"More than 100 Taliban are here right now in Malakpur village," says one resident, who says that everyone stays hidden in their homes. "There is so much fear that we cannot speak to neighbors – even husbands cannot say something to wives."
The militants set up barricades and are checking identification cards to locate their enemies – officials, party workers, and tribal leaders. For this reason he refused to share his name over the phone, nor can his story be independently confirmed.
Those who fled Buner but remain in contact with their villages have heard similar stories from other places, just weeks after the military ended its three-month-long offensive to clear the Taliban from the area. Yet these internal refugees are being told it's safe to go back to some of these same regions, suggesting the government may be urging people to return home too quickly.
Government turns to clearing camps
Repatriation efforts are voluntary. In the Chota Lahore camp in Swabi, however, the administration is using a mixture of carrots and sticks to push people out.
One family, headed by Faida Manshah, eagerly bundled up their possessions – a red bucket, some carpets, an electric fan, and some food ration bags – Friday night upon being told by camp administrators that their village of Kalfani was clear. A bus would come in the morning, and they desperately wanted to be on it.
Another inducement to leave: The bus tomorrow is free – miss it, and they would have to pay for transportation. "We are praying to God that we don't come back to this camp," says Mr. Manshah.
Yet there's a danger of that, given the close proximity of his village to Dewana Baba, a region that internally displaced persons (IDPs) mentioned over and over as a hotbed of Taliban activity.
"My brother made a visit there and he called me: 'Don't come here. Here again, fighting will start' " says Bakhti Mullah, an IDP in Chota Lahore. "But if the government gives permission, we will go back, because here is no food, no water. If I die, I want to do it at home."
Militants attack under Army's nose
Mr. Mullah has heard the military will launch operations to clear the area soon. But there are troubling reports of military inaction.
Earlier this month, a group of militants burned down the home of journalist Behroz Khan in a village near the town of Pir Baba in Buner. This occurred just a kilometer away from a military checkpoint. And the villager trapped in his home in Malakpur says his valley lies only 500 meters from a military encampment.
"A few days ago, people went to the Army check post and the Army said, 'Anyone looting, you have to kill him and we will take responsibility,' " says the resident.
The military's spokesman flatly rejects this. "That's not possible," says Gen. Athar Abbas. "There are certain areas that require clearance in the suburbs and countryside, and constantly the military is going after them. Why wouldn't the military go into these areas and go after Taliban where they appear?"
A drive into Buner to the central subdistrict of Nawagai revealed signs of daily life returning to mountain valleys along the road. Bazaars bustled with people, especially children, though in some villages as many as a third of the shops remained shuttered. At one barbershop, men shaved off their beards, which the Taliban had required them to wear.
A couple miles up the road from Nawagai village lies a crater and the ruins of a madrasa. Military planes bombed the building on suspicion that it was a Taliban hideout.
Otherwise, much of the region looked as if it had been spared – heavier fighting took place farther north, closer to Swat. Police and military presence appeared light, given the recent conflict here. Only one truck of police and paramilitary Frontier Constabulary passed by on the road. A police checkpoint near the bombed madrasa was empty. No military checkpoints exist on this hour-and-a-half drive through Buner – a fact that allowed journalist access to an otherwise restricted region.
Rations for refugees dwindle
In Nawagai, five brothers of the Ullah family have reunited after months of separation due to the conflict. At night, mortars can be heard in the close-by hills, a sign that the military is pursuing the militants still in the remoter areas. But their outdoor guest room – flanked by a garden of roses – feels a world away from the refugee camps just a couple hours' drive away.
The last brother to return, Abdul Jabar Shah Ullah, arrived Thursday. He describes worsening conditions in Chota Lahore. "To get the rations, some people used to come at midnight to get a place in line – because during the day some people would go unconscious from the heat," he says.
Two major riots erupted in recent weeks when food rations ran out. In one case, refugees broke into the office of the camp administrator, Khaista Rahman, and smashed his furniture. Many people accuse him of abusing his power in the camp.
Mr. Rahman, in turn, claims IDPs are cheating by registering in multiple locations. "The IDPs have sufficient food in their tent, and even then they were here saying they don't have anything."
• Daud Khattak contributed to this report.