Challenge: Getting Buner Residents To Return

Pakistan's army says it has "turned the tide" in its ongoing offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley and neighboring areas near the Afghan border. The Pakistani offensive was launched after the Taliban swept into the district of Buner. Some residents have ventured back, while others won't go. There are difficulties getting the district up and running.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Investigators in Pakistan are sifting through the rubble of a luxury hotel today in the city of Peshawar. Yesterday, suicide attackers set off a powerful bomb that killed at least 11 people. That bombing came shortly after the Taliban vowed to take revenge in the face of an ongoing campaign against militants by the Pakistani army. For its part, the army says it has turned the tide in that fight. The military operation began after the Taliban swept into an area just an hour's drive from the Pakistan's capital. The Taliban have now been driven out of that district, Buner.

But NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, it will be hard to put the place back together.

JULIE MCCARTHY: In a matter of days, Abdul Mala Khan(ph) went from being one of the notables of Buner to just one more of the greater Swat Valley's two-and-a-half million inhabitants dispossessed by Pakistan's six-week-old operation against the Taliban.

Mr. ABDUL MALA KHAN (Businessman, Marble Retail): (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: We had a vast marble business, but it's finished. The Taliban carted off the machinery from our factories, Khan says. We being the prominent ones, the Taliban occupied our homes and inflicted 100 million rupees worth of damage, he says. Then the army bombarded our houses and flattened a bunch of the village. Now, he says, we are living in limbo.

Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas concedes that the army leveled the homes of prominent citizens. But he says it was with the consent of people like Mala Khan.

Mr. MALA KHAN: The big houses were taken over by the militants. Taliban, they wanted to punish the notables of the area. So the notables tried to approach the military, that, look, yes, we know exactly this is our house. But it has been taken over by the Taliban, and we want you to hit them hard in the house, also.

MCCARTHY: But the marble magnate says he's distressed not just because of what he lost, but because he was betrayed by the government. Even before the army entered Buner, local authorities urged Khan and other notables to form a militia to stop the encroaching Taliban.

In early April, the militants spilled into Buner from Swat Valley, making a mockery of a peace deal they'd made with the provincial government. Khan says the authorities, who at first promised aid and comfort to the new citizen militiamen, abandoned them to fend for themselves.

Mr. MALA KHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: When the militia, or lashkar, clashed with the Taliban, there were no reinforcements, he said. The government told us that it would give us support and security and that we should fight this war, but they left us in a lurch, he says.

Mala Khan hopes for compensation from the government or an offer of asylum from the U.S. or Britain. Too afraid, he says he won't be returning to Buner anytime soon.

Mr. MALA KHAN: A lot of fear is with these people, because once bitten, twice shy. And this is the case.

MCCARTHY: General Abbas says the civilians who risked everything are heroic and need encouragement to return to Buner for the long reconstruction ahead. The new top civilian administrator there, Yahya Akhundzada, says Buner is starting to crawl back with the help of U.S. humanitarian assistance.

Mr. YAHYA AKHUNDZADA (Civilian Administrator, Buner): A lot of people have come back, but they have not come permanently. They have come back to cut their crops and to have a look at their houses.

MCCARTHY: Farmer Nasib Wali(ph) returned this week to harvest his wheat after the army said things were improving in Buner. But the young father of three discovered it was not fit for human habitation.

Mr. NASIB WALI (Farmer, Buner): (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: There is no water. There is no electricity, and the children are really suffering, he says.

In the area of Sultan Was, where the Taliban overran the homes of the rich, Nasib says the crops had caught fire from all the mortar shells that landed in the area. From his fields, Nasib says he could hear shelling in the distance toward the Swat Valley. Under these dangerous conditions, he says, residents are staying away.

The absence of businessmen like Abdul Mala Khan will cost Buner. Khan estimates without his family, 50 percent of Buner's marble industry will not function. Yet Khan says all of the losses may be insignificant compared to the gain.

Mr. MALA KHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: It's a fact that houses were destroyed in the offensive, he says. But if we could get rid of this monster the Taliban, then, Khan says, the sacrifice is worth it.

But 23-year-old Nasib Wali says the people have sacrificed enough and that the army should begin to compensate for the destruction by ensuring that the rations of food get to hungry residents instead of a handful of elected officials, he says.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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