Refugee Flood Reveals Human Cost of South Waziristan's Invisible War

Published on
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The Guardian/UK

Refugee Flood Reveals Human Cost of South Waziristan's Invisible War

Pakistani forces accused of hitting civilians • Up to 260,000 people may flee battle against Taliban

by
Declan Walsh in Dera Ismail Khan

A family from South Waziristan flee the battle zone to Dera Ismail Khan. (Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

The war in South Waziristan started early for Ghufran. As Pakistani warplanes pounded the Taliban
stronghold of Ladha last week, in preparation for the ground offensive
now under way, the 11-year-old boy and his family scrambled to safety
across a range of jagged mountains.

They left behind a broken
home, destroyed by the air force, but also something much more
precious. Ghufran said his father stayed on to guard the family's
worldly wealth: four goats, three sheep and a donkey. "I miss him
already. I wish he came with us," the schoolboy said, a shadow falling
across his face.

As fighting raged for a third day in South
Waziristan todayrefugees flooded into Dera Ismail Khan, a dusty,
danger-laced town on the southern edge of the tribal area. Aid workers
there said they had registered about 160,000 people in six centres;
they expect the figure to jump by at least 100,000 in the coming weeks.

People
crowded into government registration centres, putting their names down
for an aid distribution programme that had yet to begin. Expressing
frustration, many said they felt trapped between American drone
strikes, ruthless Taliban fighters, and an invading Pakistani force
that threatened their property and lives.

Many gave accounts of
indiscriminate shelling and warplane attacks that contrast with the
military's insistence that its forces are taking care to avoid civilian
casualties. Kasheed Khan said he carried his 90-year-old mother during
a two-day journey out of Makeen, one of the main Taliban hubs. "They
were targeting the civilians. I saw it myself. They were hitting
vehicles and houses," he said. "They even demolished the main bus stand
in Makeen." Now, he said, he was staying in a relative's house along
with 50 other people.

"Not a single Taliban has been targeted.
It's only the civilians who have been hit," said Marjan, a man with a
henna-tinged beard from Tiarza Narai. But when he criticised the
Taliban another man sidled alongside him and chastised him for speaking
against the Taliban, sparking a row that almost came to blows.

The
truth is hard to pin down in South Waziristan, where a bloody war is
unfolding behind an invisible veil. Since the ground operation began
last Saturday, pitting 30,000 government soldiers against an estimated
10,000 Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, the area has been entirely cut
off from the outside world. Phone lines are cut and it is impossible
for journalists, foreign or local, to enter the battlezone.

Yet
the broad strokes of the assault are clear. The army is punching into
the territory of the Mehsud tribe, a natural fortress that has
frustrated invaders for centuries, from three sides. Having captured
several strategic heights, ground troops are fighting their way in from
the periphery, while warplanes are bombing Taliban positions in the
mountain redoubt at the centre of the area. The assault followed two
weeks of militant attacks across Pakistan in which more than 175 people died and included a 22-hour siege of army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

The
army spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, said 68 militants and nine
soldiers had died since Saturday; the Taliban said many more soldiers
were killed than reported.

Those fleeing the fighting are
entering Dera Ismail Khan, a tense town beside the Indus river, an
hour's drive south of the tribal area. The town has its own history of
violence: for years Sunni and Shia sectarian extremists have attacked
each other in mosques, bazaars and at funerals. Earlier this year
motorcycles were banned from the city to prevent hit squads from
carrying out drive-by shootings.

The influx of displaced people
has renewed anxieties. This afternoon heavily armed anti-terrorist
police patrolled the streets wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the
slogan "No Fear". Shortly after, a burst of gunfire rang through the
streets, warning shots fired by soldiers aboard a military convoy who,
fearing a suicide attack, warned townspeople to keep back. Security
forces have also arrested dozens of sectarian extremists, many of whom
have links to the Taliban.

"It's a huge blow to the militants,
who are mostly drawn from these sectarian groups," said Faiysal Ali
Khan, head of Fida, which is spearheading the government's relief
programme.

One official told the Guardian that military
intelligence had picked up a Taliban sympathiser charged with
funnelling funds to the militants from the Gulf states, where many
Mehsud work as migrant labourers, last night.

Yet not all the
gunmen were gone. At a petrol station in the town a gang of men with
long hair and automatic weapons, many of them resembling Taliban
fighters, hung out of the back of a gleaming new pick-up truck. Locals
said they belonged to the Abdullah Mehsud group, a government-sponsored
faction of the Mehsud tribe. Their leader, Zainuddin, was killed by a
Taliban assassin earlier this year; now his brother Misbahuddin has
taken over.

Although Dera Ismail Khan is groaning with
war-displaced families, the government has yet to start distributing
aid. An argument is brewing about whether the displaced should be
housed in organised camps. Provincial officials says they will never
accept living in tents, but aid workers warn the town's ability to
absorb refugees is close to straining point.

"Where will they go? They can't just roam around," said one aid official.

Some
displaced people said they felt like pawns in a game - a perception
partly born of the area's historical role as a playground of empires.
It is also a product of the popular cocktail of conspiracy theories
that do the rounds in Pakistan about Indian, Iranian, Chinese and even
American support for the Taliban.

In Islamabad General David
Petraeus, the US central command chief, met the prime minister, Yousaf
Raza Gilani, and the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. Washington is
reportedly unhappy with a deal Pakistan's military has struck with
other Taliban who are attacking western troops in Afghanistan.

"Sometimes you have to talk to the devil," an army spokesman told reporters in explanation.

 

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