Pakistan's war refugees losing patience

Some say they don't mind being uprooted for now – if the Taliban are ousted for good. The Army says it should clear militants from major towns within days, though rooting them out from rural areas may take months.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    An internally displaced girl, fleeing military operations in the Swat valley region, waits in line for curry and bread at a UN refugee camp about 75 miles northwest of Pakistan's capital.
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As Pakistan's military operation to clear the Taliban from Swat Valley enters a decisive phase, it's won support from an unlikely group: the residents who had to flee the fighting and whose homes and business may be destroyed when they return.

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

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

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"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," says a local elder from Matta Tehsil in Swat, who is currently living in a rented house in nearby Mardan District.

"This whole practice [operation] shall be no more than a farce if they [the Pakistan Army] conclude the operation without killing Fazlullah and his commanders, who are responsible for the destruction of Swat," he continues.

Pakistan's Army has reported significant progress since it launched its current offensive, Rah-e-Rast ("The Right Path") last month. It should clear Taliban fighters from Swat's major towns and cities within days, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told the Associated Press. Many militants are thought to have fled into the hills. Those would take longer to root out, General Abbas said.

On Monday, the Pakistani military lifted curfews in seven Swat Valley 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" at what they saw. "There is no running water, no electricity, and food is scarce," team leader Daniel O'Malley said in a statement Sunday.

But the Taliban is striking back elsewhere. On Monday, some 400 students graduating from a military-run college in North Waziristan were taken hostage. Their relatives and teachers were also reportedly captured.

One family shelters 17,000 refugees

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.

But most are not in government-run camps. Instead, they're being cared for by private groups and individuals. According to estimates by aid groups and other nongovernmental organizations, of the 2.5 million people 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 IDPs are living in government schools and hujras (community guest houses) or with friends and relatives.

In Swabi and Mardan districts, many residents have opened their own 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. (Read more about the generous hospitality other residents have offered here.)

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

Refugees in Peshawar, Swabi, and Mardan interviewed by the Monitor over the past week had little 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.

Strike 3

The greater concern appears to be whether this 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," says 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 the mats provided by aid groups.

Muhammad Omar, a resident of Buner District, who is living in a government school along with his wife and four children, says 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.

On the lookout for militants in hiding

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, says provincial Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain.

The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has established two cells to collect information from people living in the camps about the presence of militants in their area. 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 themselves in the mountains.

The current exodus of people adds to some 500,000 people already displaced last year by Pakistani Army operations in Bajaur and Mohmand agencies in the tribal areas, which border Afghanistan.

Some of those 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.

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