On Pakistan's Border, Progress And Challenges

Pakistani refugees displaced by the violence are living in a camp outside Peshawar. i i

Pakistani refugees displaced by the violence are living in a camp outside Peshawar. Steve Inskeep/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Steve Inskeep/NPR
Pakistani refugees displaced by the violence are living in a camp outside Peshawar.

Pakistani refugees displaced by the violence are living in a camp outside Peshawar.

Steve Inskeep/NPR

Pakistan's military has made a point of highlighting what they call a success story: driving Taliban forces out of Bajaur, in the border region that has long been a sanctuary for Taliban fighters. The nearest Western troops are across the porous border in Afghanistan.

There are signs of progress in Bajaur — but Pakistan now faces the challenge of keeping the militants out.

Just on the edge of the tribal areas, we passed a wedding procession. People were dancing while leaning out the windows of a moving car. It was a sign that people in these mountains are more relaxed than they used to be.

At the edge of Bajaur (pronounced bah-JORE), police and soldiers manned a checkpoint. A constable in a black beret was checking ID cards and giving a pat-down search to every man who walked out of Bajaur.

Celebrating A Success

Pakistan's army has been giving tours of a former Taliban stronghold in the area.

"This is the place where they used to execute people. Slaughter them, normally," said an army captain named Mubashar.

"I'll show you," he said.

Mubashar drove us to a village, ripped apart when the army blasted its way in. A mud hill in the village is honeycombed with Taliban caves, where militants used to sleep.

Now the occupants of those caves are gone.

On the main street of a nearby town, we saw an ordinary sight — which, given the disruption here, counts as news: A high school student in a blue sweater was carrying a folder full of class work.

Earlier this month, Pakistani forces cleared out a series of caves in the Bajaur region of Pakistan. i i

Earlier this month, Pakistani forces cleared out a series of caves in the Bajaur region of Pakistan. A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
Earlier this month, Pakistani forces cleared out a series of caves in the Bajaur region of Pakistan.

Earlier this month, Pakistani forces cleared out a series of caves in the Bajaur region of Pakistan.

A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

His name is Tariq Ullah, 17. He says the Bajaur Public School and College is open after missing five months of class last year. Unfortunately, many other schools can't open.

The top national official here, Zakir Hussein Afridi, says intense fighting devastated much of the area.

"There is a lot of infrastructure damages caused by the military in the education sector, the health sector, in other departments," Afridi said.

Asked about reports of dozens of schools being blown up in the area in recent years, Afridi said, "To be exact, it is more than 70 schools. More than 70 schools."

Destruction, And A Drive To Rebuild

In a local bazaar, many shops stand empty, their roofs caved in, their walls punctured by artillery rounds.

All of that could mean good business for a contractor we met. Asked how business was going, Sher Ghazan said he's already put his men to work on school projects. But there is a lot of work left to do.

Destroyed houses are common on these hillsides; in many cases, there is just one wall standing. The destruction helps to explain why thousands of families have yet to return.

They stay in a refugee camp miles away, to the annoyance of the overall military commander of most tribal zones.

Something else is annoying a commander in Bajaur. Two Taliban leaders who once made their base here got away. Brig. Zafar ul-Haq believes they found a safe haven a short distance away — across the border in Afghanistan.

"We have credible information that they have their bases there, even that they are being trained there, that they have their camps in the garb of refugee camps," ul-Haq said.

"We do have American forces on the other side, and we keep telling them that this is the situation, but nothing is being done there, so that is the problem."

Told that his allies across the border are saying the opposite — that the problem is in Pakistan, ul-Haq said, "Exactly. These miscreants, they can go into Afghanistan and come back."

Taliban On The Move

Certain Taliban fighters do seem to be able to slip away through the almost impossibly steep mountains in this border region. Military officers think some escaped to a region called Orakzai, where Pakistani troops have been killed in fighting in recent days.

Others might still be hiding somewhere in Bajaur.

In the weeks since the government declared the area cleared, someone has blown up three schools. That means more work for Pakistan's government — and possibly for that building contractor.

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