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Pakistan is gambling that moving a million-and-a-half people will save more trouble that it creates. The military is fighting the Taliban in regions north of the capital. It's encouraging civilians to leave. The country's ambassador told us this week that prevents civilians from being used as human shields. At the same time, Pakistanis know that they don't want to lose the peoples' support, so much depends on the help that displaced people receive. This morning we'll get a look inside one of the camps that is the destination for many.
NPR's Julie McCarthy has been listening to the stories of people on the move.
JULIE MCCARTHY: A sea of humanity has washed up in hastily arranged camps…
Unidentified People: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: …where tempers rise in long lines for food rations and precious ice. This camp, Sheikh Shahzad, sits 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.
(Soundbite of grain sacks)
MCCARTHY: 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. Momin 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 Momin and Chand simultaneously contort into tears as she recounts the panic of their sudden separation.
Ms. CHAND BIBI (Refugee): (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: We were having tea when all of a sudden an army operation with mortar shells and big bombs began, Chand says. There was a battle around my house. My husband was fetching water at the well. I grabbed three of my children. She sobs. My husband got left behind with the rest of the children.
Ms. BIBI: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: 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, Chand talks outside, drawing a crowd. There is 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 Chand Bibi's lament.
Ms. BIBI: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: 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 even know if it's been destroyed, Chand 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. Chand 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.
These refugees say the militants meted out harsh punishment for anyone who dared offend their ultra-conservative moral code. Momin Khan says even by the conservative standards of Swat Valley, the regulations for women were especially onerous.
Mr. MOMIN KHAN (Refugee): (Through translator) 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.
MCCARTHY: 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.
Mr. AZIZ (Refugee): We were more scared of Taliban instead of army, because army have rules and principles. They act according to those rules and principles. But the Taliban has no rules. They can kill you just because they wanted so.
MCCARTHY: The Taliban's push from Swat into Buner ignited debate over whether the government was bowing to extremism. This exiled Buner resident who goes by the name Kashib Ali says the government has consistently mishandled the militants, especially agreeing to a peace pact that has since collapsed.
Mr. KASHIB ALI: 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. 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.
McCARTHY: 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 that undermines the public support for the military's current operations.
Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Sheikh Shahzad Camp, Pakistan.
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