Flood of Refugees Engulfs Pakistan
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
MARDAN, Pakistan — A two-week-old Pakistani army offensive against Taliban militias is triggering a massive exodus of refugees — one of the largest such crises since the Indian subcontinent was divided in 1947.
Nearly a million people have abandoned the Swat Valley and nearby districts of Buner and Dir after the offensive began, according to United Nations officials. On tractors laden with bundles, on the roofs of packed minibuses, and often by foot, these refugees keep flooding the road that leads into Mardan, the first town outside the war zone.
“It’s horror: the Taliban are shelling us, and the army is shelling us. They’ve brought us hell,” said Bakht Rana, a grandmother who fled Swat’s main city of Mingora on Friday, accompanied by her son and five other relatives. The Taliban still control Mingora and surrounding hills, fighting pitched battles against the military, she and other refugees said.
Refugee camps — rows of small tents pitched under the baking sun — are fast becoming cauldrons of fury with both the Taliban and the Pakistani government. Many escapees say the government is callous about civilian casualties and doesn’t tend to the refugees’ basic necessities.
U.N. officials who toured the camps warned of an escalating crisis. “Many people are fleeing with nothing. It will not be possible to meet their needs without massive and rapid help from the international community,” said Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, after visiting some of the camps on Friday. “And if that help doesn’t come, it will be a humanitarian disaster.”
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Thursday said that a special government agency has been set up to coordinate relief for the refugees. “Militarily, we will win the war, but it will be unfortunate if we lose it politically, so we will also have to win the hearts and minds of the people,” he said in an address to the Pakistani parliament.
So far, most Pakistani political parties and the public opinion support the army’s push into Swat, which began after the Taliban violated a short-lived peace agreement and invaded the district of Buner, a mere 60 miles from national capital Islamabad.
But, with Pakistani TV channels broadcasting nonstop footage of refugees coming to blows over blankets and food, and the civilian toll mounting, it’s not clear how long this backing will last.
“People would like to see results. They expect it to be sorted out rather quickly,” said I.A. Rehman, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Human-rights group Amnesty International said Friday that, while the Taliban show no regard for civilians’ safety, the Pakistani Army “seems to be pursuing a scorched earth policy” in Swat. Many refugees offer a similarly harsh assessment.
“There was indiscriminate shelling from all sides,” said rickshaw driver Lal Bacha whose 6-year-old daughter Fatima received severe hand burns when a shell exploded near their Mingora home. The family has no access to a hospital, he said.
“I hold the government responsible — where was it when the Taliban initially rose up in Swat, why didn’t it do anything?” bellowed Mingora tailor Mohamed Mumtaz as a crowd quickly gathered around him in the Sheikh Yassin refugee camp in Mardan.
The numbers of the displaced are expected to rise further. Already locked in pitched battles, the Pakistani military, meanwhile, is likely to face the opening of an unexpected second front. Friday, Taliban commanders in the South and North Waziristan tribal areas along the Afghan frontier — where a tenuous peace held for months — issued an ultimatum. They demanded that the army release detained militants and pull out, and that the U.S. cease its frequent drone missile strikes.
“We see clouds of war over our heads,” said the ultimatum, issued by a Waziristan Taliban commanders’ council that includes Baitullah Mehsud, the militant whom Pakistan’s government blamed for assassinating former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. According to reports from Waziristan, civilians are beginning to flee that region, too, expecting an outbreak of hostilities in the next few days.
The Pakistani army said Friday that it killed 55 Taliban in Swat, bringing the total to well over 900. It captured an important Taliban commander who often appeared on the FM radio station that the Islamists used to propagate their ideas in the valley, a one-time tourist resort dubbed Pakistan’s Switzerland for its scenic beauty.
The army also warned that some Swat Taliban are “fleeing the area… after shaving off their beards and cutting hair.” Refugees in Mardan believe that some Taliban militants have already infiltrated their camps.
“The Taliban will be aware of what we are saying — they are listening to you and they are listening to me. And if you say anything bad against them, they’ll slaughter you,” said 24-year-old pushcart vendor from Mingora, Bacha Hussein.
This fear doesn’t stop many refugees from venting their fury against the Islamist militia, which has imposed a harsh brand of religious rule in the former tourist hotspot, shutting down girls’ schools, mandating long beards for men and cloistering women at home.
Falak Naz, an 18-year-old vehicle mechanic from Mingora, still has three black stitches above his left eyebrow — the result, he said, of a beating he sustained from the Taliban for failing to shutter his shop and attend prayers. The usual penalty for such a sin is 10 lashes and a fine of 1,000 rupees ($12.36).
“The thieves, the drug dealers, the rapists, the criminals — that’s who joined the Taliban in Swat. They don’t pray themselves, they just force others to do so,” he said.
The Sheikh Yassin camp, one of three in Mardan, has 1,650 tents and some 15,000 registered refugees, said Mohamed Umar, a local councilman who helps oversee the facility. As many as 1,500 newcomers arrive every day, and are usually turned away and sent to other camps farther down the road, he said. While the refugees suffer in the camps’ harsh conditions, the situation is even worse for civilians trapped inside the war zone.
“There is complete curfew, all the roads are closed, and the Taliban and the army trade fire all night,” said 65-year-old farmer Bakht Rawan from the village of Jangei in Buner.
Mr. Rawan said he walked through the hills for several hours before he reached Friday afternoon a road intersection where an aid group occasionally distribute supplies. “I came here hoping to get some food — but I got nothing, and so I am heading back to the village,” he sighed.
Those unwilling to trek back to Buner end up in the Yar Hussein Mera refugee camp, currently home to 624 families comprising 5,800 people.
Farmer Gul Mohamed, now living in a tent in the Yar Hussein Mera camp, said he fled his village in the Buner district a week ago as the army shelled Taliban positions. “We’ve never heard shells exploding or big guns firing before. Now, when our children hear the word Taliban, they start crying,” he said.
“They’ve left behind their crops, their orchards, their luggage, their properties, their homes,” said Abdulkabir Khan, the provincial government’s representative in the camp. “Of course, they will all go home when peace comes.”
As for when that might happen, Mr. Khan did not venture to predict. On Friday alone, he said, 32 newly arrived families had settled in the camp by early afternoon.