UN worker's killing underscores Pakistani refugees' dilemma

Some displaced people are eager to return to Swat – as the government is urging – but ongoing militant attacks have given others pause.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Buses and trucks form a convoy at the Shiekh Shahzad camp in Mardan, Pakistan on Thursday. The convoy carried internally displaced people and their belonging back home to Swat. More than 2,100 IDPs have returned over the past few days according to the camp's administrator.
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    Naik Amal, left, stands with his mother, Zairat Jan, in front of their tent at the Shiekh Shahzad camp in Mardan, Pakistan on Thursday.
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    Children look out a bus headed for home at it leaves the Shiekh Shahzad camp in Mardan, Pakistan on Thursday.
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For the millions of displaced Pakistanis trying to gauge whether to head home, the messages Thursday were deeply mixed.

In the morning, unknown assailants murdered a United Nations employee and a guard at a refugee camp in Peshawar. But at the same time, dozens of buses packed with refugees and loaded up with suitcases, electric fans, and government rations of flour and sugar left from another camp an hour away in Mardan. The passengers were not dissuaded by a nearby bomb blast the day before at a police checkpoint.

For the more than 2 million people displaced from northwestern Swat and Buner districts, pressure is coming at them from all sides. Government officials are urging many to return home since the military ended its three-month-long offensive against the Taliban in the area, and the scorching sun radiates the same message day in and day out to those stuck in tents. But suspected Taliban militants appear to be sending opposite signals with guns and bombs.

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"This [violence] might be an attempt to frighten the people from returning to their respective districts," says Manzir Javed, administrator for the Sheikh Shahzad camp in Mardan. "But I don't think people are so worried about it."

More than 2,100 of the camp's 9,000 people have already left voluntarily over the past three days, he says. But some of those remaining appear deeply conflicted about whether it's safe or not.

"We want to leave, but first we are watching when the curfew will be lifted," says Naik Amal, a refugee from Kamba, a town in Swat near the main city of Mingora.

Refugees fear militants and military

Only a rotating fan breaks the stifling heat and swarms of flies in his humble tent, shared by his family of four. His elderly mother, Zairat Jan, has further concerns: "There is no electricity in Kamba, no water in Kamba, what will we do after reaching there?"

He and others in the camp from his village have already called by cellphone those who returned on the buses this morning. The report back: Security isn't as fragile as before, but the curfew continues.

"We are afraid of the curfew because we cannot go outside and do work," says Subhan ud-Din, another man who fled Kamba. In May, he says, he witnessed two villagers go outside to work after curfew, only to be shot in the head by the military. The lifting of the curfew, therefore, signals to these villagers that they are safe from both the militants and the military.

Not all of Swat ready for returnees

The government is only allowing internally displaced people (IDPs) to return to areas that are secure with functional police stations, says Jamal Nasir, the special home secretary for North West Frontier Province. The IDPs are only allowed to return to Swat in convoys of buses, and foreign journalists have been turned back from the borders.

"We are sending [IDPs] in batches home because our roads and infrastructure are very weak," says Dr. Nasir. Underscoring that point, a member of parliament from Swat was also in his office asking for help restoring electricity and water services.

Mingora has power and water, but the once-thriving city of 700,000 people remains virtually empty with roughly 5,000 people, says Hamidullah Khan, a reporter based there for the Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn. The majority of houses in the city remain intact, but some suffered damage in house-to-house fighting between the Taliban and the military.

"When [the IDPs] get inside their houses, they will be stuck inside, because the shops are closed," says Mr. Khan.

To offset such hardships, say officials at the Mardan camp, the government is issuing returnees a month of rations and ATM cards with $300 – a significant amount of money here. Those whose homes are destroyed will be accommodated in new tent cities and eventually given compensation, says Nasir.

Violence at home – and in camps

But the biggest question mark remains whether the region is really pacified enough for civilians. Security forces killed more than 20 militants in Swat over the past several days. Khan in Mingora says the region still teems with soldiers, with checkpoints on the main road every 500 meters.

Yet, violence has come also to the camps that are supposed to serve as refuges. Four or five unidentified gunmen opened fire on Zill-e Usman, a field officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Katcha Gari camp. He and a camp guard died, and another UN staff member was injured. His death marked the third UNHCR staff member to be killed in Pakistan in the past six months.

"There is no justification for attacks on humanitarian workers dedicated to the protection and care of the most vulnerable people," said António Guterres, the UNHCR chief.

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