May 7, 2009


This is a priority for the administration because it has the potential to make things in the Middle East region so much worse than it already is:

When Taliban fighters first entered Karim's village last month, he recounted, they said they had come to bring peace and Islamic law, or sharia, to Swat. But the next day, two of the fighters dragged a policeman out of his truck and tried to slit his throat. Horrified, a crowd rushed over, shouting and trying to shield the officer. The fighters let him go, but the incident confirmed the villagers' worst suspicions.

"We all said to each other, what sort of people have come here? And what kind of sharia is this? Cutting off people's heads has nothing to do with Islam," recounted Karim, 55, a bus driver. "The people were filled with great rage, and great fear."

Authorities in North-West Frontier Province said that with the conflict intensifying, they expect half a million people to flee the once-bucolic Swat region near the Afghan border, much of which is now occupied by heavily armed militants. Officials announced Tuesday that they plan to open six refugee camps in the safer nearby districts of Swabi and Mardan, but until then, many who leave home to escape the violence are facing the arduous task of finding their own shelter.

As the refugees begin streaming out of Swat and the neighboring Buner district in northwest Pakistan, they carry with them memories of the indignities and horrors inflicted by occupying Taliban forces -- locking women inside their homes, setting donkeys on fire -- as they tried to force residents to accept a radical version of Islam.

The government has not helped, refugees said, with its erratic, seesawing efforts to appease and fight the militants. Some said they felt confused and trapped, unsure whether to trust the peace deal forged by the government and Taliban leaders last month, or to flee in anticipation of the fighting that has begun as the peace accord collapses.

Sher Mohammed, a property dealer from Mingora, the main town in Swat, was one of the first people to reach a new refugee camp in the Mardan district with his wife and children Tuesday night. On Wednesday, he kicked the dirt outside their tent despondently, saying that after enduring two years of fighting and Taliban abuses, he had had enough.

"I feel like I have lost my mind," he said. "I work hard to make a respectable life and educate my children. Now we are living in a camp, and my sons are talking of guns."

Mohammed said he did not understand why the country's powerful army had not been able to defeat the militants before they took over the valley. Even now, after a week of sporadic fighting, military officials have not announced an offensive against the militants who occupy much of Swat and Buner. The Taliban has repeatedly rejected government overtures to salvage the peace deal, in which the militants agreed to disarm if sharia courts were made the exclusive form of justice in Swat.

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