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Thousands Stuck In Camps of No Return
Timergara, Pakistan - Bewildered, angry and thrown into squalor, the refugees created suddenly by Pakistan's frontline role in the 'war on terror' know they could be stranded in camps for years to come.
Up to 300,000 people have had to flee fighting in Bajaur, an extremely poor part of Pakistan's tribal border area with Afghanistan. Refugees in their own country, they live in vast government camps or beg shelter from friends and family. In an ominous sign for the government, their rage is directed not at the Pakistani Taliban, who took over their area, but the army, whose onslaught with jets and helicopters forced them to abandon their homes and livelihoods.
Packed together in tented cities, these deeply conservative Islamic refugees have had to drop the strict purdah that the women observed at home. Large families - of eight or sometimes 12 - live together in single, draughty tents. They are all preparing for a bitter winter.
At the sprawling Kungi camp, set on a hill just outside the town of Timergara, the only toilet is a communal ditch over which the men squat. The women use the surrounding woods.
'We get little food. We don't have enough water to drink, let alone the chance to bathe,' said Gul Mohammad, 25, who arrived at Kungi with seven family members. 'We brought nothing. We just came here to save our lives.'
There is no electricity. Water is trucked in and food is distributed by the government and aid agencies, but supplies are very short. Inhabitants spend much of their day foraging for wood as cooking fuel, or buy it with the little money they have.
There are at least eight similar camps scattered across the North West Frontier Province, which adjoins Bajaur. Already there are outbreaks of disease, with acute diarrhoea and respiratory illnesses being treated by medical aid workers. There are 30,000 people living in official camps and there are contingencies being prepared by the United Nations to accommodate 100,000, as people continue to flood out of Bajaur. Soon Bajaur will be virtually empty. The UN believes that a further 200,000 will be put up in houses by 'host families', often relatives.
The Pakistani government has had to scramble to set up camps for these 'internally displaced people' as a result of the military assault in Bajaur, now into its third month. Aid agencies and the UN have rushed to provide support. At first it was thought the army would finish the job within a month, but with no signs of the operation ending these camps are being given more permanent facilities.
There are fears that the sites could be infiltrated by Taliban militants, whose wives and children are already living there. When one Western aid worker asked a group of women at prayer who they were praying for, back came the reply: 'Our men fighting the army.'
Pakistan's security forces are engaged in a fitful war with Taliban and al-Qaeda extremists who largely control the country's tribal border with Afghanistan.
The Bajaur operation appears to be Pakistan's most determined attack on its home-grown extremists since 9/11. So far there is little action in other parts of the tribal belt. Should Pakistan finally decide that war is the only way to deal with the extremists, the fate of the people of Bajaur could be replicated across the tribal area, home to around three million people.
The armed forces attack indiscriminately, according to Mohammad Ibrahim, 15. 'Our village is completely vacant now. There was constant shelling, so we ran. They drop bombs on mosques, on schools, they don't look. We're the ones dying, but they say that terrorists have been killed.'
Pakistan's battle against Islamic extremists coincides with two other crises: political turmoil and economic collapse. They are pushing the country towards becoming a failed state, which nevertheless possesses nuclear arms.
Bajaur is a strategically important position for the militants - a conduit to the rest of the tribal area and Afghanistan - which they are fighting hard to defend. The army claims to have killed more than 1,000 militants in the operation, a statistic that few believe. It has not released the number of civilians killed or wounded.
'Houses are being used by the militants as bunkers. They're firing from there. Therefore all houses from where the firing is coming are being engaged by the security forces,' said the chief army spokesman, Major-General Athar Abbas. 'To our knowledge, the civilians of this area have left.'
Bajaur shows how intimately linked the campaigns in Pakistan and Afghanistan are. The Pakistani Taliban are defending the region with help from Afghan Taliban, Arabs, Chechens and other foreigners from al-Qaeda. The movement in Bajaur is being directed by Qari Ziaur Rahman, an Afghan Taliban commander, who is also overseeing the insurgency in the neighbouring Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nooristan.
'The mujahideen have completely gained control on the ground [in Bajaur]. The American agenda to destroy the mujahideen and all the [Pakistan] government options have failed to defeat us,' Rahman said in an interview with a local journalist.
On the outskirts of the provincial capital, Peshawar, an old refugee camp for Afghans, who were forced out of it only a year ago, has had to take on a grim new existence, this time for Pakistan's own people. There are already about 5,500 Bajaur refugees at the Kacha Garhi camp, a wide, flat, wind-blown expanse, and there are plans to expand it to accommodate 21,000. Even here, in a city, there is little food and water and no electricity or gas, so people gather brushwood and branches to cook.
Mohammad Jan, standing outside his family's tent at Kacha Garhi, ran from Bajaur when nine people from his village were killed by the army. 'There were no Taliban in our area,' Jan insisted. 'It is ordinary people who are dying. This is some kind of game, a double game that I don't understand.'
One newly arrived elderly woman died of dehydration in the long, chaotic queue to register with the authorities at Kacha Garhi, causing a mini-riot. Mohammad Zahra said he had 20 mouths to feed, his children and those of three brothers. 'But we only get a little food,' he said, displaying a handful.
One old man, Mohammad Amin, has been passed from camp to camp. 'When will we get the blankets and bedding?' he asked. 'After dying?'