- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

PESHAWAR, Pakistan | Mohammed Khan is not sure who fired the mortar shell that nearly cost him his right arm.

But when he regained consciousness, the elderly farmer knew that clashes between the Pakistani military and local Taliban had degenerated into full-blown war and that it was time for his family to leave.

“The Taliban was making trouble for us. Then the military helicopters and bombs came, exploding throughout the day,” he said, showing how a neighbor’s crude stitchwork had saved his limb. “We were suffering from all sides.”

A 3-month-old Pakistani army offensive to expel Taliban and al Qaeda fighters based in Bajaur zone, a largely lawless tribal area that borders Afghanistan, has forced 200,000 Pakistani ethnic Pashtuns to flee their homes.

Droves have come to relief camps outside this frontier city for food, shelter and the assurance that the government’s writ still holds somewhere.

The Kacha Gari camp on the edge of Peshawar looks like the aftermath of a severe earthquake: Row after crumbling row of adobe hovels fill a dusty plain, ringed by an expanse of green plastic tents.

Until July, the site was home to 64,000 Afghan refugees. The government finally managed to repatriate most of them, and had emptied the area to make way for a development project.

Now it is swelling with Pakistanis.

As violence convulses the tribal areas, authorities and the United Nations refugee agency are directing the internally displaced to Kacha Gari and three other camps in the vicinity of Peshawar. At least 7,000 have poured in over the past month, with more families coming each day.

These people account for roughly 30 percent of those who have fled to Peshawar; the rest are staying with private hosts, said Sitara Imran, the minister for social welfare in North West Frontier Province.

“The people [at Kacha Gari] are the absolute poorest, with no place to go. They have no choice,” she said.

Bajaur, a rugged area about half the size of Rhode Island, is believed to be a possible hiding place for Osama bin Laden. It serves as a militant entry point connecting the tribal areas with eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province, where U.S. forces have run up against fierce resistance.

Pressure has mounted from Washington to do more to stop the flow of fighters from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Now Pakistani forces are facing a similar battle as they try to defeat entrenched Taliban on their own soil.

Those who have fled say the Taliban were initially seen as defenders of Islam. Local sympathies surged when an October 2006 missile attack killed 82 people at a madrassa in the town of Damadola, 12 of them teenagers.

Although the Pakistani army claimed responsibility, most locals thought it was a U.S. drone.

But relations soured when militants started to enforce their own strict laws and punishments. That included destroying the homes of those families who did not cooperate with them, inflicting physical abuse and occasional public executions.

Men who dared to shave their beards were dunked in cold water during the winter and hot water during the summer, said Nematullah Khan, 30, of Charmang. Music was banned. And public schools judged by the fundamentalists to be corruptive tools of the government were burned to the ground.

Amir Nawas, 18, also of Charmang, said he had one exam left before graduation when his school was razed. All of his academic documents were lost, he added, leaving him unsure whether he’ll ever be able to finish his studies.

“They were men with no minds, only guns,” he said.

In recent months, the Pakistani military has sought to turn this kind of anger against the Taliban.

Traditional militias, known as lashkars, have been raised and given a license to kill militants in Bajaur and several other tribal zones. In addition to artillery and logistics support, they reportedly will be given Chinese-made weapons.

The military now claims to control 70 percent of Bajaur and to have killed more than 1,000 militants since early September. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the military’s chief spokesman, recently asserted that the army would stabilize the zone within a month.

One well-placed government source told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity that if the ongoing campaign stays on course, the displaced Pashtuns would be able to return home by January.

However, holding on to gains in Bajaur may prove difficult over the winter months, especially when Afghan Taliban can easily cross the porous border to launch counterattacks.

For now, aid officials are trying to accommodate the growing crowds at the camps as the cold approaches. New arrivals are being issued tents, plastic sheeting, candles and dry rations of flour and lentils.

Yet there are complaints that basic provisions and medicines are in short supply, and each day throngs of men gather outside a concrete compound at the center of Kacha Gari to jostle for a cut of what’s available.

Authorities have begun registering families to ensure that the worst affected get the help they need ahead of those who are disadvantaged but not from conflict-hit areas, said Ms. Imran, adding that “thousands more” are expected.

The United Nations is asking donors for an additional $17 million to cover the costs of camp management, infrastructure improvements and basic provisions, said Vivian Tan, a U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman.

In some cases, lives will completely depend on handouts.

With nothing but the clothes on their backs, Sabir Jan, 44, a dry-goods trader from Bajaur, abandoned his village with his wife and 11 children in late August after repeated anti-Taliban air strikes.

He says he tried to go back once to check on their property and gather his family’s belongings, but turned around, fearing for his life.

“The Taliban are bad people, but they know how to hide and fight,” he said. “We must wait a long time, I think.”

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