A Catastrophe Foretold

Pakistani refugees fleeing fighting in Swat, Buner and Lower Dir queue for rations in a relief camp at Mardan yesterday (DANIEL BEREHULAK/GETTY IMAGES)

There is an exodus of Pakistani civilians as battle against Taleban rages, Zahid Hussain reports. They may yet succeed, but it appears no one seems to have told the Pakistani government the first rule of counterinsurgency: it is not the driving out of opposition that constitutes success, it is the ability to hold on the gains. The militants could have been neutralized through the use of sparing and targeted force in conjunction with a political settlement. This one is guaranteed to backfire.

With jet fighters screeching overhead, tens of thousands of people fled Pakistan’s once-idyllic Swat Valley yesterday, increasing a humanitarian crisis that threatens to undermine public support for the military campaign against the Taleban.

The UN says that more than 200,000 people have left Swat in the past few days, and another 300,000 are on the move or trying to leave after the collapse of a three-month-old peace deal between the Government and the Islamists this week. They will join the estimated 555,000 who have fled other conflict zones in northwestern Pakistan since August, taking the total number of displaced people in the region to more than one million.

As government forces claimed to have killed 143 militants since Thursday, The Times spoke to dozens of refugees arriving — bedraggled, exhausted and crammed into buses, vans and trucks — at a makeshift camp in Jalala, just outside Swat.

Most of them said they had left to escape the army’s shelling and the harsh punishments meted out by the Taleban since it imposed its draconian interpretation of Sharia on the region after the peace deal was struck in February. Now, however, they face hunger, exposure and uncertainty about their future as the Government struggles to cope with a massive humanitarian crisis at the same time as conducting what amounts to a civil war on several fronts.

“We have managed to flee the fighting, but we may die of hunger,” shouted Sakhi Jan, a man in his thirties sitting with his three young children.

Many of the Swat refugees have joined relatives or rented accommodation in neighbouring regions, but those without money or family to help have no option but to seek shelter in the camps with those displaced from other areas. The camp at Jalala is already crammed with 3,000 families, sheltering in tents with as many as 12 people in each. “We can hardly sleep,” said Fazal Akbar, a farmer who has 13 family members with him, including his invalid mother.

Yet thousands more women and children waited for several hours in the scorching sun yesterday just to get registered at the camp so that they might gain access to some kind of shelter. As a single clerk sat inside a small crowded tent, jotting down the names of newcomers, an elderly woman in the queue broke down in tears. “I have been waiting here since yesterday to get a tent,” said Gulli Kharan, crying incessantly.

Yousaf Raza Gilani, the Prime Minister, has appealed for international help with the refugee crisis and urged Pakistanis to support the Government and the army.

The military has also hailed signs of a shift in the public mood against the Taleban after it blatantly used the peace deal to regroup and invade other regions. However, the Government’s inability to cope with the flood of refugees is now angering many people — and opening another window for Islamist political parties and illegal militant groups. Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s largest Islamic political party, which has openly opposed the army operation against the militants, is most active in all the camps, providing the refugees with all kinds of help. Members of banned radical groups are also reported to have been seen working there.

“The Government needs to mobilise itself and the public to mount an unprecedented humanitarian response, otherwise all the military gains will wane, “ Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador and a leading political commentator, said. Pakistan has undertaken several operations in the region in recent years, but most ended inconclusively after massive destruction and a significant number of civilian deaths, which undermined support for the Government.

The army says that this operation will be different as it has the backing of most political parties and much of the public.

Major-General Athar Abbas, the army’s chief spokesman said that the militants were on the run and trying to block the exodus of civilians from the area.

He added that the operation was difficult and declined to give a timeline for clearing

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

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