Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat-The Pakistani government on Monday began an operation to return the two million refugees to the Swat Valley who had been forced from their homes against the backdrop of the Pakistani military offensive that was launched to clear Taliban militants from the region. The Pakistani army claims to have expelled the Taliban from their former stronghold in the Swat Valley, and is keen to return the Swat refugees to their homes. The mass exodus from Swat was one of the largest human migrations seen in recent times, and was a drain on the country’s resources leading to an international appeal for humanitarian aid.
The Pakistani army is supervising the operation to return the displaced persons to the Swat valley. Pakistani army spokesman, Colonel Muhammad Waseem, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “We are providing them [the returnees] with transport and security and we will remain there [in the Swat valley] until this operation ends.”
Bashir Bilour, a senior provincial minister for Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province [NWFP] welcomed the first batch of returnees to the Swat Valley on Monday afternoon. UN officials have said that the process of returning two million displaced persons to their homes in the Swat Valley may take over a year.
On Monday buses and trucks lined up outside the Jalozai Refugee Camp in the Nowshera district of the NWFP to return the first group of displaced persons to their homes in the Swat Valley. The majority of the Pakistani citizens who were forced from their homes in the Swat Valley went to live with relatives and family members elsewhere, however some 300,000 people with no place to go have been living in various refugee camps since April.
According to reports, Fawad Ali, a 30-year-old barber, was among the first batch of Swat Valley refugees to return to their homes from the Jalozai Camp. Fawad Ali said that he hoped the Taliban had gone for good. Referring to the Taliban’s ban on barbers cutting hair, Ali said “We’re pinning our hopes on the government’s efforts because we’re jobless. They banned our business.” Fawad Ali added “Hopefully, things will be different and I can feed my family.”
The picture on the ground remains unclear with regards to how successful such a return might prove to be. Reporters who have visited main towns in Swat say that some limited damage was done to homes during the fighting. Many of the displaced persons have lost their crops and according to aid workers, may require support for months to come.
Abdul Khaliq Khan, a refugee returning to the Swat Valley from the Jalozai Camp was quoted by Reuters as saying “I’m not sure whether my house is there or has been destroyed, but still I want to go back because it’s my home.”
The Pakistani army’s military offensive began in April after Taliban militants took control of the Swat Valley region that is less than 100km away from the Pakistani capital Islamabad, raising concern for Pakistan’s stability and the safety of its nuclear arsenal.
The Pakistani army claims that more than 1,700 militants were killed in the fighting; however independent casualty estimates have been unable to verify this figure. No prominent Taliban leaders were among the casualties, leading to fears that the Taliban could launch a counter-offensive.
According to reports, Tahir Orakzai, the government-appointed director of the Jalozai Camp gave assurances that nobody was being forced to return to the Swat Valley, adding that the 108 families that were due to leave camp on Monday were returning voluntarily. Ensuring that the return of displaced persons to the Swat Valley is voluntary is a chief concern of the Untied Nations.
Making reference to the high temperatures in the camp in comparison with the more moderate weather seen in the Swat Valley, Orakzai said “They have been living in hell here. They’re not used to such weather. They’re desperate to return.”
Lt. General Nadeem Hussein, the military commander overseeing the return operation informed the media that the first phase of this operation would be to the voluntary return of those currently residing in refugee camps. He added that those displaced persons who were residing with relatives would be encouraged to return to their homes in the Swat Valley during the second phase of this operation. However the Swat Valley refugees who are living elsewhere with family have already begun to exert pressure on the government to allow them to return to their homes. There are reports that some of these refugees intend to return to the Swat Valley before the government formally grant them permission to do so.