As Pakistan's military continues its operation against Taliban militants ensconced in the country's restive Northwest Frontier Province, the use of air strikes and long-range artillery has led hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee Swat Valley and the surrounding Malakand region.
The mass exodus now threatens to complicate Pakistan's efforts to contain the expanding Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency within its borders.
As Swat residents make the arduous trip and to the western Pakistani city of Mardan, they prepare to join the hundreds of thousands who have already sought refuge from the recent fighting between the Pakistani military and hard-line Islamist militants.
Some 360,000 people are estimated to have left Swat, Buner, and Lower Dir districts in Malakand since the government launched its fresh military offensive in Pakistan's western border regions early this month.
But the exodus to safe haven in neighboring Mardan and other districts in Peshawar Valley is sparking fears of a massive humanitarian crisis, with aid agencies estimating that an additional 500,000 will eventually be displaced. Many of those people will head to cities and the same camps that already house the more than half a million Pashtuns already displaced by various rounds of fighting in Pakistan since 2003, severely testing local authorities' ability to deal with them.'Shells Raining From Above'
Among the new arrivals at Mardan's rapidly swelling Sheikh Yasin camp, 50-year-old Aqeela watches over her 11 children and grandchildren as the tent that will serve as their new home is pitched.
Crying bitterly, she spells out their reasons for leaving Swat. "Shells were raining from above. There was firing all over the place. There was no electricity, no water," she tells Reuters. "We had no other option except to flee. Our cattle got left behind. They were our only wealth. But we had no option."
Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Pakistan, tells RFE/RL that at this point just 20,000 of the estimated 360,000 residents displaced from Malakand have made their way to the camps for internally displaced persons. She credits what she describes as extraordinary generosity exhibited by locals in Mardan, who have provided food and shelter for the displaced, with helping alleviate the problem.
Pakistanis flee Swat Valley after a curfew was temporarily lifted to allow residents to flee the intensifying conflict on May 10.
"UNHCR is working with our other UN partners. We have set up shelter in the camps," Rummery says. "We are not just providing assistance in the camps but there are a number of humanitarian hubs and distribution points. So we are giving out assistance to people at those centers as well. These can be things like cooking sets, sleeping mats, even plastic sheeting to help make shelter in people's backyards."
Rummery adds that the UNICEF is providing water and sanitation to the refugees, while the UNHCR together with local authorities has set up reception centers on the main routes from Buner and Swat.
"The local people around there are actually bringing cooked food," Rummery says. "The government is giving them water and a range of agencies are helping people now with transport, but certainly the challenges are great."Vicious Cycles
Pakistani analysts suggest that since early last year, major military offensives against the Taliban in the Pashtun borderlands resulted in large-scale displacement because of the government's reliance on overwhelming force.
Having visited Pakistan recently, Christine Fair, a regional expert with the Rand Corporation think tank in Washington, suggests that such tactics indeed complicates the fight against extremists. "The Pakistan army has shown that it can clear areas with great detestation and displacement of civilians. It has not demonstrated a capability or tenacity to hold an area once cleared," Fair says. "Typically such 'holding' should be done by police forces."
Though Pakistani authorities and local observers are adamant that the new offensive in Malakand is different from past efforts and enjoys popular support, Fair is not convinced. "Pakistan's police forces are too few in number, poorly trained, poorly equipped, and outgunned by the insurgents," she says. "I suspect that once the army vacates, the Taliban will return. This tendency to go in cycles of 'initiate operations, clear, and leave' has the negative consequence of diminishing the likelihood of the population supporting the army with each cycle."
Fair expresses fear that once the army withdraws, residents "become vulnerable to the insurgents who punish collaborators with the military."
Pakistani authorities are already claiming to have killed more than 700 Taliban fighters in just the last few days of fighting, and their reliance on air strikes and long-range artillery is likely to exacerbate the exodus from Malakand. Reversing Refugee Gains
Experts already see it as a major displacement crisis in a country that has seen major refugee crisis since its creation six decades ago. More than a million and a half Afghan refugees still live in Pakistan after an equal number of Afghans returned home in the past seven years from nearly two decades of exile.
Even in the event of an outright Pakistani victory against the insurgents, rebuilding the livelihoods of the displaced promises to present a monumental challenge.
"We have now so many people that were displaced. Even if the conflict were to finish tomorrow, people couldn't immediately go home," UNHCR spokesman Rummery says. "They still need to have their needs met. Where they are at the moment and when they can go home, they are going to need assistance to get there and rebuild their lives, because the level of destruction has been quite so great."
For many in the Sheik Yasin displacement camp in Mardan, the prospects of returning home looks remote. What Swat resident Nawab Ali saw before leaving his Swat village might not encourage him to return anytime soon. He arrived in Mardan in the early hours of May 11 with nine surviving family members who took advantage of a break in a government-imposed curfew to flee.
"Only Allah knows the trauma, the agony we have been through," Ali says. "We have left behind well-to-do households, thriving businesses, and shops. Our children were hit by mortars. My sister-in-law was killed by mortar fire."