Tuesday, 04 Aug, 2009 | 10:02 AM PST |
Frightened civilians fear the Taliban will pounce again on Swat as residents try to rebuild shattered lives and shot nerves in the mountain valley once likened to Switzerland.
Pakistan claims the military has ‘eliminated’ the extremists, two years after they rose up under a militant cleric to enforce Islamic laws and more than two months after launching a new offensive. But stringent security checks, unexploded ordnance and ruined homes lie in wait for some of Pakistan’s nearly two million people displaced by fighting between government forces and Taliban militants across the northwest. ‘I can smell them. I’m still afraid of them,’ said Badar Gul on the outskirts of Mingora, where his bus stalled in a snarl of vehicles carrying home people encouraged by the government to think the worst is over. The 65-year-old Gul was headed with his five-member family to the northern town of Charbagh, desperate to leave his refugee camp but uncertain about the future in Swat, whose rich tourist industry was decimated by the Taliban. ‘The Taliban may come back and they still have hideouts in the hilly areas,’ said Gul, whose bus was laid on by the government to repatriate families from Jalozai camp on the sweltering lowland plains. Voluntary returns have been going on for weeks.
An army spokesman claimed on Tuesday that nearly 100,000 families have returned to Swat. Commanders say more than 1,800 militants and 166 security personnel have died but none of the most-wanted Taliban leadership in Swat have been killed or captured. Neither is there any independent confirmation of the death tolls. ‘A year ago the government promised us that Swat was clear but Taliban rule returned. Now the government announced the same thing again. It’s a total drama,’ said Gul. Despite upbeat assessments from the military, skirmishes have continued and bodies can still be found dumped near roadsides. On Monday, fighter jets bombed Taliban hideouts killing at least five militants near Swat, officials said. Homes in Gul’s northern town were in ruins. Two mosques were destroyed, their roofs and walls reduced to rubble, said an AFP reporter. Local police operated from a tent, their original building destroyed by militants. A school commandeered by the Taliban was razed. ‘Only 10 per cent of Charbagh residents have come back. It is the worst affected town,’ said Ghulam Nabbi, a 34-year-old local shopkeeper.
No women were seen walking the streets, even in the main Swat town of Mingora. Fear of Taliban reprisals for ‘inappropriate’ dress or going out unaccompanied by a male relative have effectively confined most to their homes. Militia destroyed hundreds of schools. Sadiqa Salih calls the Taliban her ‘big enemy’ because her school on the outskirts of Mingora was one of those destroyed simply for teaching girls subjects deemed un-Islamic. ‘I am sure they will come back. My father told me they are hiding in the mountains,’ the 18-year-old student told AFP from her family home. A Mingora juice bar owner lacked all faith in the army, fed up with stringent security checks to and from work everyday. ‘I cross seven checkpoints to get to my shop and the same when I return in the evening,’ said 35-year-old Amir Hamad. ‘Twice they slapped me in the face,’ he told AFP in the main Mingora bazaar. Soldiers hit him first for not having an ID card and a second time accusing him of jumping the queue, he said. Along the main road leading north through Swat from Mingora to Khwazakhela, soldiers were seen blasting confiscated ordnance at different places. The road was littered with empty shells and metal pieces, and myriad checkpoints. ‘Taliban buried a lot of IEDs and mines in various places, especially on the roadside,’ administration official Attif Ur Rahman told AFP. Security forces also demolished dozens of homes of militants and their supporters, and scores of shops were bulldozed or torched, Rahman said