Swat Valley Refugees Begin to Head Home

By Joshua Partlow

The Washington Post

MINGORA, Pakistan — The slender young man hung upside down, strung up by his feet from an electric transmission tower just outside the Swat Valley. The police officer who smiled next to him, and the villagers walking past, heeded the message taped to his shirtless corpse.

"If anyone takes down this body, he will meet the same fate. This is a warning to the Taliban."

It was not clear whether the army or angry residents had strung up the corpse. But the point was unmistakable: A favorite Taliban intimidation tactic has been adopted by the Islamist militia's opponents, reflecting the desire of at least some here in the Swat Valley and neighboring areas to ensure that the Taliban, now officially gone after a fierce fight, stay away.

A caravan of trucks and buses carrying hundreds of war refugees passed by the dangling man Monday on its slow procession to Swat. After fleeing the Pakistani military's war with the Taliban and spending weeks away from their homes, the returning refugees were met by politicians throwing fistfuls of petals.

The politicians spoke of battles won and peace restored. But this did not feel like a particularly joyful day. None of the returning refugees could be sure exactly what they were coming home to. The valley has changed hands several times between the Taliban and the government in recent years. Residents remain fearful that the Taliban will be back, and they have little faith that the government will protect them.

"I hope God will make it safe," Bacha Zada, a baker, shouted from atop a truck crossing into Swat. "This is our new life."

For two months, soldiers and insurgents have fought amid the rice paddies and apple orchards of this verdant valley. The fighting forced more than 2 million people out of what was once a tourist destination and into crowded tents and relatives' homes in adjacent areas of Pakistan's northwest. The military said it has driven the Taliban from the valley, and on Monday it began repatriating the first small batch of residents.

Ahead of these returnees, a convoy of provincial politicians and their armed guards toured the valley, driving into Mingora, the area's largest city and the scene of some of the worst urban combat. Although most of the villages and towns in Swat seemed largely intact, albeit deserted, evidence of a battle here was plain to see.

Bombs and artillery shells have demolished houses and turned schools and police stations into rubble. There are fire-blackened storefronts and roll-down shop gates crumpled like foil. Around Green Square in downtown Mingora, windows of hotels and shopping plazas are blasted out.

"This is our main city," said Khalil ur-Rahman, a leading politician in Mingora. The Taliban "have destroyed everything.," he said.

It was at the center of the square that Taliban fighters used to dump their victims' bodies when they controlled Mingora. These gruesome killings initially occurred on Thursday evenings, Rahman said, but then became nightly affairs. Eventually, the area was dubbed Slaughterhouse Square.

"They gradually got stronger. They were given support because there was no opposition. The people used to think the army and the Taliban were friends, brothers," he said. "Then they began slaughtering the people, police, public officials."

The government has renamed the square, calling it Martyrs Square.

On Monday, flak-vested soldiers and black-clad police officers stood guard throughout the abandoned valley. They have converted schools and offices into garrisons and blocked roads with logs, rocks and sandbags to slow potential suicide bombers, although no traffic circulated other than the patrolling military pickup trucks and armored vehicles.

Swat is still under curfew, so virtually all shops and offices remained closed. The few residents who chose to stay through the fighting carried white flags as they walked cautiously through the streets.

Shah Dawran, a surgeon, left his home during the fighting but stayed in the valley to keep working. With no insulin available, he concocted a homemade remedy to treat a diabetic. He took in patients with shrapnel and gunshot wounds and saved the ones he could. "Two people died due to huge blood loss in my presence," he said.

Military officials said that more than 1,500 suspected Taliban fighters were killed in the operation, although just one of the top 27 Taliban commanders in the area is confirmed as dead. The army has said that Maulana Fazlullah, the leading Taliban commander, known for his fiery radio sermons, has been injured. Taliban spokesmen have denied that.

Encouraged by the improved security, authorities say Swat is secure enough for families to return home.

"Peace will soon be restored," said Muhammad Idrees Khan, police chief of the Malakand district, which includes the Swat Valley. "The militants are not capable of challenging us now."

The main challenge for the government involves restoring services, rebuilding the damaged structures and protecting villagers as they come home in a phased return expected to unfold over the coming weeks. One brigadier general who briefed the politicians said police morale remained a critical concern. When the Taliban took control of the area, the police put up little resistance. A new, 2,500-strong police force built around retired military officers is scheduled to begin work soon to bolster the ranks.

The security forces must also attempt to gain the trust of the returning families. The brigadier general said he asked a group of people for clues about who destroyed a school in Swat, but nobody offered any help.

"Now we are trying to have people take us into their confidence," he said.

Many displaced farmers were forced to abandon their crops before the summer harvest and are now worried that they would have difficulty providing for themselves. A minister for North-West Frontier Province who toured Swat on Monday, Wajid Ali Khan, said the government planned to provide food for five months for the returning refugees.

"We will try to focus on the problems of the people," he said. "It is not 100 percent clear, but I am satisfied with the situation."

By the late afternoon, the first buses finally crossed into Swat. Television cameramen crowded around the first vehicle and shouted questions at the passengers, who said they were relieved to be going home. Then the bus driver pushed through a crowd and drove under a white banner that read: "Welcome to your own homes."

Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Only genuine comments please!

Most Popular Posts