted them from leaving home alone, then banned them from public altogether. His mother says this hardship was small compared to seeing her daughters be forced out of school because of the violence. Neighbors and family friends would try to homeschool instead at the Babar home.
"If they let the children study then we will go back," says Babar's mother. "If not we don't want to return."