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Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Bajaur's IDPs – stories of the silent victims of the Taliban brutalities....

Bajaur's IDPs – our wretched of the earth
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Farhat Taj

I spend a whole day with the internally displaced people, IDPs, from Bajaur in a camp near Peshawar. I went from tent to tent to meet the traumatized families and to listen to their ordeals in their own words. Most of the time I interacted with women.

Almost all IDPs have stories of horrors to tell. Some of the stories occurred to themselves, some to their relatives, friends or fellow villagers. Almost all women I met told me how their right to mobility was curbed by the Taliban. An elderly woman, a grandmother, said her daughter-in-law is widow and she used to accompany her children to a hospital in Peshawar, whenever they needed medical treatment. The Taliban threatened women with dire consequences if they came in the public unaccompanied by men. One of her grandchildren had asthma-related problems. His condition got serious. She could not rush him to Peshawar. She sent for men who were relatives, all of them worked outside Bajaur. It took a male relative two days to come and the child died before his arrival. She said she will never forget that the Taliban imposed restrictions on her mobility led to the death of the child. She said the child died in her hands and she could do nothing for him.

Another elderly woman said she and her granddaughter were visiting a relative in another village when the Taliban threatened the drivers of the public transport against carrying unaccompanied females in their vehicles. One her way back, she said no public transport was willing to give her a seat in their vehicles. She had to walk all the distance to her home. The distance, her brother sitting near her said, was around 20 kilometres.

A mother of four young girls said that she and her husband wish that all their daughters become doctors. She informed said that the Taliban had occupied the school of their daughters and banned girls' education. She said both she and her husband are very upset about the education of their daughters.

Women in Bajaur observe purdah according to Pakhtun culture. Thus some wear burqa in public and some chaddar. Some women cover their faces with chaddar and some do not. A woman told me that Taliban ordered all women to wear burqa. A girl in her village refused to obey the order and continue to wear chaddar. The Taliban beheaded her to make an example for other women. Some women told me the Taliban used to capture their animals, goats and cows, grazing in the fields and on hills and slaughter them for their dinners. They said the Taliban never paid any compensation for the loss.

Another woman said her teenage son was forced, along with other villagers, by the Taliban to watch the public beheading of a man. Her son, she said, has had nightmares since then. Also, a group of young men described to me in graphic details how the Taliban publicly beheaded a hifz-e-Quran in their village.

They said the Taliban included foreigners: Afghan, Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and even Africans. Among the Pakistanis, were Punjabi Taliban and Pakhtun from various parts of FATA, including Bajaur.

Many IDPs have one complaint against fellow citizens of Pakistan. They said the Taliban invaded and occupied Bajaur. They imposed a social order that was different from the Pakhtun social order that has always functioned in Bajaur. Anyone violating the Taliban order was publicly punished, sometimes in the most savage of ways, like being publicly beheaded. The Taliban terrorism was all over and everyone was suffering. But none of the fellow Pakistanis raised their voices against the Taliban occupation of Bajaur. No one reached out to them with help or even promise of help. "Perhaps they (people of Pakistan) do not consider us fellow citizens of equal worth. Even the Pakistan army did not come to challenge the occupation," said many IDPs. Finally the army did come, but not to release us from the occupation of the Taliban but because the Americans ordered it to do so – because the Taliban from Bajaur were attacking US forces in Afghanistan and retreating back into Bajaur after the cross-border forays.

The Taliban put forward a much more tough resistance than the army expected. The army used massive aerial bombardment to break the resistance of the Taliban, the IDPs said. And it was this indiscriminate firing that many said made the people flee from their homes. 'We fled empty handed. Some were even shoeless', said one woman. 'Our homes are heaps of rubbles with all our belongings dumped under the rubbles', said several people. Most of them were poor people and said they cannot rebuild the houses on their own.' So how do they want to rebuild the houses?', I asked. They said because the army had destroyed the houses, the army must rebuild them as well.

I discussed this with a serving colonel of the Pakistan army. He said he could not say whether the army would rebuild the houses, but that there was a tradition of compensating any material damages to the civilians. Thus for example, the army compensates for any damages done to standing crops or orchard during an army movement. This is a good tradition and I would request the chief of army staff to take this tradition to Bajaur and financially help the people in rebuilding their houses. This may be important for improvement of the tarnished reputation of the army in the eyes of the people of Bajaur. The people have double complaints against the army. First, for not showing up to release them from the occupation and terrorism of the Taliban. And second, for the destruction of their houses and killing of their relatives in the military operation.

Like the people of Swat and Waziristan with whom I had long discussions, the people of Bajaur also said the army must conduct targeted operations to eliminate the Taliban in their hideouts and headquarters and must not indiscriminately fire to kill civilians.

The IDPs who live in the refugee camps are the most poor people of Bajaur. Those who had the resources to rent out houses in safer places in Pakistan have already done so and have moved out their families there. Those who had relatives in other parts of Pakistan are staying with them. The remaining, the residents of the camps, are those who neither have the resources to rent houses nor relatives outside Bajaur to stay with. They feel twice abandoned by their compatriots, first to the terrorism of the Taliban and then to the ordeal of life as refugees. They constantly ask "are we not fellow citizens of equal worth?" I would request everyone in Pakistan – philanthropists, civil society, media, government armed forces, affluent sportspeople and those in showbiz – to reach out to the IDPs and do whatever they can to reduce their sense of rejection and dejection. They live in miserable conditions and life in refugee camps can never be like life at home. But still a lot can be done to bring some normalcy to their shattered lives.

I wish to remind everyone in Pakistan that their support to the IDPs may also be in their self-interest. The support will send a message to the Taliban that society stands by the victims of their brutalities and reject their savage ways. Indifference towards the IDPs may embolden the Taliban, i.e. the latter will take the message that they can repeat what they did in Bajaur and that there is no one in Pakistan to challenge them. Society in Pakistan must condemn the Taliban with action and words. And this can begin by providing moral and material help for the IDPs from Bajaur.

The writer is a research fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Research, University of Oslo and a member of Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy. Email: bergen34@yahoo.com

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