PESHAWAR — Civilians who fled the Malakand region in northwest Pakistan after the army launched operations against the Taliban, are starting to trickle home. On Wednesday, the government said 2,885 families have returned to Swat and Buner.
"Yes, we are going back to our home because life in the camp is miserable," says a schoolteacher Javid Khan from Mingora, the capital of Swat district, as he waits to get on a bus chartered by the government to ferry refugees home.
"We are all very worried that the Taliban leaders are alive, and they will be back once things quieten down," he adds. Khan, who has lived in the Sheikh Yasin camp in Mardan since May, may be speaking for all the internally displaced people (IDPs) from Malakand.
More than two million people from Swat, Buner and Upper Dir — part of the Malakand region — have been living in refugee camps or with their relatives and community for nearly three months – creating the biggest refugee protection crisis after Rwanda (in the nineties), according to the U.N.
Last week, Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani announced a repatriation plan in three phases. The first phase launched on Monday involves the voluntary return of internally displaced people (IDPs) from the areas cleared of militants by the army. The government has announced that each repatriated family will get food for six months and the rupee equivalent of 300 dollars.
"During the last two days, about 400 families (2,800 persons) have left from Nowshera (Jalozai is one of the camps here), Mardan, Charsadda and Swabi. People are leaving with joy," Bashir Ahmed Bilour, a senior minister in the provincial government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) told reporters in Peshawar, the capital city. "This is a gigantic task but we are mindful of the challenges," he says.
Pakistan has been grappling with extremist violence since 2002 when the Taliban government in Afghanistan was toppled by a U.S.-led coalition in the wake of terrorist bombings in Washington and New York.
Remnants of the Taliban including its leader Omar Abdullah, crossed the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border to take refuge amongst their Pakhtoon ethnic cousins in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). In Afghanistan, the Pakhtoons are called Pashtuns.
Before long, the presence of the Afghan Taliban spawned armed Pakistani Taliban groups who, unchallenged by the Pakistan military, eventually built strongholds in the adjoining NWFP, and gained control of Swat Valley in 2007.
In February, the provincial government sought to stop the violence by buying peace with the Taliban through the imposition of Islamic law in return for the cessation of hostilities.
The cease-fire was shortlived, and after a series of blatant suicide bombings including an attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, the government launched military operations to oust the Taliban from the NWFP on Apr. 27, triggering a massive humanitarian crisis.
The government opened 21 refugee camps to house the IDPs but the vast majority — according to U.N. estimates, at least 90 percent of the uprooted civilians — found shelter with their relatives and community members outside the conflict zone.
"Most of the people are returning back from camps because of the severe heat and upcoming monsoon season," says Mohammad Ali, an official at the Sheikh Yasin camp. The mountainous Malakand region is cooler than the rest of the province, which has been extremely difficult for the IDPs to adjust to.
Ali Ahmed who along with 10-member family fled Swat on Apr. 29, has been living in a tent in Sheikh Shehzad camp in Mardan. He told IPS that the past two months have been hellish. He complained of lack of electricity, water and food. "We are desperate to go home in spite of knowing that the Taliban will return to oppress us!"
The government has plans to repatriate some 100,000 refugees from the camps by Jul. 28. IDPs outside the camps have been told to make their own way back.
But are they going back?
"The number of returning families is far less than projected by the government," says Kazim Khan, president of the Swat IDPs Action Committee. "People are also skeptical about the health, education and water facilities back in their homes. Everything has been destroyed in the fighting."
Many questions are also being asked about whether the government can assure returning refugees that they will be safe.
"There is no worry," NWFP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Khan insists in an interview with IPS. "The army will stay in the conflict zones even after the elimination of militants. The president has already ordered the setting up of a cantonment (army area) in Swat. The number of police stations has been doubled," he asserts.
"We are planning to leave but my children will stay here?" says Raj Wali, a mechanic, who has been living in the building of the Government Girls High School in Mardan. From Sultanwas in Buner, Wali said he was going back with his elder son to rebuild his house and shop, and (later) if the situation was fine, he would take back the rest of his family.
"How could I take my family when only three days back three policemen were killed and the house of a journalist was burnt down by militants?" he asks.
Meanwhile, the military operation continues in Swat, Buner and Dir Upper. An army spokesman told the media on Jul. 14 that five militants were killed in Swat.
Akram Jan who lives in Rustam village, Mardan, on the edge of violence-wracked Buner says: "I returned from Buner yesterday (Monday) and saw a large number of Taliban patrolling the streets. I have decided to rent a house and start working here." Akram Jan, a taxi-driver, spoke to IPS over the phone.
(Inter Press Service)