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Page last updated at 01:52 GMT, Tuesday, 16 June 2009 02:52 UK

Home is distant for Pakistan displaced

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Buner

 women IDPs outside the Shahbaz Garha distribution point
It could be a long wait before many of the displaced head home

During an hour spent at a security post in the Ambela pass area of Pakistan's north-western district of Buner, I counted nearly 30 displaced families on their way home.

Reverse traffic had picked up in recent days, one army officer at the post said - which indicated an improved security situation in the district.

Buner, which is located in the mountainous Malakand region of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), was overrun earlier this year by Taliban militants whose bases lay in the neighbouring Swat district.

During this period the Taliban also surfaced in parts of another Malakand district, Lower Dir.

People began to flee the entire region in early May when the military began an operation to evict the Taliban from Buner and Dir and to crush them in their home base of Swat.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has declared the subsequent exodus the biggest in the world for 15 years.

In the last couple of weeks the government claims to have cleared the militants from Buner and to have contained them in Swat and Dir.

A visibly rapid return of displaced people to their homes in Buner suggests that the problem of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Pakistan may be headed for a quick resolution.

But many believe this is not likely for two reasons.

One, the military is still far from fully able to secure the region against a militant resurgence, and second, it will take a massive rehabilitation effort on the part of the government to enable refugees to resume normal life.

False victories

For many observers around the world, the army's ability or willingness to root out Taliban militants from Pakistani territory has long remained suspect.

Besides, the army has often claimed victory before having actually overcome militants, thereby denting its own credibility.

In the spring of 2008, the army airlifted members of the international press to South Waziristan to show them the areas they had cleared of militants.

Pakistani army troops stand alert on a vehicle as they patrol in the village of Pir Baba in troubled Buner district on May 22, 2009
The army battled militants in Buner earlier this year

In October that year, they did the same in Bajaur tribal region.

In Lower Dir, they declared victory in April 2009, saying the objectives of the operation launched just a week ago before been achieved.

In all these areas, the situation on the ground turned out to be quite the opposite.

Tens of thousands of people who fled the fighting in South Waziristan in the winter of 2007- 2008 have not been rehabilitated.

The same is the case for more than 100,000 displaced people from the Bajaur and Mohmand regions who are living in camps around Peshawar.

Now, even as the army claims successes in Buner, Swat and Dir, more than two million people from these mountainous regions are bracing for a long, hot summer in these central plains of North West Frontier Province.

The NWFP government says there are nearly 4.5 million IDPs in the province, uprooted as a result of military operations since 2007.

The army's lack of credibility is compounded by an over-centralised civil administration whose outreach in times of crisis is inherently restricted.

When the deluge of IDPs poured into the Mardan and Swabi districts of NWFP in the first week of May, the bulk of them were taken in by local communities, leaving only a fraction to head for refugee camps.

The easiest way to register these IDPs and organise relief for them, would have been to make the existing local government institutions at the village level the focal point.

Instead, the job was assigned to two centrally constituted groups of civil and military bureaucrats.

Aid workers in the area blame this arrangement for the subsequent confusion over numbers as many IDPs were able to register many times over.

Corruption fears

Children's play area in Buner

This has had implications for relief delivery. The IDPs with multiple registration have been receiving extra aid which they have been selling to local traders, while many others have gone without any aid at all.

District officials in Mardan and Swabi say that confusion over basic data has created room for so-called "economic migrants" to register as IDPs.

It is also a boon for corrupt officials intending to steal relief goods, they say.

There is fear that corrupt officials and elements within the government who may want to use the IDP issue for strategic or financial aims, may have a motive to prolong the crisis.

For genuine IDPs, the situation is already generating a lot of frustration. This may worsen in the coming weeks due to the lukewarm response of international donors and a delay in the transfer of pledged funds.

Meanwhile, the army has expanded its anti-Taliban operation to some more areas in the north-west, setting the stage for further displacements.

So while some IDPs may have returned to their homes, the bulk of them are still out there, and their ranks may swell.

The host communities are worried that if the conflict is prolonged, the IDPs may start building permanent structures in their camps and settle for a longer stay, like refugees from Afghanistan did in the 1980s.

If this happens, they fear, the IDP camps may follow the same old pattern of the 1980s and evolve into sanctuaries and recruiting grounds for militants and crime syndicates.

Pakistan map showing Dagar



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