Families displaced by SWA fighting trickle back home


DERA ISMAIL KHAN: Families began trickling back to Pakistan’s South Waziristan on Saturday nearly 14 months after being displaced by fighting between al Qaeda-linked Taliban militants and the military.
The government is eager to re-settle people in volatile areas like South Waziristan along the Afghan border in the northwest to show military offensives are stabilising the country, a strategic US ally. People like electrician Musa Khan, 45, are highly sceptical.
“I don’t want to go back, I don’t trust government who says it’s safe to go there,” said Khan at a stadium where authorities had set up an assembly point for people wanting to head home. “The army is there, but I know the Taliban are still there. If there is one shot fired in the area, the army starts bombing the entire area. I can’t go in a situation like this.”
Pakistan’s military began launching a series of offensives last year aimed at rooting out Pakistani Taliban insurgents, who often melt away when under pressure and relocate. The army says it has weakened militants but they have shown resilience, striking back with waves of suicide bombings, as well as strikes against army troops and security forces.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is helping the government process the voluntary return of the displaced, said it hopes some 8,000 families will return by year-end to 13 villages in South Waziristan.
Officials said no families had started returning from Dera Ismail Khan, one of two towns where people were being processed. The UNHCR said 41 families returned to their villages from the town of Tank on Saturday. Pakistani officials say up to 400,000 people were uprooted after Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Salvation) was launched in South Waziristan, one of seven lawless tribal regions.
Pakistan suffered the highest number of internally displaced people in 2009 due to the Taliban insurgency and Pakistan’s military response. Of a total 170 million population, over three million Pakistanis were newly displaced, a U.N. study said. A Taliban spokesman said this week security was still poor in South Waziristan. “The government is misleading the people and those who return will do so at their own risk,” he said.
More than 1,300 civilians were killed in the conflict in northwest Pakistan in 2009, estimates Amnesty International. It accuses both the army and Taliban of human rights abuses. “They want to take us in a military convoy that means security is still a problem. We don’t want to go in the shadow of guns,” said Ali Khan, 35, a government teacher. “Officials are saying they will give us rations for six months.
What will happen if the security situation doesn’t improve after that. How will we work?” Creating jobs and easing poverty in far more stable parts of Pakistan is hard enough for the cash-strapped Pakistani government, which has relied on an $11 billion IMF loan to keep the economy afloat since it was agreed in Nov. 2008.