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Pakistan refugees begin returning home to Swat Valley

Some balk over security issues and promised aid

A Pakistani girl at the Jalozai refugee camp watches as families head for transport to return home yesterday. A Pakistani girl at the Jalozai refugee camp watches as families head for transport to return home yesterday. (A Majeed/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Riaz Khan
Associated Press / July 14, 2009
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BARIKOT, Pakistan - After weeks in sweltering camps, refugees from Pakistan’s Swat Valley boarded buses and began heading home yesterday - the first day of an official repatriation program for those uprooted by fighting between the army and Taliban militants.

Pakistan’s military launched an operation this spring to clear Swat of Taliban insurgents - an offensive strongly backed by the Obama administration, which considers it a test of Islamabad’s resolve to curb Islamist extremists.

The fighting drove some 2 million people from their homes in the country’s northwest. The army has now declared most of Swat cleared of militants, and yesterday began ferrying those stuck in camps back home.

But only a fraction of the total number of refugees actually began their journey home. Some refused to go back, citing lingering security concerns and demanding aid promised them by the government. Thousands more tried to return without official permission and were blocked by the military.

The repatriation program’s sputtering start illustrates the Pakistani government’s struggles to respond to one of the most challenging humanitarian crises in the country’s history. Islamabad has had a mixed record in the past.

Last year, officials told refugees from the Bajur tribal region they could return during a cease-fire with Taliban fighters, and many did, only to see fighting resume.

Yesterday, some families said they would not go home unless they were given money, food, and other government-promised aid. Each family was supposed to get $306, but the government has had difficulties handing out the cash.

Still, many people were desperate to go home after spending weeks in stifling tents.

Khurshid Khan, 65, traveled with his extended family of 30 people to their home in Barikot, south of Swat’s main city of Mingora, after spending two months in a camp.

“We are very happy. We pray to Allah that we always have peace here. We hope the bad days are over,’’ Khan said after unloading blankets, mattresses, plastic sheets, electric fans and a one-month’s ration of food from the top of a dust-covered bus.

Family members rushed from room to room to ensure all their possessions were still there. Everything was as they left it, except for the normally clean-swept courtyard; it was overgrown with grass.

Khan said he’s counting on the government to provide security, but also voiced doubts the Taliban had been fully defeated.

“We are afraid for our lives, we are afraid for our security,’’ he said.

Shakir Ullah, a neighbor who welcomed Khan’s family home on a narrow, dusty street in Barikot, dismissed talk of a militant comeback.

“The Taliban are gone,’’ he said. “Most them were killed and the others have fled, and they fled knowing they will never come here again.’’

Others, however, cited security worries.

Washington-based advocacy group Refugees International said the government was moving too quickly in reopening Swat, a one-time tourist haven.

“The army’s definition of cleared zones does not necessarily translate into safe zones for civilians,’’ said Patrick Duplat, a Refugees International advocate.

The government has sought to downplay the concerns.

Yesterday, Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the chief minister of the North West Frontier Province, told refugees the government was working on reestablishing a stronger police force to help keep out the Taliban.

The army has already said it expects to stay in Swat for another year.

“We have broken the back of the terrorists, they are on the run in small groups and may try to come back, but I appeal to the people to identify them and inform the government and law enforcement so that they be eliminated,’’ Hoti said during a ceremony marking the send-off at Charsadda.