ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In northwest Pakistan, more than 300,000 people have returned home. They had fled fighting between Pakistani troops and the Taliban. As the homecoming gathers pace, the army is engaged in another campaign against the Taliban, this time in an area closer to the Afghanistan border. And as Julie McCarthy reports, that conflict too is creating an exodus.
JULIE MCCARTHY: An undeveloped mountainous area half the size of Connecticut, South Waziristan is the home of Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida associate. The army considers Waziristan, which links Pakistan and Afghanistan, the epicenter of terrorism, and Mehsud the greatest domestic threat. Terror attacks attributed to Mehsud's network have killed more than 100 people since May 27th.
(Soundbite of prayer in foreign language)
MCCARTHY: Right beside Waziristan is Dera Ismail Khan, a desert-like land of date farms and lately dread. Its main city has been transformed by the army's operation in Waziristan as security forces squeeze Baitullah Mehsud's strongholds and U.S. drones target hideouts. Displaced civilians have sought safety in Dera Ismail Khan city. Fears of Taliban reprisals have deepened the usual suspicion toward outsiders. On the veranda of a community center, a 30-year-old MBA student from South Waziristan agrees to talk if he is identified as Usman Khan, not his real name.
Mr. "USMAN KHAN": (Through Translator) The people who hated the Taliban have moved out into Dera Ismail Khan, if they could afford it. Those who are poor are staying back and they're compelled to support the militants. In every house, either an elder or a son has had to join the Taliban. The militants have threatened them to either give up a family member, or to finance the Taliban or face death. Ninety percent of the people are disgusted with the Taliban.
MCCARTHY: Rival Taliban groups who have rebelled against Baitullah Mehsud are also encamped here. Their signature black turbans and long beards can be spotted at the best restaurants in Dera Ismail Khan, perched above the Indus River where just below...
(Soundbite of children playing in water)
MCCARTHY: ...splashing children stave off the baking heat. The sunny playful scene contrasts with the darker side of surging violence. Baitullah Mehsud stunned residents last month here by murdering a young challenger who had backing from the government. Once a peaceful place, people fear leaving their homes. MBA student Khan says, the precarious security that is fraying the social fabric of Dera Ismail Khan has all but destroyed Waziristan's.
Mr. KHAN: (Through Translator) The elders were eliminated, music is missing and education is zero. Everything is gone, especially freedom of expression. I cannot even talk against the Taliban to my own family because I don't trust that they won't inform on me and tomorrow I'll lose my head. As for the rivals, we want none of them. We want the old system when there was peace.
MCCARTHY: The old tribal system, with disputes resolved in meetings known as jirgas, organized by tribal elders known as maliks. But Khan and others say the Taliban has wiped out hundreds of maliks in South Waziristan. The government would like to make common cause with the ones who survived.
Many of the surviving maliks have come here to Tank, the gateway to Waziristan. Maliks meet this day to settle a dispute involving the killing of a local elder. Tank is the closest you can get to the no-go tribal zone of Waziristan, and fear is palpable. A burqa-clad figure is the only woman in sight. An elderly man points to a small door at the rear of his shop and says, it's the escape route if anything happens.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: The crackle of gunfire from a passing a military convoy briefly sets off panic in the jirga. Leader Maulana Assam Uddin(ph) assures the group that the military is just clearing the way. Their vehicles may be emblazoned with Quranic verses, but the army appears to be winning more ire than hearts and minds. Maulana Uddin insists the solution lies not with the military, but with the revival of the tribal structure that governed the area before the Taliban turned its sights on the state of Pakistan.
Mr. MAULANA ASSAM UDDIN (Malik): (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: Before the current situation, we the elders would hold negotiations and meet with the governors, the corps commander, the generals and the Taliban, Uddin says. That way we solved the problems, he says. An amalgam of militant groups and criminal elements operate inside Waziristan. Turkistan Bhittani(ph), who once fought alongside Baitullah Mehsud, said the Pakistani Taliban leader is not running a jihad but a criminal enterprise.
Mr. TURKISTAN BHITTANI: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: Vehicles loaded with dollars would come to him and he established a rate for killing, Turkistan says. If a cleric was killed, he'd pay one rate; an ordinary man was another. Murdering a military man earned 700,000 rupees. Baitullah Mehsud, he says, kills when he's afraid. In the murky alliance of the tribal belt, the government has thrown its support behind Turkistan, who says his own militant faction rejects suicide bombings or any assault on Pakistan. Meanwhile, the bloodshed continues. And it is the ordinary citizens who are paying the price.
Julie McCarthy, NPR News.
SIEGEL: We had help on that story from Junaid Khan in Pakistan.
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