Cynicism among Pakistani refugees

Internal refugees in the camp in Swabi
Displaced families in Swabi are living in tents supplied by the UN

The Pakistani Prime Minister now appears to have borrowed Hillary Clinton’s language as to how much of a threat the ‘Taliban’ pose to the country’s survival. This in my view is very myopic, and could easily turn into a self fufilling prophecy. As is evident from the following BBC report, the people may not like the ‘Taliban’, but they like the military even less. I find it unlikely that state will ever recover from the illwill it has sown.

The tent cities are growing in the district of Swabi, in north-west Pakistan: swelled with the thousands fleeing the fighting in nearby Buner district.

Last month, Taleban from the troubled district of Swat moved south into Buner and overran it, occupying government offices and police stations, and closing down locally popular Sufi shrines which they oppose.

The army moved in a couple of weeks ago to counter them, and is now engaged in heavy fighting in the area.

According to Shahram Khan, the head of Swabi district government, around 150,000 people have fled Buner during the last few days. This is three times the figure of 40,000 previously provided by the federal government.

Most of these people have ended up in about a dozen refugee camps set up by the government in Swabi.

‘Pouring in’

Many of these camps are funded by private individuals. Others are supported by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme, others by foreign and local NGOs.

The Taleban captured our area and… threatened local people. But that wasn’t as bad as the shelling by the army
Nasir Ali, displaced high-school student

The government of North West Frontier Province has already earmarked money to take care of the refugees, and it is now reaching most camps.

One such camp is located in Chhota Lahore town of Swabi district.

There are rows of tents supplied by the UNHCR. Most are family shelters, but some also house one school each for boys and girls, as well as a medical dispensary.

“Tents are in short supply, and we also expect food shortages in coming days as refugees from Buner continue to pour in,” says Kabir Khan, the administrator of the camp.

The refugees are, in the main, happy with the supply of food and other necessities, but nonetheless they say they cannot live in a refugee camp forever.

‘Talks needed’

“Our problem is not here, but back in Buner,” says Bakht-e-Rahman, a refugee from the Cheena area of Buner.

Tents in the camp in Swabi

Camps funded by NGOs and the UN are housing thousands of people

“Even if you give us a palace to live in here, the problem up there remains. For that, the government needs to talk to the Taleban.”

I point out that talks have been held, but after the government met all its demands, the Taleban still refused to lay down arms.

But Mr Rahman was not convinced, saying the negotiations which surrounded the creation of the peace deal were not exhaustive enough to tackle all the issues.

Most displaced people say they have left their homes not because of the Taleban’s excesses, but because of shelling by the army.

“The Taleban captured our area and started patrolling the streets, they snatched vehicles from NGO staff, government officials and private individuals, and they threatened local people,” says Nasir Ali, a high school student.

“But it wasn’t as bad as the shelling by the army – that was what actually forced us to leave our homes.”

Perils of fleeing

Many people waited a long time before they got the opportunity to flee. And then they walked for hours to reach safety, with women and children in tow.

Refugees flee the fighting in Swat

Thousands of families have fled from across the Swat district

Rahim Khan, from Chamno village, is one of them.

“When the shelling got too close and the women and children started to cry, we decided to leave, but we couldn’t. Several people died or got hurt trying to get to the road.

“Then there was a lull in shelling, and about 1,000 villagers fled. About 500 are still there.”

Mr Khan’s family, which includes several women and children and his old mother, walked for three hours before they were able to get a ride to Swabi.

‘Same coin’

I interviewed a large number of refugees in Swabi, but I did not meet a single person who actually saw the army and the Taleban as members of opposing camps.

Instead, I heard, they were “two sides of the same coin”.

“The Pakistani army has hurt us badly – but while they have killed civilians, I swear I haven’t seen a single shell directed at the Taleban,” says Shahdad Khan, a refugee sheltering at a camp in Swabi’s Shave Ada area.

Others question the Pakistani military’s stated commitment to “eliminating” the Taleban.

“No way,” Siraj tells me.

“The army brought the Taleban to our area! It’s politics. The Taleban and the army are brothers.”

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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