BARIKOT, Pakistan – After weeks in sweltering camps, refugees from Pakistan’s Swat Valley boarded buses and began heading home Monday – 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 on Monday began ferrying those stuck in camps back home.
But only a fraction of the total number of refugees actually began their journey home Monday. 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.
On Monday, 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 of 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.
On Monday, Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the chief minister of the North West Frontier Province, told refugees the government was working on re-establishing 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.
While about 200,000 of the displaced were living in camps, most refugees stayed with relatives and friends.
Thousands tried to head back Monday but were blocked by military officials who told them only those who had been in camps had permission to return.
While militant activity has been mostly concentrated in Pakistan’s northwest, other areas have faced their share of violence.
Early Monday, an explosion destroyed a house used as a religious seminary for children in central Pakistan, killing at least 11 people — seven of them children. Many others were in critical condition, said police chief Kamran Khan. At least 30 other houses were destroyed.
The owner of the seminary has been accused of recruiting fighters to battle Western troops in Afghanistan, and police have evidence the home was a meeting point for militants, Khan said.
There were conflicting reports on the cause of the blast, but police said the remnants of six rockets and a suicide vest were found in the crater. Interior Minister Rehman Malik ruled out a suicide attack.