Two sisters sit among a group of children who quietly listen as adults declaim conditions in the camp and deliver harsh assessments of life under the Taliban.
Two sisters sit among a group of children who quietly listen as adults declaim conditions in the camp and deliver harsh assessments of life under the Taliban. Julie McCarthy/NPR
A man carries a sack of grain distributed by the World Food Program, part of the rations that each family is given in the camp.
A man carries a sack of grain distributed by the World Food Program, part of the rations that each family is given in the camp. Julie McCarthy/NPR
An elderly man oversees the water fountains used for ablutions, the ritual cleansing of hands before prayers.
An elderly man oversees the water fountains used for ablutions, the ritual cleansing of hands before prayers. Julie McCarthy/NPR
Relief workers prepared satchels of beans for the 8,000 people who reside at the Sheikh Shahzad Camp, part of the monthly rations of foodstuff.
Relief workers prepared satchels of beans for the 8,000 people who reside at the Sheikh Shahzad Camp, part of the monthly rations of foodstuff. Julie McCarthy/NPR
Pakistan's government and its international allies are rushing relief supplies to those displaced by the war in Swat Valley and surrounding areas. More than one and a half million people have fled the fighting between Pakistani forces and Taliban extremists in the northwest area of the country, where militants have a foothold near the lawless Afghan-Pakistan border.
But just south of the war zone, government-run camps are overflowing with refugees, who assail the poor conditions and the Taliban.
One camp, Sheikh Shahzad, is some 75 miles south of Swat Valley, the epicenter of the army's offensive. Swat sweeps across the restive mountainous Pashtun region where Taliban extremists have imposed their harsh version of Islam through the barrel of a gun.
Relief workers distribute sacks of grain for refugees who've escaped the warring Taliban and army. Momin Khan sits cross-legged waiting for his allotment of wheat, beans and oil. As there are no family stoves yet, it seems an exercise in hope.
Many refugees walked great distances to find food and shelter.
Khan walked 20 miles out of Swat Valley to find his wife. Chand Bibi escaped ahead of her husband in a mass exodus from the town of Saidu Sharif. The faces of Khan and Bibi simultaneously contort into tears as she recounts the panic of their sudden separation.
"We were having tea when all of a sudden an army operation with mortar shells and big bombs began," Bibi says. "There was a battle around my house. My husband was fetching water at the well. I grabbed three of my children. My husband got left behind with the rest of the children. We jumped on a passing truck as a plane flew overhead. Two vehicles were destroyed. God left mine intact."
Too hot inside their fly-infested tent, Bibi talks outside, drawing a crowd. There is an intense curiosity among the displaced in hearing the details of others' narrow escapes. The children sit rapt, looking like a composite of the famous National Geographic cover of the green-eyed girl from Afghanistan a generation earlier. Their small brows furrowed, these little refugees try to make sense of Bibi's lament.
"I used to make ice for neighbors with my imported refrigerator. I borrowed money from the bank to build my house, but I don't know if it's been destroyed," Bibi says. "Look at how miserable everyone is here," she says adding, "It's as if our cold land of Swat has caught fire. Every grown-up and child is crying from the heat."
Bibi says "all this misery is happening" because politicians "have not tended to the poor," whom she says are easy prey for Taliban recruiters.
After weeks in the relative safety of the camps, residents are starting to talk more openly about life under the Taliban. Residents say the militants meted out harsh punishment for anyone who dared offend their ultra-conservative moral code. Khan says that even by the conservative standards of Swat Valley, the regulations for women were especially extreme.
"If a child falls ill, for example, it's extremely difficult because a woman cannot take a child to the doctor. She can't go out. And my wife would get upset because she feared the Taliban. They would make sure that women were clad in burqas. In my 53 years, I have never seen such tactics," Khan said.
One young man said he shut down his computer college when the Taliban swooped into his district of Buner last month. Asked to be identified only as Aziz, he says he acted to protect the lives of his female students as well as his own. Despite reports of the army killing civilians while bombarding militants, Aziz says the Taliban are the ones to fear.
"We were more scared of Taliban instead of the army, because the army has rules and principles. They acted according to those rules and principles. But the Taliban has no rules, and they can kill you just because they wanted to," he says.
The Taliban's push from Swat into Buner ignited debate over whether the government was bowing to extremism. One exiled Buner resident who goes by the name Kashfi Ali says the government has consistently mishandled the militants, especially agreeing to a peace pact that has since collapsed.
"The government was aware of the fact that they were rascals, they were criminals. But in spite of all of these things, they made an agreement with them," Ali says. "So they got a chance to spread their tentacles to other areas. And their aim was to spread their tentacles to the whole of Pakistan."
So Ali blames the Taliban for the fiasco of a million and a half people being driven from their homes.
Nonetheless, there is fear that the messy exodus could create a backlash, undermining public support for the military's current operations.
Junaid Khan contributed to this report.