Caught in the crossfire – the Swat valley’s fleeing families

Farhad Bibi survived the jet attack on her home, but her one-year-old daughter, Hassina, was one of 11 people killed (Declan Walsh)
Farhad Bibi survived the jet attack on her home, but her one-year-old daughter, Hassina, was one of 11 people killed (Declan Walsh)

Declan Walsh seeks out the refugees trapped in a brutal war between Pakistan’s army and the Taliban after an uneasy and short-lived truce.

Army footage shows laser-guided missiles slamming into mountain buildings that explode into a fountain of fragments. Warplanes blast away at Taliban targets in the Swat valley and ground troops push towards the main town, Mingora. When Pakistani forces kill the Taliban, few complain – this is a popular war, for now.

“We are progressing well,” a spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, said.

Sometimes, though, they hit the wrong target. Jan Nawab, a slightly-built man with a scraggly beard, stood outside the house where he has taken refuge, and sobbed softly under the weight of the calamity that had befallen him.

Last Monday morning a fighter jet screamed over Matta, a Taliban-overrun district in the heart of Swat. Its first bomb landed on Jan Nawab’s home, where his wife, four children, his sister-in-law and two other children, were sheltering. All were killed.

The plane curled in the sky, two witnesses said, and turned for a second pass. The second explosion crushed his neighbour’s house, where a woman and two children were killed. “Eleven people in total,” he said, in a faltering voice, knotting his fingers.His chin dropped and he started to cry again. His sister-in-law, Hussain Bibi, took the story up.

She ran over to the house as soon as the dust settled. “All I saw was a baby lying on the ground, struggling for breath. The others were in pieces, naked, spread around,” she said, speaking in a courtyard filled with women, teenagers and infants.

As she scrabbled through the rubble, her daughter dragged her away. “She said to me ‘Are you insane? They are still bombing’.” They ran for cover under trees, shielding their heads with copies of the Qur’an.

Jan Nawab’s extended family reached safety two nights ago, squeezing into the house of a relative in Charsadda, near Peshawar, where 85 people are living in a mud-walled farmhouse with one bedroom. They sleep in the barn, in the living room and on the ground in the courtyard.

It is not unusual. Of the 800,000 displaced people who have registered for assistance, only a tenth are in camps such as the one that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, visited yesterday, appealing for huge amounts of international aid. The remainder live in the houses of friends, relatives or strangers, like this one.

Previously it was the home of Taj Bibi and her 14-strong family. She is bearing the strain remarkably well. “My house is small but my heart is large,” she said. “I am just thankful to God that my remaining relatives have made it here.”

They are angry with the army, of course, but they are equally bitter about the Taliban. They have been arriving here in waves since February, when militants shot dead three women from the family. The women’s crime was to provide food and water to soldiers at a nearby checkpoint; they were dragged outside and shot.

The bodies lay there for two days, under orders from the local commander, Ibne Amin. Only with his permission did the funerals finally take place.

The family knew the killers. Shams ul Haq, brother of one of the murdered women, could reel their names off: Khyber, Gulber, Shebar. They were local poor men, he said, bus conductors and shoeshine boys and petty traders, drawn to the Taliban by the promise of money and power and the chance to ride around in a twin-cab pickup truck.

The Taliban commanders, on the other hand, were established men of war – locals who had been away for years fighting in Kashmir or Afghanistan, the product of Pakistan‘s four-decade flirtation with jihad as a way of waging proxy war.

Haq didn’t buy their propaganda about fighting for Allah. “We don’t want the Islam of Talibanisation. They have desecrated the Holy Qur’an,” he said, his voice rising in anger. “What did they care for my sister when they shot her dead?”

Some family members fled after the women were killed; others after an 18-year-old family member died in the crossfire of a gunbattle. He was trying to drive to safety. Two weeks later, in mid-February, the government signed a peace deal with the militants, trading the introduction of Sharia law for the promise of peace. The teenager’s father, Qamar, said he knew it would never work. “Even if they introduced Islamic law, who would dare bring the Taliban to court?” he said bitterly.

The last wave of refugees, 35 people, fled after last Monday’s bombing. They slipped away under cover of darkness, dodging the curfew and the roads, climbing across the mountains on a dark path. Along the way they slept in an abandoned house; the men taking turns carrying five injured women.

Yesterday one of them, 25-year-old Farhad Bibi, sat quietly with her sisters, her blank face pocked with shrapnel marks. She had survived the second fighter jet bomb; her one-year-old child did not.

Hussain Bibi said she was glad to be safe, but her mind would not rest. “The whole scene keeps playing and replaying before my eyes,” she said.

A handful of people turned up to mourn the 11 deaths. One was Sher Bahadur, their landlord from Matta, who fled last November. His brother, Liaqat Ali Khan, helped a Chinese engineer who had escaped from Taliban captivity. The militants found out and killed him.

Bahadur and his family escaped by smuggling themselves out with the mourners at his brother’s funeral. He scoffed at the idea, floated by some pundits, that the Taliban represents a sort of class revolution.

“They are just poor men from the area, and criminals,” he said.

Moments later a car pulled up outside the overcrowded farmhouse. The five wounded women, draped in shawls, squeezed into the back seat. The men stood and watched as the vehicle started off down a bumpy track, off to Mardan hospital for treatment.

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: