Pakistan’s refugees: after the exodus

June 9, 2009

The Pakistan Army may have driven the Taliban out of Swat but the refugees who fled to escape the military offensive are still in limbo.

Aid agencies are calling on the government to make sure that basic services are restored for people trying to return home after the offensive. They are also saying that landmines and other unexploded weapons pose an additional risk and say public areas – especially around schools, hospitals and markets – must be cleared of ordnance immediately.

Dawn newspaper quoted a military spokesman as saying that the army was ready to remain in Swat indefinitely to provide security for the people in Swat, which had been overrun by Taliban militants before the offensive.

‘The army will stay in the area till a sense of security among the people is revived, a credible defence system by law enforcement agencies put in place and the possibility of terrorists hiding in the mountains coming back to launch a second phase of insurgency is obviated. This will not take less than a year,’ it quoted the spokesman as saying.

But in an op-ed in The News, defence analyst Ikram Sehgal urges the government to do more to help the returning refugees, not least because enough Taliban insurgents escaped the offensive to threaten a guerrilla war that could destabilise the population further.

“One must counter civilian guerrilla activity by winning over the hearts and minds of the local population, in the present insecure circumstances that will be a hard sell. The prime mission must be to restore the civil administration as soon as possible,” he writes.

“While on the ground, the troops have performed above and beyond the call of duty in the tactical sense, in the strategic sense we may have created conditions that spell a disaster in the looming,” he adds. ”We are in trouble. No, let me correct that, we are in deep trouble. Islamabad, we have a problem!”

The refugees are not only facing problems in camps or staying with relatives in crowded homes, but have also run into hostility in other parts of Pakistan.

“Politically they must go back. If they do not, there will be a political explosion,” according to U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke. Urging other countries to provide money to help the refugees, he said that, ”in the end we are going to need several billion dollars for this small part of Pakistan.”

And the Swat operation was just the start of what could be a much bigger offensive against the Taliban.

(Photos: refugees at Yar Hussain camp/Akhtar Soomro)

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