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.

Ben Arnoldy/The Christian Science Monitor
On Saturday, refugees in Mardan, Pakistan, get their morning tea from massive pots. The camp has swelled with Pakistanis fleeing from the fighting between the military and the Taliban in the Swat Valley.
Ben Arnoldy/The Christian Science Monitor
A refugee girl in Mardan, Pakistan, goes to fetch water on May 9. The UN estimates that some 360,600 refugees have fled Swat and neighboring Buner and Dir Districts since the Pakistani military offensive against the Taliban began last week.
Ben Arnoldy/The Christian Science Monitor
At a refugee camp in Mardan, Pakistan, refugees peel tomatoes to prepare lunch for the camp on Saturday. Over the weekend, the main camp in Mardan had swelled to hold more than 6,000 people, according to residents.

Pakhtoon Kamar writhes on his hospital bed, feeling the wound of his missing brother more than his missing toes. The teenager lost both 10 days ago on a trip to the store, caught in the crossfire between the Taliban and Pakistani security forces now fighting again in Swat Valley.

His father, Shamsul, comforts Pakthoon but doesn't flinch from finishing his family's story.

For him and some of the thousands of others who recently fled here, the misery of the military counteroffensive doesn't overshadow the terrors of life under the Taliban.

As the Taliban moved freely around Matta earlier this year, Mr. Kamar stopped carrying his work badge since he worried that the Taliban would harass any security forces, even private guards like himself at the local sugar mill.

But they found out anyway, and in February they visited his sister's home and abducted his nephew. The next day, they came back and killed her and her daughter. The thugs ultimately freed the nephew after they took the family's car and shot dead the grandmother who had gone to his captors to plead for the boy.

"Taliban means students, but they are not students of Islam," says Kamar. "They are all criminals, and robbers, and ransom takers."

A handful of other fleeing Swat echo the same impression of Taliban rule: It proved to be more criminal than righteous. Whether that represents an opening for the government's battle to win hearts and minds is still uncertain – especially as Swat refugees suffer under the military's counteroffensive.

"This is a sensitive point for the Army, that it doesn't want to get on the wrong side of the population. And unfortunately this is the price that sometimes you have to pay" when force is used against insurgents, says Gen. (ret.) Talat Masood, a security analyst.

In one week, 360,000 refugees

As the counterstrike neared its second week, the military claimed it had killed some 700 Taliban fighters. Trucks filled with infantry moved to the front on Sunday. Boots on the ground will be needed to go house by house to clear the area of militants, says Mr. Masood.

Meanwhile, displaced people poured into new refugee camps and private homes of acquaintances in nearby towns like Mardan. The UN estimates that some 360,600 refugees have fled Swat and neighboring Buner and Dir Districts since the offensive began last week.

Over the weekend, the main camp in Mardan had swelled to hold more than 6,000 people, according to residents. The grassy field beside some railroad tracks still had room or hundreds more tents, but dozens of angry men waited in line to be processed Saturday, saying hardly any new arrivals were getting checked in or given ration cards. Those already in the camp, though, received an orderly distribution of tea, bread, and soup, and there did not appear to be major shortages.

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.

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."

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