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Pakistani refugee camps swell with people, anger

Displaced people line up as they wait their turn for food at a refugee camp in Swabi, Pakistan, on Sunday. An estimated 2 million Pakistanis have fled an army onslaught against the Taliban.

Associated Press

Displaced people line up as they wait their turn for food at a refugee camp in Swabi, Pakistan, on Sunday. An estimated 2 million Pakistanis have fled an army onslaught against the Taliban.

MARDAN, Pakistan — Bacha Zab, a 32-year-old fruit salesman, dodged army shelling and Taliban sniper fire to escape his native Swat Valley. But when he reached the safety of a government-run refugee camp in this northwestern Pakistani city, he was told there was no room.

Instead, for the past 16 days, Zab, his wife and their four children have been in the care of a private Islamic charity with close ties to a banned militant organization. "We are asking for help from the government, but they won't give it," Zab said. "In the government camps, there are only problems."

The government has been overwhelmed by the human tide that has washed over the northwest as about 2 million people have fled fierce clashes in Swat.

With Pakistan experiencing its largest exodus since the nation's partition from India in 1947, only a fraction of the displaced civilians are receiving assistance in government-run camps. The rest are fending for themselves or getting help from private charities, including some that are allied with the very forces the Pakistani army is fighting in Swat.

Refugee camps in Pakistan have been prime recruiting grounds for militant groups ever since the Soviet invasion forced millions of Afghans to cross into Pakistan in the 1980s. Now, concern is growing that this latest wave of displacement will create a fresh crop of Pakistanis with grievances against the government and loyalty to groups that seek to undermine the state through violent insurgency.

The government says it is aware of the peril, but it appears incapable of mustering the resources it needs to provide shelter, food, water and medicine to so many people.

Critics say the government has badly mismanaged the crisis, having failed to prepare for a scenario that officials must have known would result from the military offensive.

"They should have foreseen this, but they didn't plan for it," said Aftab Khan Sherpao, an opposition lawmaker and former interior minister who comes from the northwest.

In the camps, there is seething resentment toward a government that residents say has let them down many times before.

"When we were being forced out of our homes, our president was enjoying himself in the U.S.," said camp resident Syed Karim Shah, referring to a visit by Asif Ali Zardari to Washington just as the battle in Swat got under way. "He's cashing in on this situation, bringing in money from the West."

Shah said the money has yet to filter down to the camps, where residents complain of a lack of bathrooms, electricity and fans.

The Taliban have controlled Swat off and on since late 2007. The government's offensive, which was launched nearly a month ago after the collapse of a peace deal and amid intense pressure from the United States, is aimed at retaking the valley once and for all.

Symbolic square retaken, army says

The Pakistani army said it had captured the central square of Mingora, the largest city in the contested Swat Valley, as it appeared to be making slow but steady gains against the Taliban. Ten militants and six Pakistani soldiers were killed in fierce street battles in the city on Sunday, according to a statement by the Pakistani army. Six soldiers were wounded. The army's capture of the central square, known as Green Square, carried symbolic weight. Under the Taliban, it had gained notoriety as "Slaughter Square." Beheaded bodies — often of people accused of spying or of un-Islamic behavior — were thrown in the square to intimidate residents.

New York Times

Pakistani refugee camps swell with people, anger 05/24/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 24, 2009 10:11pm]
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