The Pakistani government yesterday began sending home about 2 million people displaced two months ago by the army’s assault on Taliban militants in the Swat valley.
The army says it has pushed the Taliban out of their former bastion northwest of Islamabad, and the government is keen to move the displaced back to their homes.
The Swat exodus was one of the biggest human migrations of recent times, stretching Pakistan’s resources to breaking point and prompting a global appeal for humanitarian help.
The army launched the offensive in April after militants took over a district just 100km from Islamabad, raising fears for Pakistan’s stability.
The army says more than 1,700 militants were killed in the fighting — independent casualty estimates are unavailable — but none of their leaders were among the casualties, leading to fears the fighters could re-emerge.
In the dusty tent camp of Jalozai, already baking hot in the early morning sun, buses and trucks were lined up yesterday to take a first batch of people back to their homes.
Most of the displaced people moved in with family or friends but nearly 300,000 were settled in sprawling tent camps.
Their plight is a sensitive issue for the government, which could see support for its more than two-month offensive against the Taliban eroded if they are seen to be suffering unduly.
Fawad Ali, a 30-year-old barber, was loading his belongings, including donated bags of flour and lentils, onto the back of a truck as his family waited nearby. He said he hoped the Taliban had gone for good.
“We’re pinning our hopes on the government’s efforts because we’re jobless. They banned our business,” Ali said, referring to a Taliban ban on barbers’ cutting men’s hair.
“Hopefully, things will be different and I can feed my family,” Ali said.
Signs on the ground offered a mixed picture of how successful their return might be.
Reporters who have visited the Swat’s main town say there was some damage to homes in the fighting, but not much. Many of the displaced have lost their crops, however, and will need support for many months, aid workers say.
“I’m not sure whether my house is there or has been destroyed, but still I want to go back because it’s my home,” said Abdul Khaliq Khan, heading back to his village from the Jalozai camp.
The government-appointed chief of Jalozai camp said no one was being forced to go home and the 108 families due to leave the camp on Monday were all going voluntarily, a central concern of the UN.
“It’ll pick up once they get back there and contact people here to tell them about the situation,” camp leader Tahir Orakzai said.
“They have been living in hell here. They’re not used to such weather,” he said, referring to the sweltering temperatures in the lowland compared with the cooler climate in the higher-altitude Swat valley. “They’re desperate to return.”
However, some people in Jalozai camp complained they had not received the 25,000 rupees (US$300) the government had promised every family.