Page last updated at 15:09 GMT, Tuesday, 2 June 2009 16:09 UK

Pakistanis shelter Swat displaced

By Barbara Plett
BBC News, Surki Dheri and Islamabad

Children displaced from Swat valley fighting
The homeless are being given water, electricity and a roof

Just over the mountains from Pakistan's north-western Swat valley lies Surki Dheri, a village of 10,000.

Its deputy mayor, Sajjad Ali, is a landowner with a large estate. Tenant farmers work his fields of wheat, maize and tobacco.

But this year he and his brother, Javed Iqbal, have become hosts to unexpected guests: 15 families of refugees - or 150 people - who have fled Pakistan's latest war against the Taliban in Swat and neighbouring districts.

"I was coming home one day and I saw these families, women and children, sitting beside the road," says Mr Iqbal. "I brought them here. They were in need."

The newly homeless Pakistanis get food from the UN, but Mr Iqbal and Mr Ali provide everything else - water, electricity, and a roof.

Nor do they expect them to leave anytime soon. The brothers have begun building an extension to their guesthouse.


The influx of displaced people has swelled the village population by a third.

This is traditional Pashtun hospitality, which can never turn away "a guest".

Sajjad Ali
Sajjad Ali says Pakistanis are responding to a sense of national crisis

Indeed, the vast majority of those displaced are living with kin or generous strangers.

Such solidarity has strengthened the government's military campaign in Swat.

It has also encouraged Washington, which wants to see the war taken to Taliban and al-Qaeda havens in the tribal areas near the Afghan border.

It is true that there has been broad public support for the Swat operation, including from opposition parties, the media, and even some religious leaders.

This is unique, because in the past fighting the Taliban was seen as fighting fellow Pakistanis at Washington's command.

And America's Afghan war is unpopular, widely blamed here for radicalising the country's border areas.

But seasoned Pakistan observers caution against reading too much into a specific situation.

"I think there was an extraordinary confluence of circumstances which produced a coincidence of military resolve, political consensus and strong public opposition to the Taliban in Swat," says Maleeha Lodhi, a former ambassador to Washington.

"Also because the United States was not really seen in that pronounced a way as calling the shots, that also helped the government pursue a very aggressive policy in Swat."


Pakistan rallies to help refugees

Public opinion has generally shifted against the Swat Taliban since they broke a peace deal earlier this year.

"I think this happened because in the public perception the Taliban moved from a political actor to a criminal actor," says Aijaz Gilani, chairman of the polling agency Gallup Pakistan.

"It was the very clear and vivid pictures of beheadings, floggings, and occupation of other peoples' property. So when there was a wide view that the Taliban were in breach of Islamic rules about the respect for property, life and honour, a majority turned against them."

Just outside Islamabad another group of refugees also receives support from concerned Pakistanis.


A builder, Syed Liaqat, has allowed 75 mostly women and children to move into his unfinished block of flats. Their needs are being met by a number of middle-class women from Islamabad.

One of them, a law teacher and civil society activist Ghazala Minallah, tells me how one baby was born during the five-day trek through the mountains.

But when a woman died in childbirth, she and her baby were buried in the snow.

"I'm motivated by anger that this should be happening in our country, and a feeling for these people," she says. "It could be us in this position!"

Fear that the Taliban could extend their rule outside Swat was another factor that united many Pakistanis behind military action.

Conditional support

Ms Minallah blames the army and government for allowing the militants to get strong, but admits that the timing of the operation made it more effective.

"Otherwise a large section of the population would have kept saying, what if the peace deal had worked? What if negotiations had worked?

Fauzia Minallah
Fauzia Minallah says support for the army is conditional

"At least no-one can say that now, that is why the entire country is united, at least 99% united, and supporting the army action."

Fauzia Minallah, an artist who has encouraged the children to draw and paint, says they need help to exorcise their fear of both the Taliban and of army shelling.

She tells me it is important that they are able to go home soon, and that the army defeats the Taliban - otherwise public support may waver.

"It can change if there's a failure of the operation," she says.

"Right now people are saying that there's only 4,000 Taliban, and 2.5 million displaced. So if the operation fails, the morale will go down.

"The support [for the army] will be there as long as we know that the operation will be successful."

But success in Swat would not necessarily mean public support for extending the campaign against the Taliban to the tribal areas, says Mr Gilani, especially if it were seen to be at the urging of the Americans.

"While support for the government on the Taliban issue has increased, there is no corresponding increase for America's war against terror," he says.

"The two are seen in the Pakistani public opinion quite separately, and one should not be misjudged for the other."

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific