Swat Valley's Displaced Between Hope And Fear In Pakistan
Abdullah, a middle-aged farmer from Swat's Matta region, left his apple and peach orchards in their sleepy mountain hamlet two months ago, and moved to a city in the neighboring region of Hazara.
In doing so, Abdullah and his family of 10 joined the estimated 3 million people who have been forced to flee their homes since 2004, when Pakistan's western ethnic-Pashtun borderlands turned into a battleground for the military and extremists.
Abdullah was part of the largest and most recent exodus of some 2 million people, which resulted from the military operation launched against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley and Malakand region two months ago.
Before deciding to flee his ancestral homeland, Abdullah resisted. He even organized a village "peace committee" to keep Taliban militants out of their village, but nothing worked.
"Swatis were not expecting it, but were suddenly caught up in violence -- as if a sleeping person were attacked with a knife," Abdullah says.
"This destroyed life there," he adds, noting that markets, hospitals, and schools were "shut down and militants would roam around in groups of hundreds."
"The police force stopped working altogether, and the courts were forced to close down, too. It was difficult to live under such circumstances, so most people in Swat, including us, were forced to scatter into different regions."
Now, Abdullah and his family are ready to return home -- hopefully, before the torrential monsoon rains hit the plains of Pakistan where they have waited out the fighting -- and there are signs that their wish will soon be granted.
On July 9, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced that those who have been displaced can start returning home in phases beginning on July 13, and offered assurances that the army will remain in the area to provide security.
The security situation is among the top concerns of displaced people and observers alike. Gilani's comments came just a day after UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said Pakistan needed to ensure that appropriate conditions, especially security, were in place before people could be encouraged to go home.
This week, the Pakistani military claimed to have hit Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah in an air strike, and claimed to have "cleared" the region of insurgents by killing 1,500 and capturing hundreds more.
Many locals, however, still harbor fears that the extremists will regroup once the military operation is over.
Media reports suggest that some 50,000 to 70,000 people have already returned to the district of Buner, which borders Swat in the southeast. Official return plans made public so far suggest that about 280,000 people living in some 20 displacement camps will be the first to go back to their homes.
Haider Ali Khan represents Swat in the provincial legislature of the Northwest Frontier Province. He recently scouted his home region Khwazakhela to gauge the damage that resulted from the recent fighting and to check whether it would be safe for people from his constituency to return.
"There are some problems in some areas -- maybe 10 to 20 percent of all of Swat. But people can return and live in the rest, 80 percent, of the areas," Khan says.
"I would appeal to [the displaced] people living in the plains below to return and to try to get back to their jobs and a normal life. This will boost the morale of the people still living there," he adds. "We have requested that our government move all its assistance there as well."
But aid workers and others, including UN Undersecretary Holmes, appear cautious.
"We would like people to be able to go home as soon as possible, but that process has to be voluntary, they need to be involved in those choices, the conditions need to be right," Holmes said after visiting displaced people in Mardan on July 8. "That means the security needs to be right, the basic services need to be there."
Has Anything Improved?
There are numerous signs that the situation remains chaotic. Even as the government is saying that the region is ready to accept returnees, Khan says that families that were trapped in Swat are still moving out.
Many appear to be doing so to collect the nearly $300 in cash and other assistance provided to those living in displacement camps and with host communities in the districts of Peshawar, Mardan, and Swabi -- all bordering Malakand.
Kristele Younes, a senior advocate with Refugees International, a Washington group that promotes solutions to displacement crises, says her organization is concerned that the Pakistani government, keen to mark an end to recent hostilities, might send people back to their homes without creating favorable conditions for them.
"The need to go back to a place where they have access to basic services, where they can walk in a street without fearing that there is going to be a bomb somewhere and unexploded ordnance. And where they can turn to the government and to lawmakers if there are issues where rule of law is present," Younes says.
"Part of the problem was that there was no rule of law and no civilian infrastructure. And this is why the insurgency and militants were able to operate in those places," she adds. "There will be absolutely no sense in these military operations if we send people to the same status quo that they left."
Lawmaker Khan says that basic services such as electricity, roads, and hospitals are being restored in Swat. But after such a violent conflict, it will take a long time to rebuild the region. He suggests that other hardships faced by the displaced, particularly high temperatures, have convinced many to return to their homes as soon as possible.
Abdullah, the farmer from Matta, agrees. He says given the level of destruction in Swat, quick and timely aid to people who suffered will be the key to stability in the region.
"The assistance given by the international community needs to reach those who suffered most: those who lost their homes, were killed, or injured," Abdullah says.
"If it reaches them, we all would breathe a sigh of relief. We will also be able to learn from our past mistakes and tell friend from foe."
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.