Thousands Displaced By War In Pakistan

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During the past week the Pakistan Army has undertaken its largest ever operation against Taliban forces in the Swat valley and lower Dir districts — parts of the Malakand Tribal Agency where it had earlier reached a controversial peace agreement with pro-Taliban activists.

The army assaults have had a devastating impact on village communities. The UN estimates that 500,000 or more have fled their once quiet, scenic mountain homes which are now part of the deadly frontline of Pakistan’s battle with Islamic militancy.

This latest wave of displaced villagers join the close to one million people who, since last August, had already been made homeless by the war with the Taliban in other parts of Pakistan’s tribal areas.

People have sought refuge as far south as Peshawar, some 80 kilometres from the current troubles in Swat. On the outskirts of the city, displaced communities live a rudimentary life among the endless rows of tents at the Katcha Ghauri camp, which was once home to refugees from the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

"We are always hungry and there are many mosquitoes here," complains Izzat, a small-businessman and father of four, from Swat.

Katcha Ghauri is so overcrowded now that many of those who arrived last year after being displaced from other regions have offered to leave to make room for new arrivals from the north-west.

"We are ready to leave [Katcha Ghauri] to make room for our brothers from Swat," says Kushdhil, an old man from Bajaur Agency, which is to the west of where the fighting is currently taking place.

But most of those who are fleeing the war in Swat remain trapped on the southern edges of Malakand Agency, only a few kilometres away from the fighting.

Authorities have told people to leave their villages but they have not provided transport from these frontline positions.

"We were asked to leave our homes without any assistance [from the Government]. We managed to get out of the area," says Zahid from Mingora, the Swat valley’s largest city and a Taliban stronghold which is currently under intense army bombardment.

Private transport companies have seized on the lack of Government transportation by increasing their prices, leaving most to make the journey to safety on foot.

"Transporters are charging very high prices that we can’t afford," Zahid explains. "They left us behind [amid]heavy shelling from [army]helicopters."

"I cannot stop thinking about my neighbour, a widow with her two kids, who can’t afford transport charges. She might be killed during [army]shelling … our area has been targeted for the last three days."

Adding to their misery are the many, often randomly announced, army curfews that prohibit people from moving from areas where operations are being conducted against militants.

"My mother has been ill since last night but here there is no proper health facility," says Zarina, an eight-year-old from Asban in lower Dir.

"We want to take her to a hospital [in the village of]Batkhela but there is curfew so we can’t move," she told us.

People, mostly from the Swat valley and surrounding areas of neighbouring lower Dir district, have been forced to move from village to village during the short periods when curfews are lifted.

"I am a primary school teacher. First I was forced to leave my job due to threats from the Taliban. They do not want women to get an education," Rukhsana, who left her home in Shamozai, Swat as soon as fighting erupted, tells us as she waits patiently in the nearby Nagram area of lower Dir until curfew is lifted.

On Tuesday, spokesperson General Athar Abbas said the army was going to great lengths to avoid civilian "collateral damage". But many of the displaced people that we interviewed claim the Government is indiscriminately shelling villages rather than targeting militant hideouts.

"Helicopters came and started firing at our homes," claims Sakina, from Kabal in the Swat valley, who is now living in a tent at the Rangmala camp with her four children. "Due to fear of being killed we rushed to this camp. Local people are supporting us but there is nothing from the Government."

Rangmala, a camp of around 15,000 tents, was recently established by Red Cross with the help of local villagers who have given vital humanitarian supplies like food, water and clothes to those fleeing the strife.

On Monday the Pakistan Government pledged 1 billion rupees (AU$16 million) of funding to assist those displaced by the conflict and would hold a donors conference to obtain further assistance. UN aid agencies said they are speeding up the delivery of humanitarian relief. Meanwhile, US Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, urged Capitol Hill to pass an immediate aid package to Pakistan that would include economic, humanitarian and, of course, continued military assistance for the massive Pakistan Army operations.

The Taliban remain defiant despite the scale of the attacks, which are largely funded by the US.

"We are going forward and security forces are on the run," says Muhammad Iqbal, a Taliban spokesperson for the region. "We feel sorry for the poor people being killed during the [army]assault … our men are safe and are fighting with great enthusiasm and spirit."

"Military forces can’t face us on the ground [due to the mountainous terrain]and we have mined the whole of the area so they can’t come forward from their check posts," he continued.

However, whether or not the Taliban are vanquished in Pakistan’s once sleepy frontier villages, the fact remains that communities here may never recover.

"We were leading contented lives in our village, but now it is no longer safe to live there," says Rukhsana.

"Even if normalcy returns to this area," adds Akram Shah, another displaced villager who is currently staying in Badawan village in Lower Dir, "it will take a long time to [rebuild]our lives."

New Matilda

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