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Pakistani Civilians Flee Fighting, Not Difficulties

  • Abubakar Siddique

An internally displaced girl carries a child at a makeshift tent camp in Swabi on May 25.

An internally displaced girl carries a child at a makeshift tent camp in Swabi on May 25.

Fazal Rahman, a 58-year-old fruit-seller, is frantic as he describes the circumstances that led his family to run for their lives from their native village of Khwazakhela, in Pakistan's Swat Valley.

He says it was impossible to "tell friend from foe."

"On the one hand the Taliban would beat us, while on the other, the military would tell us to leave our houses -- and then their bombing would kill the innocents and the Taliban alike," Rahman says. "[Government forces] finally told us to leave the region so they could encircle the Taliban and finish them off."

Rahman, his five daughters, three sons, wife, and ailing parents were trapped for days in their mud home as the military launched air strikes and lobbed artillery shells against Taliban targets scattered in the forested alpine mountains of the region.

Taking advantage of the government's decision to lift its curfew to allow innocent civilians to escape the fighting, Rahman and his family walked for nearly 50 kilometers to reach the relative safety of Mardan.

There they joined masses of other people displaced from Swat, Lower Dir, and Buner -- all districts in the western mountainous Malakand region where Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has said security forces are fighting to "root out the menace of extremism."

'Didn't Want To Leave'

Such words provide little assurance to those who have escaped the fighting but now find themselves struggling for food.

Many have lost their homes, and some were forced to leave sick and elderly relatives behind. Their livestock are going unfed; their crops untended.

As he awaits food at another camp for displaced persons in Mardan, middle-aged Ebadul Haq is trying to be patient.

He initially resisted leaving his home in Mingora -- a city of some 350,000 residents where Pakistani military is now engaged in fierce street battles. But a barrage of incoming rockets changed his mind.

"We suffered really badly, but we still didn't want to leave," Haq says. "But when we heard lots of explosions at night and we could see the incoming missiles, we panicked and ran away together with our women [and children]."

Haq is among the 200,000 displaced persons who are living in a total of 26 displacement camps across Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. Of those, 15 camps were set up by the government to accommodate those fleeing Malakand. The rest had already been established to help take care of nearly 550,000 ethnic Pashtuns displaced by fighting in Bajaur and Mohmand since August 2008.

Altogether, nearly 3 million people have been displaced by fighting in Pakistan in the last five years. The most recent fighting in Swat has led 1.7 million to flee the area. All in all, more than 90 percent of Pakistan's displaced persons are Pashtuns.

Still Running

But while the media has mostly focused on the tent camps the government has set up to accommodate those displaced by the fighting, the reality is that only a fraction of them are staying there.

Many have moved in with relatives or are existing on the generosity of communities in Mardan and other relatively stable districts of the insurgency-plagued North-West Frontier Province.

Wary of the waterborne diseases and skin infections that are common in the sweltering hot summer, when daytime temperatures often exceed 115 degrees, they look forward to returning to the breezes and pine-shade of their homeland.

Others are looking elsewhere.

Thousands have already traveled as far as the southern seaport city of Karachi -- a 1,000-kilometer road journey through fertile plains and sweltering desolate deserts.

Rahman, upon reaching Mardan, sold his daughter's jewelry so his family could make the trip to Karachi in brightly colored buses and cargo trucks.

But even before he got to the southern seaport, Rahman discovered he was wrong to think that the journey would bring safety and comfort. Midway through the trip, armed man blocked their entire convoy.

"They told us that 'because you are Pashtuns, you cannot go to Karachi.' They told us, 'You are the Taliban and you are terrorists,'" Rahman says. "We were traveling with our children and women; how could we engage in terrorism? We told them that they should search our vehicles and if they caught somebody even with a knife they should hold them. But they told us: 'You cannot go any farther because our leaders have told us to stop you.' We were really terrified because all of them were armed. It was hot and we were in the middle of deserted woods."

Rahman says the men who stopped them relented after they pleaded with them for hours, and he and his family eventually reached their destination.

Ethnic Tension

Once in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest metropolis, many among the city's estimated 3 million ethnic Pashtuns stepped up to help. Rahman tells RFE/RL that his family and others now live in tiny apartments paid for by Karachi's Pashtun diaspora, and they survive on handouts from the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party.

But the arrival of Pashtuns in Karachi and other cities has also reignited traditional ethnic rivalries.

Businesses in Karachi and other areas of Sindh Province were closed on May 25 after ethnic Sindhi political parties staged a strike to protest against the arrival of Pashtuns from the northwestern regions. A similar strike on May 23 had paralyzed businesses across Sindh.

With Pakistani government and aid agencies overwhelmed by those already displaced, such problems are likely to mount as displaced persons grow weary of their untenable situations, and fresh fighting brings new waves of civilians.

Media reports suggest that thousands are fleeing the restive region of Waziristan some 400 kilometers south of Swat, where Taliban are reportedly digging in, in anticipation of a Pakistani offensive.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Najib Aamir contributed reporting from Peshawar

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