Pakistani Refugees Caught Between Taliban, Army

Refugees join a protest rally in Islamabad. Credit: Junaid Khan/NPR i

The displaced of Swat Valley span the generations at a protest rally in Islamabad demanding food, shelter and health care for hundreds of thousands who have been forced to flee the fighting in the country's troubled and militant-filled Northwest. Junaid Khan/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Junaid Khan/NPR
Refugees join a protest rally in Islamabad. Credit: Junaid Khan/NPR

The displaced of Swat Valley span the generations at a protest rally in Islamabad demanding food, shelter and health care for hundreds of thousands who have been forced to flee the fighting in the country's troubled and militant-filled Northwest.

Junaid Khan/NPR
Newly displaced Taj Mohammad with sister-in-law Zeba Omar and her son. Credit: Junaid Khan/NPR i

Newly displaced Taj Mohammad with sister-in-law Zeba Omar and her son. They say they escaped Swat Valley with 15 other members of their family in a harrowing trek over mountains that were being strafed by helicopter gunships. Fighting forced them to flee their village, where they say the bodies of civilians killed in the widening conflict have been left to rot in the streets. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Julie McCarthy/NPR
Newly displaced Taj Mohammad with sister-in-law Zeba Omar and her son. Credit: Junaid Khan/NPR

Newly displaced Taj Mohammad with sister-in-law Zeba Omar and her son. They say they escaped Swat Valley with 15 other members of their family in a harrowing trek over mountains that were being strafed by helicopter gunships. Fighting forced them to flee their village, where they say the bodies of civilians killed in the widening conflict have been left to rot in the streets.

Julie McCarthy/NPR
Tent cities are being erected in the district of Mardan. Credit: Junaid Khan/NPR i

Tent cities are being erected in the district of Mardan just over the border from Swat Valley to accommodate what the U.N. warns is one of the world's biggest displacements of people. Junaid Khan/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Junaid Khan/NPR
Tent cities are being erected in the district of Mardan. Credit: Junaid Khan/NPR

Tent cities are being erected in the district of Mardan just over the border from Swat Valley to accommodate what the U.N. warns is one of the world's biggest displacements of people.

Junaid Khan/NPR

Thousands of civilians fled Pakistan's Swat Valley on Sunday after authorities briefly lifted a curfew. Pakistan's army said its war planes killed at least 180 Taliban militants within a 24-hour period in its all-out offensive in northwestern Swat Valley.

The army's casualty figures cannot be independently verified, but the U.N. warns that the fighting is producing one of the world's largest displacements of people. As they gather in makeshift camps, refugees' attitudes conflict about their plight and just who is responsible for the war that has driven them from their homes.

Across the district of Mardan, row upon neat row of tents is going up as the messy business of housing refugees from the conflict next door in Swat Valley picks up pace.

Swat Valley has become the epicenter of the power struggle between the militants and Pakistan forces. International aid agencies say 200,000 people have already escaped the widening conflict there. Another 300,000 are either on the move or trapped by the fighting.

Hundreds seeking help have overwhelmed the sprawling, century-old tuberculosis hospital that's turned into a receiving center in Mardan city. The new arrivals jostle each other in long lines. A full-throated official, or nazim, steps in as the heat bears down and patience wears thin. "It is our duty as Muslims to support you," he said to applause.

"Within two or three weeks you'll be back home and, God willing, those terrorists in the name of Taliban will be destroyed. Maximum three weeks."

Victimized By Both Sides

But Hamid Ullah, whose sharp elbows nudge him to the front of registration, is settling in for the long haul. A shop owner from Mingora, the central city in Swat, says a huge explosion last week in the square across from his shop sent the entire area diving for cover in their basements. When the curfew was partially lifted, allowing residents to flee, Ullah said his family did not hesitate.

"Our thinking was to save our lives and that God would bring back our worldly goods. A great injustice has happened to us — leaving behind our business."

Yet the 23-year-old expresses ambivalence about the Taliban. He says that, yes, the women were not allowed to venture out, the men were not allowed to shave their beards, and the young were not allowed to play music as some of the Islamic militants rigidly enforced morality in the conservative valley.

But Ullah says the Taliban also replaced a corrupt police force that would harass shop owners and demand money.

"The Taliban are good and not so good for us. If they bring Shariah law, it will create peace. But when the Taliban and the army fight, it creates great trouble. They are used to it, but it is we who suffer."

Said Wali Khan gathers in the courtyard with friends who have few kind words for either the Taliban or the Pakistani army. Khan arrived from Buner, where Taliban forces spilled over from the Swat last month. He says fighting has only ruined the lives of people who had no hand in the conflict, but who are dying in large numbers.

"We have observed that the army and the Taliban would face each other, but not attack each other. They are one. They seem to be in league with one another," he says.

It's a widely shared perception in Swat Valley that the army may be in collusion with the militants, rooted in the Pakistan military's use of extremists as proxies to fight in Indian Kashmir and the Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.

Whatever the causes or intrigues that lie at the heart of the conflict, the internally displaced are paying a heavy price.

Some Refugees Taking Action

In Islamabad, the new refugees led a protest Saturday demanding shelter, food and medicine. Taj Mohammad also demands an end to the militancy.

The young farmer arrived in Islamabad this past week after a harrowing escape with his family over mountain passes that he says were being raked by helicopter gunships. His traumatized sister-in-law pulls her black veil tightly around her like a security blanket. "I'm not normal now," she says, "I'm out of my mind."

Mohammad blames the Taliban for the spiraling terror that he says forced young men at gunpoint to join the jihad, prevented the sick from being treated and blew up girls' schools.

"For us, the army is better than the Taliban. How can girls not go to school and learn anything, even their religion? And how can Muslims kill Muslims in a jihad? How is that justified?"

"Swat Valley was a paradise," Mohammad says. But, he says, the Taliban "destroyed the flowers with all their havoc." It will take 20 to 30 years, he says, for it to come back.

Junaid Khan contributed to this report from Mardan.

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