Artillery takes no prisoners. Nor is it the most discriminating weaponry when targeting agile fighters like the extremist militants plaguing Pakistan's north-western region, lying contiguous to Afghanistan.
But artillery, through necessity, has been the weapon of choice for the Pakistani army in dealing with the threat posed by the militants who have slowly, deliberately yet determinedly, set up shop in Pakistan's North Western areas. The artillery was complemented by jets fighters, which in urban centers and village compounds are as undiscerning as artillery can be. With decades of military build-up designed expressly to keep larger and better equipped India at bay, Pakistan's military forces were neither prepared nor ready for urban conflict against guerrilla groups. They resorted to the tactics they were familiar with. These tactics took out their targets, but also played havoc with civic infrastructure and civilian property. And the indigenous people in the warzone suddenly found themselves entrapped in a conflagration involving high explosives and howitzers.
At the advice of the provincial and local governments as well as the army, families started moving out of battle zones, - in part for their own safety, but also to ensure the army would have an easier time pounding the well-nested Islamists who remained behind.
Given a brief time period of approximately 60 days, the proportions of this mass migration are staggering. Independent estimates by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) placed the number of IDPs (Internally Displaced People) at 2.2 million. Of this, some 20 percent found shelter in government organized refugee camps - still sufficient to overwhelm facilities and give rise to acute water and food shortages.
It was the Pushtun* culture of hospitality that helped avert a complete humanitarian disaster and loss of human life. Roughly 1.76 million IDPs, about 80 percent of the total IDP estimate, found shelter with friends and extended family, and never reported in to official camps.
The pages have turned, and the chapter has changed. The militant threat in Swat has been neutralized to a large extent, though the more north-western areas of Pakistan are still not free of this particular Islamist breed of militants.
In a bid to ensure that local and international audiences are left in no doubt about the efficiency of the operation, the IDPs are being invited back by army and government officials as a demonstration that the theater of operations has been secured and the militant apparatus dismantled.
The Pakistani government has managed well the attention-grabbing military operation lauded by the international community. It has handled adroitly the large public relations opportunities demonstrating its willingness and desire to move against a common international threat. Now it must demonstrate its commitment to resettling those the military operation has dislocated. But there has always been a distinct tendency for our governments to move on to the next big thing once the cameras stop rolling, and public attention starts to seep away.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), the government launched an IDP return program for the Swat valley and neighboring areas on July 13th 2009. The program is phased, commencing with over 20 camps housing 280,000 IDPs temporarily.
The IDPs are trickling back, but personal accounts and anecdotal evidence point to what can be a harrowing return.
Families tell of stories where they had to make the trip twice - moving back to their homes only to find the area not secure and having to trek back towards the refuge camps . There are also reports of over 300 displaced families being stranded on a bridge as security forces launch further search missions.
Those that make it back eventually also deal with plenty of shocks. Artillery and jets, hardly precision instruments, make quite a mess. Many families sob about their only key asset- their house - being left a charred husk of cracked bricks. Others tell of businesses and shops being shelled into oblivion along with the militants once using them as cover.
Then there is the issue of basic civil amenities. While the government has reconnected water and power to some areas, many families return to find neither. Coupled with a lack of food due to interrupted supply lines and rotting stock in unopened shops, the IDP narrative is never a pleasant one.
Statistics on the exact number of disenfranchised IDPs is not readily available. The army is keen to point out that civilian deaths and collateral infrastructure damage were kept exceedingly low, and there is no political will to mount a thorough tally of damage done.
The AHRC points to the risk that IDPs can be marginalized from national discourse. But the problem here runs deeper. It was the historic lack of government involvement and social alienation that allowed Islamic militants gain a foothold in the North-Western regions in the first place. The Islamists offered people a more promising social discourse and, left begging for alternatives, they tolerated extremist presence in their midst.
The time is now to correct a historic imbalance. Failure at this prosaic, sundry yet all-important final phase will only lay the groundwork for more alienation, and leave a disenfranchised people fertile to advances made by alternative ideologies. Democracy and freedom cannot be mere ideals but must offer functional advantages for the marginalized to embrace with. With any gaps left by government initiatives for IDP resettlement plugged by civil society, this is a golden opportunity to redress the inequities of previous years. But will we latch on to it with both hands? Or would we rather prepare instead for more trouble from this region in months and years ahead?
* Pashtuns are mountain people living in the eastern regions of Afghanistan and the north-western regions of Pakistan.
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