The district of Buner in Pakistan is going through a dark and uncertain period. At the start of the month, the Pakistani Army rolled into the Swat Valley to drive out the Taliban who had gained control there. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of people from the valley and outlying areas started to flee. Now, the Pakistani government claims to have regained control of Buner.
By Suzanna Koster
“The Taliban in the Buner district are defeated and refugees can return to the area”, say Pakistani authorities. But few refugees are actually heeding the call.
Imposing green and rocky mountains flank a winding asphalt road which delineates the boundaries of Buner. The district lies at a much higher elevation than Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, just 75 kilometres away. Newly harvested bales of grain can be seen all over the valleys.
It looks like paradise – until the first signs of war become visible. Some of the refugees who thought they would be able to return to the area turn around and go back once they see the state their village is in. Hundreds of thousands people have fled Buner, which originally had a population of 700,000.
Akbar Khan is a farmer. He is fleeing Torwarsak, a village outside Buner, in his lorry along with his daughter and a few village residents. Upon hearing my first question, Mr Khan bursts into tears, burying his face in his hands.
He talks about shootings carried out by the Pakistani army only weeks ago which levelled his neighbours’ house and a mosque. “The Taliban had just escaped from the mosque. But innocent people were unable to escape on time. They’re now dead. There’s no water, no food, no doctors, the shops are closed. The children were scared. We had to leave”, he says.
His mother and brother decided to stay behind to take care of the cattle. He hopes the proceeds from the recently harvested crops will be enough to keep him and his family alive.
Regarding the conflict, Mr Khan does not take one side or the other. “The Taliban and the Pakistani army both do their best to make us homeless”, he sighs. He has little faith in refugee relief efforts which is why he has brought along beds, fans and tree trunks. “I felled trees to be able to make a tent.”
From the roof of the lorry, a villager attempts to warn us of the Taliban. “Don’t go any further. There’s Taliban. They’ll kill you.”
Further on at the strategically important Ambela mountain pass lies the remains of conflict. A car is completely burnt and the blackened bodies of animals in two charred lorries smell nauseatingly sour. A petrol station lies in ruins. Pakistan’s national press agency says a bomb exploded here only a few days ago.
At a military control post, men are asked to step out of their cars. Women and drivers are allowed to remain seated. No one is searched. Ambela is like a ghost town where only soldiers and the odd traveller walk the streets. More soldiers keep a watchful eye from their mountaintop perch.
A few shops are open in Sawari. “The situation here is very bad. The shops are very damaged”, 26-year-old Arshad Ali tells me in his dilapidated hardware shop. The bakery across the road is in ruins. Another shop owner, Naveed Alam, cannot understand why the authorities are telling refugees that they can return home. “There isn’t even any electricity, water or food”, he says.
Pakistani authorities have said that electricity will be restored in the near future and they expect that all of the refugees will then return. Government officials in Buner have been ordered to go back to work.
It was not much better in Buner’s capital Dagger. A column of military vehicles drove into the city, the soldiers’ guns pointed at the few shop owners in the street. In the city’s only hospital, we met Maqsood Ahmad, Buner’s chief health official. He has taken his wife’s advice to stay behind in the hospital. “I am very proud of her”, he says.
Buner’s hospitals took in seven dead and 89 wounded, including 60 civilians, says Mr Ahmad. The bombing raids, in particular, claimed many civilian lives.
Mr Ahmad has even treated a militant. “The Taliban stole 12 vehicles, including three ambulances and 7000 kilograms of cooking oil. They threatened female employees, especially the personnel responsible for birth control. But we must treat everyone equally.”
Uncertainty and anger abounds in Buner. The people fear the army as well as the Taliban. Dozens of children, however, do not seem to care. They hand out water to the refugees passing through Ambela. The water pumps do not work without electricity, a 16-year-old student from Inam Ullah explains, which is why it is difficult for anyone to have access to water. “But the situation is even more difficult for the refugees. That is why we give them water.”
Video - damaged buildings and vehicles in the area around Buner: