Survivors of the Swat massacre

Fleeing refugees
Families flee from an army offensive against Taliban militants in the Shamuzai area of Pakistan's Swat Valley yesterday. More than half a million refugees have been registered (AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

They have walked for days, forsaking their homes to escape Pakistan’s campaign against the Taliban. And these refugees are the lucky ones. Andrew Buncombe and Omar Waraich report from Swabi.

The old woman fell to her knees in the dust, her arms covering her head to show how she had tried to hide as the shells fell around them. “There was so much noise and chaos,” said the woman, Shirina, who said she was 80. “We walked over the hills on foot. Then we hired a car.” Asked if the bombardment had caused any casualties, she and her family responded as one: “The world was killed. Lots of people were killed. Too many.”

Two days earlier, the family from Pakistan’s Buner district had arrived in this makeshift refugee camp after fleeing the military’s increasingly forceful battle with Taliban militants. There are hundreds of thousands like them, driven from the war zone, and they tell similar tales of fear, anguish and loss. They talk too, of an unknown number of civilians being killed in what is in effect a hidden war.

Yesterday, as the military said it had stepped up its operation in the Swat valley, which neighbours Buner, Human Rights Watch led a growing chorus of voices expressing concern about the potential civilian cost of the military operation.

The army says it is doing everything it can to prevent casualties and is deliberately avoiding built-up areas, and with journalists and independent observers prevented from reaching the conflict zone, it is difficult to confirm witness accounts.

“The bottom line is that nobody knows,” said Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch. “Our view is that the Pakistani military’s previous record of counter-terrorism operations does not inspire confidence in its ability to safeguard civilian life. We would ask the military and its patrons – particularly the US – to urge the utmost care in regard to civilians.”

The families arriving at this camp outside the city of Swabi, just 90 minutes from Islamabad, are hot, dusty and exhausted. Some have been travelling for several days. Almost all have had to leave everything behind.

Zafar Ali had arrived the previous day from a village near Mingora with his five children and little else. The shopkeeper said he had lost everything he had managed to save during the past 25 years. His village had been shelled, he said, and his family had been trapped for many days. Eventually they were able to make their way out, taking a series of rides until they reached safety. “Lots of people were killed, one person I know was killed by a mortar shell,” he said. “In our village there were about 60 or 70 houses that were destroyed.”

Another group, from the village of Haji Baba, close to Mingora, were adamant they had seen many, many corpses. “We must have seen 300 dead people. Some had been shot, most were killed by shelling,” said one of the men, Atalullah, a vegetable seller who had walked for 11 hours before he was able to hitch a lift. “Two or three of my in-laws were killed. The Taliban is firing and the army is shelling from the hilltops.”

The men said that for six days they had waited for the curfew to be lifted. For two days they had nothing whatsoever to eat. “Once it was lifted, we ran away,” said Said Khan. Asked what they had been able to bring, he simply tugged at his dirt-stained salwar kameez: “Just this.”

Hundreds of thousands of people are pouring out of Swat and the surrounding neighbourhoods as the military and the government of President Asif Ali Zardari – under intense pressure from Washington – move to drive the Taliban out from what, until two years ago, was a largely peaceful region.

Aid officials say that at this point, the overwhelming majority of the displaced – 428,789 of the 510,496 registered by the authorities since 2 May – are staying with relatives or friends or else in rented rooms. For those with no alternative, there are the 17-odd camps that have been set up, small towns of canvas tents, communal lavatories and water tanks. With anywhere up to 1.3 million people driven from their homes since last August and with hundreds of thousands more still expected, these camps are likely to grow in number and in size.

At the start of the week, this camp near Swabi – shadeless, sweltering and set in dusty fields littered with corn stalks – had around 5,700 residents. Now the total stands at 8,000.

Seated inside a crumbling brick building, built by the British in 1870 as a guesthouse for the local irrigation authorities, local administrator Fazal Karim, said he was personally housing 17 people in his three-room house. “Initially it was people coming from Buner but last night it was people from Swat. It’s just a constant stream of people,” he said.

Officials at the UN refugee agency warned that “the speed and scale of this crisis is posing huge challenges for the government and the humanitarian community”. Spokesman Ron Redmond noted that people in northwestern Pakistan had for decades been generous to millions of Afghan refugees driven from their homes by war. “Now that they themselves are uprooted, they deserve international help,” he said.

Yesterday, the Pakistani military said it had used helicopters to drop commandos behind enemy lines into the remote Piochar area in the upper reaches of the Swat valley. The area has been identified as a rear base for up to 4,000 Taliban fighters as well as a possible hiding place for the local militant leader Maulana Fazlullah. Yet the army said that in an effort to minimise civilian casualties, it was concentrating its operations away from the valley’s populated areas, including Swat’s main town, Mingora. Senior spokesman General Athar Abbas noted: “The urban warfare has not even started.”

For now, the operation against the Taliban, pitched as it has been as a battle for the very survival of Pakistan, appears to have a fair amount of public support – at least among those not being driven from their homes. However, a sustained operation with mounting civilian casualties, and the increased risk of a violent backlash in the form of suicide bombings by the militants, could see that support eroded. Such a shift would pile further pressure on the government. A poll recently published by the International Republican Institute suggests 81 per cent of Pakistanis believe their country is heading in the wrong direction. The same poll found a majority believe the struggling economy is a more pressing issue than fighting militants.

In the meantime, with the military operation poised to continue, more desperate people are set to pour into the camps. People like Mohammed Ali. Yesterday morning, the 45-year-old labourer was registering his family of 10, having just arrived from Mingora. “It’s very bad. There is much shelling,” he said. Asked how long he expected to stay and what the future might hold, he said: “We are just going to wait out things here. We are just trying to survive.”

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: