Death, starvation haunt people marooned in Swat

May 27th, 2009 - 9:09 am ICT by IANS  

Taliban By Nadeem Sarwar and Aqeel Yousafzai
Peshawar (Pakistan), May 27 (DPA) For many in Pakistan’s war-torn Swat valley the choice is not between life and death, but between a death caused by bullets or bombs and a death by starvation or disease.

“I don’t want to die either way. I want to live but I know only a miracle can save me and my family,” said Ihsanullah, 35, who like thousands of civilians has been trapped in the midst of intense fighting between security forces and the Taliban for more than three weeks.

The clashes that started early this month have displaced around two million people from Swat and its three neighbouring districts. An estimated 200,000 more are still stranded in Swat alone, particularly in the northern part of the district.

Some of them are stuck because of the unavailability of transport or simply because they cannot afford the cost. Others were left behind by their families to take care of the houses, crops and cattle.

Ihsanullah said his family wanted to leave the area but government forces had imposed a curfew in and around Fajtour, a remote hamlet in Khwazakhela district.

“The Taliban do not allow us to leave the area and the military opens fire upon those who try to sneak out in small groups,” he said in a phone interview.

At the same time it is becoming difficult for the stranded civilians to stay in their homes. Days of curfew have dried up food supplies while local reserves are rapidly running out. Vegetables, sugar and cooking oil are not available.

Wheat flour that the locals use to make roti - a traditional round, flat bread that is part of almost every Pakistani meal - was available a few days back but only at an unaffordable price.

Some well-off residents bought 20-kilogram bags of wheat flour for as much as 10,000 rupees ($125) and paid up to 200 rupees ($2.5) for an egg, said Saleem Khan, a lecturer from the Khwazakhela area of Swat. Normally a 20-kilogram bag costs 600 rupees ($7.5) and an egg five rupees (less than a cent).

Hospitals in many areas have stopped working. Most of the staff have deserted, and some brave doctors who stayed don’t even have basic medicines to offer.

“If the situation does not improve or the besieged people are not moved out, thousands of them will die of starvation or disease,” Khan said.

The military operation in Swat has entered a decisive phase, but officials say the final push will be “painfully slow”, meaning no early respite for the civilians marooned by street battles and curfews.

So far, more than 1,100 militants and over 60 soldiers have been killed in the offensive, according to the government. But up to 2,000 hard-core Taliban fighters are still believed to be holed up in populated areas.

There exists broad political and public support for the military campaign against the Taliban, but analysts have warned that the support could vanish quickly if the displaced people and those stranded were not taken care of.

“We are fully aware of the gravity of the situation,” said Wajid Ali Khan, a provincial minister in North-West Frontier Province, where Swat is located.

“But we can do little to directly help these people. The area has been given under army control and we repeatedly request them to either move people out or provide them with food supplies,” he added.

Thousands of people in the Bahrain area of Swat defied the curfew Friday and marched towards a military checkpoint. They were chanting slogans like “Give us wheat flour or safe passage”.

Two days later the military said it had dispatched 15 truckloads of relief items for people stranded in Bahrain and the surrounding areas. Thousands more are still waiting for supplies.

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