Monday, July 13, 2009

Pakistani displaced begin return!

The BBC's David Loyn says nobody quite believes the Taliban has been eliminated from the Swat valley

The Pakistani government has started to return home some of the two million people displaced by the conflict in the Swat valley.

The first convoy of buses carrying people from temporary camps began its journey on Monday.

The army reopened roads into the troubled district after an offensive to drive out Taliban militants there.

Some of the displaced have already returned. Correspondents say they are likely to rely on aid for many months.

The government has said its priority is to return those living in temporary camps.

Some 200 families housed in camps in the Nowshera district are set to return in this first phase. On Tuesday, 800 families are due to be sent back to Swat, officials say.
Launched in April after militants took area 100km from Islamabad
Army says some 1,700 militants killed; but none of their leaders
One of biggest human migrations of recent times, with 2m displaced

Some witnesses in the area told the BBC that people were keen to return home because of the extreme heat they had to endure in the temporary camps.

But other residents have expressed concerns about their return.

"I'm going back home voluntarily and nobody forced me to leave," 50-year-old Shireenzada told the AFP news agency.

"But I'm really uncertain and don't know if peace has actually returned to my area."

The UN has stressed that the return of those displaced must be voluntary.

Once people have been moved from the camps, the army will begin returning people who have been living in schools and other places since they fled the fighting.

The first batch of returnees are from the Landakai-Barikot sector of the main road leading into the city of Mingora. This was one of the districts worst affected by fighting between the military and the Taliban.

Pakistani displaced family in a bus ready to return to their villages from Jalozai Internal Displaced camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, Monday, July 13, 2009
The first families have begun their journey home

Reports from that district say that there has been no fighting for nearly three weeks despite frequent curfews and house searches by the army.

The return is being overseen by the substantial military presence established in the Swat, Malakand and Buner regions after Taliban militants were dislodged.

The information minister for Pakistan's North West Frontier Province told the BBC's Urdu service that the displaced could carry their tents with them in case they returned home to find their homes damaged.

"The police and army contingents have been deployed on all important points along the way to provide security to convoys," Mian Iftikhar Hussain said.

General Nadeem Ahmad, who is coordinating the operation, said every family leaving the camps would receive cash support from the government.

He told the BBC that the operation to return the displaced was deemed feasible only once certain conditions had been fulfilled. These were that the area had been cleared of militants, explosive devices and that the region's administrative and commercial infrastructure was in place.

"The best thing is that the military is going to stay there till such a time the provincial government feels comfortable with the security environment, " he said.

Gen Ahmad had a similar role following the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir.

Damaged building in Mingora, 9 July 2009
Unlike these shops, most buildings have survived largely unscathed

A computerised identity card system is being used again to help registered users access state aid.

However, much of the infrastructure in the Swat region was severely damaged in the months of fighting.

Power and water supplies have been shattered and the reconstruction is expected to take many months.

A resident of the town of Sultanwas, in Buner province, told the Associated Press that if the government failed to provide for people's needs, "no-one will stand against militant extremism in the future".

"In this war we lost and gave everything, saw our village destroyed," said Muhamed Shereen.

"So now the people of Sultanwas look to the government and the whole country and world to come forward and help us."

The BBC's Syed Shoaib Hasan, who recently visited Swat's main town, Mingora, said the town was largely intact, with markets and residential areas still standing.

But the security situation remains uncertain and supplies are critically low, he says.





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