Pakistan announced the start of a full-on military offensive on
Sunday to quash an increasingly assertive Taliban insurgency in the
ethnic Pashtun region, the base of some of the country's most feared
al Qaeda-linked militants.
Troops have since encircled the mountainous region on the Afghan
border and fighter jets have pounded villages and militant hideouts,
sending a wave of panicked refugees spilling into the nearby region
of Bannu, as well as Afghanistan.
For tens of thousands of people now massing in camps and private
houses in Bannu, living under army control was as frightening a
prospect as living in the Taliban's shadow.
"Waziristan was our paradise but the Taliban and security forces
turned it into a hell," said Khair Mohammad, 48, a farmer who
brought 20 members of his extended family to Bannu in a wagon pulled
by a tractor.
"I didn't want to leave but my children developed serious mental
problems because of the bombings by fighter jets and heavy artillery
shelling by security forces there."
The Pakistani Taliban are deeply entrenched in the complex tribal
patchwork of North Waziristan's society, blending into the populace
and hard to distinguish from ordinary residents.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government have tried to engage
those they see as moderate Taliban in ceasefire talks but those
efforts collapsed after a dramatic Taliban attack this month on
Pakistan's biggest airport in Karachi.
Some refugees said the most feared militants had disappeared
overnight as soon as the operation was announced.
"It's very strange that those Taliban considered as anti-state
disappeared mysteriously, but security forces continued to conduct
raids on our houses and harass innocent people," said bank manager
Wali Khan, 47.
"Why didn't they come out of their walled (army) compounds when the
Taliban fighters were still in the town?"
He said he and other refugees had enough time to pack only the
essentials for their journey and no one could say when they might be
able to return home.
Breaking into tears, Khan added: "If I could, I would have brought
my cow and other cattle. We left them behind and it was like leaving
Residents of the North Waziristan capital of Miranshah said more
than two-thirds of families had left by Thursday, with some
disappearing into the mountains.
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Long queues stretched out of refugee centers where residents must
register before leaving, as people waited for hours under the
scorching sun. Women, some barefoot, used their head-to-toe burkas
to shield children from the heat.
The Pakistani army has launched
daily air strikes in North Waziristan but a full-scale ground
offensive has yet to start.
It relaxed the day-long curfew on Wednesday to allow local residents
to leave, triggering a sudden exodus into Bannu as well as
Afghanistan's province of Khost where officials said at least 10,000
refugees were now seeking shelter.
Officials in Bannu and nearby areas have registered 70,000
refugees, but the number is likely to rise as more people trickle
out of North Waziristan.
The government has set up camps and refugee registration centers to
control the flow, but some people said they would not use state
facilities for fear of Taliban retribution.
"The Taliban have their informants everywhere, even at the
registration centers and government departments," said Abdul Wasey,
32, who described himself as a science student.
"That is why we would rather die than receive any help from the
Others complained the government was doing too little.
"The government is treating us badly. We have done nothing. Those
who were involved in militant activities have already fled," Abdul
Rehman, 50, a resident of Miranshah, told Reuters. "Why we are being
punished for someone else’s crime?"
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)
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