Caught between army and insurgents in Swat

Mariam Jan (not her real name), aged 13, describes the constant flow of human traffic she can see from her window in the Swat Valley town of Sangota: Large numbers of people are leaving, trudging up a dusty track towards Swat’s main city of Mingora.

A virtual prisoner in her own home, and her neighbourhood almost a ghost town, Mariam has nothing much to do as the schools are closed.

Her father Hammad Khan (not his real name), a civil servant, one of the few people who has so far not moved out of Sangota, said he would never send his daughter to school after the Taliban ban on female education. Right now his priority was keeping his family alive.

Each day Khan walks one hour and 15 minutes to get to work in Mingora. “I walk the same route that these displaced people take. This is the only way to get to Mingora as the army has blocked the main road.” Previously he drove along the main road into the city.

“The market [in Sangota] has been closed for the last 10 days and the prices of whatever is available are sky-high,” he said. Giving examples, he said a kilo of tomatoes was about 90 US cents as opposed to 20-25 US cents in Mingora, and LPG (light petroleum gas) was $1.88/kg instead of $1 in Mingora.

“For us, it is now a matter of life and death and also survival.” He said he had enough wheat stored for the year but he would have to buy other supplies in Mingora. “But what about people who do not go to the city or households headed by women who dare not go out?”

Khan said he knew of families who had fled Sangota in such a hurry that they “could not even give those who had died due to bombings a proper burial”.

IDP camps

He said the government had set up camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in government schools in Mingora, but few were staying there. “They prefer to stay with relatives or move further down to Malakand and Peshawar.”

According to Khan, the rich left Sangota and Mingora six months ago. Now it was the turn of the very poor, he said, who were moving out because they feared for their lives and were also looking for alternative livelihoods.

There is some chaos in the IDP camps as local management has broken down, and cold weather is making matters worse, according to local charities.

Charities like the Al-Khidmat Trust (run by the religious-political group Jamaat-e-Islami) and a few individuals are providing food for the IDPs.

Army campaign, more deaths

In the past week many civilian deaths have been reported, as the army has tried to step up its campaign against the insurgents.

“The Edhi Foundation [a charity] and Médecins Sans Frontières ambulances were also attacked while taking the injured to hospital, but it is unclear who fired at them,” said Khan.

Some say the recent army offensive may have weakened the Taliban and are optimistic the valley could soon see normalcy return, but Khan is sceptical, saying this could not happen “till they [army] attack their training centres and target the top leadership”.

The Taliban may have gone into temporary hiding but their daily sermons on illegal FM radio are as vitriolic as ever, according to local residents.

On 3 February insurgents cut NATO forces’ main supply route by blowing up a bridge in the Khyber Pass.

The district of Swat in North West Frontier Province, about 150km northeast of the regional capital Peshawar and with a population of 1.8 million, has been a hotbed of Islamist militancy over the past nearly two years.