Jason Motlagh / Chronicle Foreign Service – 2008-11-24 22:06:17
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (November 23, 2008) — Muhammad Khan is not sure who fired the mortar shell that nearly cost him his right arm.
But when he regained consciousness, the elderly farmer from the village of Badano knew that clashes between the Pakistani military and local Taliban militants had degenerated into a full-blown war, and it was time to leave.
“The Taliban was making trouble for us. Then the military helicopters and bombs came, exploding throughout the day,” he said, showing his injured arm and a neighbor’s crude stitch-work that saved the limb. “We were suffering from all sides.”
Some 200,000 Pashtun tribal members have fled their homes in the past three months during an army offensive to expel Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Bajur, a largely lawless area that borders Afghanistan and is rumored to be the hiding place of al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden.
Droves of displaced people are flocking to relief camps outside tribal areas for food, shelter and the assurance that the government’s authority still holds in areas outside the battlefield.
The Kacha Gari camp on the edge of Peshawar. the capital of Northwest Frontier province, looks like the aftermath of a bad earthquake: Row after crumbling row of adobe hovels fill a dusty plain, ringed by an expanse of green plastic tents. Until July 2007, the site was home to 64,000 Afghan refugees, most of whom have been repatriated. In fact, the area had been emptied to make way for a development project.
But today, the camp is swelling with refugees once again.
As violence convulses in tribal areas, authorities and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees are directing the displaced to Kacha Gari and three other nearby camps. At least 7,000 people have poured in during the past month, with more families coming each day, according to the United Nations. The refugees account for roughly 30 percent of the population living around Peshawar, according to Sitara Imran, the minister for social welfare in Northwest Frontier province.
“The people (at Kacha Gari) are the absolute poorest, with no place to go. They have no choice,” she said.
Bajur, a rugged area about half the size of Rhode Island, serves as a militant entry point that connects the tribal areas with eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province, where U.S. forces have run up against fierce resistance from the Taliban this year.
Pressure has mounted from Washington to do more to stop the inflow of fighters into Afghanistan, and Washington has praised Pakistani military’s operations. In response, the militants have staged a wave of suicide attacks in Pakistan.
Fleeing residents say the Taliban were initially seen as defenders of Islam. They say local sympathies surged for the Taliban after a 2006 missile strike killed 82 people at a religious school near the town of Damadola; 12 of the victims were teenagers. Although the army claimed responsibility, most locals believed it was a U.S. aerial drone.
But relations with the Taliban soured after militants began enforcing strict Islamic law, destroying homes of uncooperative families, inflicting physical abuse and carrying out occasional public executions, refugees say.
Men who shaved their beards were dunked in cold water during the winter and hot water during the summer, according to Nematullah Khan, 30, from Charmang district. Music was banned. And public schools – judged by the Taliban to be corruptive tools of the government – were burned to the ground.
Amir Nawas, 18, also from Charmang district, says he had one exam left before graduation when the Taliban destroyed his school. All of his academic documents were lost, he adds, leaving him unsure whether he’ll be able to finish his studies. “They were men with no minds, only guns,” he said.
In recent months the Pakistani military has sought to turn such anger against the Taliban. Traditional militias, known as lashkars, have been organized and given a license to kill militants in Bajur and other tribal areas. In addition to artillery and logistics support, they reportedly carry Chinese-made weapons.
As a result, the Pakistani military claims to control 70 percent of Bajur, having killed more than 1,000 militants since early September. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army’s chief spokesman, predicts the region will be stabilized within a month. And a well-placed government source told a reporter on condition of anonymity that if the ongoing campaign stays on course, the displaced should be able to return home by January.
But some observers say holding onto gains in Bajur will prove difficult over the winter months, especially since Afghan Taliban fighters can easily move across the porous borders to launch counterattacks.
Meanwhile, aid officials are trying to accommodate the growing number of refugees as winter approaches. New arrivals are issued tents, plastic sheeting, candles and dry rations of flour and lentils. Yet there are complaints that basic provisions and medicines are in short supply, and each day throngs of men gather outside a concrete compound to jostle for what’s available. Authorities are registering families to ensure that the most needy receive aid first, says Imran.
With nothing but the clothes on their backs, Sabir Jan, 44, a dry goods trader, abandoned his Bajur village with his wife and 11 children in late August after repeated air strikes by the Pakistani military. He says he tried to go back once to check on their property and gather his family’s belongings but turned around for fear of his life.
“The Taliban are bad people, but they know how to hide and fight,” he said. “We must wait a long time, I think.”
E-mail Jason Motlagh at email@example.com.
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