Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pakistan refugees blocked from homes by fighting

By KATHY GANNON, Associated Press Writer Kathy Gannon, Associated Press Writer

AMBELA, Pakistan – Waiting at a checkpoint Tuesday under the searing sun, Amina rocked her baby, wrapped in a heavy black burqa. "You'll be home soon," she whispered. But the thud of exploding shells deadened her hopes — and raised questions about military claims the area was clear of Taliban militants.

"What is this government doing? They are telling us to return. Listen to that fighting," said Wasim Khan, who was among the hundreds of refugees waiting to return to their homes in Buner, a district seized by Taliban fighters last month.

A strategic piece of territory, Buner provides the most direct link to the rest of Pakistan from the Taliban-dominated Swat Valley.

Despite army assertions that soldiers have cleared the district of Taliban forces, more troops and heavy artillery poured into the area on Monday, according to Ghulam Bacha, a policeman who suggested the Taliban were dug in deeper than the military originally suspected.

The Taliban overran Buner after a peace deal soured last month, streaming down from their Swat Valley strongholds to within 60 miles of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and triggering alarm in the United States.

An army offensive to oust the Taliban has so far caused 1.5 million people to flee. The military claims to have killed about 1,000 Taliban fighters, a figure that cannot be independently verified, and says 50 soldiers have also died in the 3-week-old operation.

Amina and Khan were among some 500 people seeking to return to their villages in Buner Tuesday after the provincial government urged residents to come back, saying the area was safe and the Taliban had been routed.

They waited for hours in a mile-long line of battered trucks piled high with bedding, bundles of clothing and ancient-looking threshing equipment. Whole families perched atop the vehicles' roofs, baking in the sun: women hidden behind burqas, crying children and scores of bearded men.

But they made it only as far as Ambela, a village at the foot of Bela Pass, a winding five-mile-long road that links Buner to the rest of Pakistan.

The refugees were expecting authorities to open the road deeper into Buner, but the shelling put an end to that. A couple of vehicles tried to inch up to the barbed-wire checkpoint blocking the narrow pass, but soldiers fired warning shots to keep them out.

One rickety flatbed truck was carrying a coffin. Zaffar Ali had died the night before in Peshawar, the frontier provincial capital, and his family was trying to take him home to their village to be buried.

"What choice do we have? We will spend the night here and hope tomorrow we can return to our village to bury him," the dead man's nephew said.

Among those around him, there was a mixed reaction to the military operation to rid the area of the Taliban. But all were united in their criticism of the government's failure to help those forced to flee the fighting.

Most of the displaced have sought shelter with relatives or friends, but more than 100,000 remain crowded into camps run by the government and international aid organizations.

Whether Pakistan's will to take on the militants will falter depends in part on whether people like Amina and Khan can quickly return to their homes. A protracted refugee crisis could undercut public support for the battle.

Packed into the back of a flatbed truck with nearly a dozen other women, their faces all hidden beneath burqas, Amina said: "We just want peace." The small portion of her face that was visible was dripping with sweat; her 1-year-old son squirmed beneath the folds of cloth.

Shah Bahauddin, who was shepherding 40 members of his family back to Buner, was critical of all parties in the conflict __ the government, the Taliban and the army.

"No one has given us anything in the camps and nothing to help us return," he said. The Taliban slipped into his village of Chamla several weeks ago, seizing houses and confiscating cars. "For three days they even had their own government," he said.

Bahauddin and his family sought shelter from the fighting with relatives in nearby Swabi.

"But they are poor. When we heard that Buner was open, we had to leave. They helped us so much, but we couldn't stay if we could go home," said the 65-year-old farmer, whose son sat in a wheelchair precariously positioned in the back of the family truck.

"What are they doing telling us we can come back?" he asked bitterly, interrupted by the sound of shells exploding.

Like most of the men in the convoy, Bahauddin had hoped to get home soon to harvest wheat that will soon rot in the fields. "We are poor farmers. We will lose everything," he said.

At Ambela's police station, Bacha, a 28-year veteran, said the station had been wrested from Taliban hands just two weeks earlier.

Bacha, who said the Taliban were nearby despite government claims to the contrary, said he worried about another attack and recalled last month's Taliban takeover.

It was April 28, and there were just 10 policemen in the two-room station. The best weapon among them was a Kalashnikov assault rifle, he said.

Nearly 80 Taliban emerged from the mountains, armed with rocket launchers and automatic rifles.

"They had lots of weapons. We just left," said Bacha, his gray-flecked shalwar kameeze hanging loosely on his thin frame, unbuttoned and tattered, a silver police insignia pinned crookedly on his shoulder. "What else could we do?"

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