Refugees crowd Pakistani camps as army battles Taliban

May 12th, 2009 - 3:04 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban By Nadeem Sarwar
Mardan (Pakistan), May 12 (DPA) Liaquat Umar fled his home after a stray mortar shell exploded almost on his doorstep in Mingora, the main city of Pakistan’s Swat district, where troops are battling the Taliban.

“We saw four to five people lying in a pool of blood,” said Umar, 28. “Their legs had turned into mere blood and flesh. We immediately left our house only in the clothes we are now wearing.”

Like many of the 8,000 people in a government-established refugee camp in Mardan, Umar and his family, including women and children, walked for hours to reach there.

“It was very difficult,” he said as he carried his 18-month-old daughter in his arms outside the makeshift camp, his new home. “From the sky, the army was shelling, and on the ground, the Taliban was shooting.”

The numbers of camps are swelling across Mardan and the neighbouring Swabi and Charsadda districts of North-West Frontier Province as the Pakistan Army is speeding up its operations against militants in Swat and its three adjoining districts of Buner, Lower Dir and Shangla.

Provincial Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said Monday that about 600,000 people had so far been displaced by the operations that started last week after a peace deal between the government and the Taliban broke down.

“We have so far registered 298,000 IDPs (internally displaced people), and some 300,000 more are yet to be registered,” he said while making an appeal to the international community for aid.

The US, which has pressed Pakistan to go all-out against the militants, announced $49 million for the refugees from the Malakand region but that amount might be a small portion of what the country needs.

According to the UN refugee agency, the fighting is producing one of the world’s largest displacements of people.

Arooj Saifi, a senior emergency coordinator for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the situation was worse than that in Rwanda in 1994 when civil war forced about 700,000 people to flee their homes.

“It is not possible that the IDPs will return to their homes for at least two years under the present circumstances,” he said.

If no concrete and coordinated measures are adopted by the government, the situation would get worse with every passing day, he warned.

But people are already suffering at the refugee camps.

Dozens of refugees jostled one another when a provincial minister distributed a few food packets from a truck. As soon as the cameraman had taken pictures, the driver drove the vehicle away with refugees running after it.

“We were chasing the truck like dogs to get some food,” said Javed Iqbal, 35, from Mingora. “What have they turned us into?”

Dilawar Khan - who fled from Ambala village in Buner to Mardan with his wife, six children and ageing parents - complained of the hot weather, dirty lavatories and mosquitoes that don’t allow his family to sleep at night.

The government claimed civilian suffering is unavoidable in defeating the Taliban, who, it said, was turning into a great threat to the country, particularly after they captured Buner last month, a district 100 km north-west of Islamabad.

“The military operation will continue until the last militant is flushed out,” said Interior Minister Rehman Malik while claiming up to 700 militants had been killed in Swat and its nearby districts with the loss of 20 soldiers.

The refugees said they do not believe him.

“Yes, they are targeting the Taliban, but they (the militants) flee before the strike, and mainly the civilians die,” said Siraj, a resident of one of the Taliban’s Swat strongholds, Qambar, who identified himself only by his first name.

“In the initial days of operation, 40 people died because of shelling from the army,” Siraj said as he stood by a makeshift water tank in Mardan’s Sheikh Shahzad Town refugee camp.

Many other refugees said they think it does not matter who wins the war, the Taliban or the military, because they could live with both if they could have a normal life again.

“Of course, they (the Taliban) were forcefully imposing on us their own version of Islam,” Khan said. “They were telling us that listening to music and shaving beards were sins, but we still could live a normal life, going to work and feeding our children.”

“We want a normal life no matter how it comes,” he added. “We want to go back home as soon as possible.”

The humanitarian fallout of the military operation has started to raise concerns among the military and government officials who fear that the existing favourable public opinion might swing negatively if the refugee crisis worsens.

A senior official with the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence spying agency told the DPA in a background briefing in Islamabad that the refugee crisis could exert pressure on the military to halt its operations.

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