BANNU: In the dusty, sun-baked streets of Bannu, thousands of people who have fled a major military offensive in the North Waziristan tribal district wait anxiously for news of loved ones left behind.
Many speak of civilian casualties in the air strikes which were mounted before the formal start of the operation on Sunday. Others questioned the utility of an offensive which was telegraphed to militants weeks in advance, allowing them to slip away. The bustling walled town of Bannu, some 10 kilometres from the border with North Waziristan, is accustomed to sudden influxes of civilians fleeing the regular eruptions of violence in the tribal areas which are havens for militants.
Rents in the town have soared along with the temperature as local landlords and hotels take advantage of the latest flow of refugees, who began coming in late May following air strikes. Raza Ullah, 10, fled Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan, along with seven family members. But his father, a tribal elder, was left behind. “We have had no contact with him since the launch of the operation, we are worried about him,” he told AFP. “Father was urging us to leave as soon as possible. I miss my school and schoolfriends.”
Pakistan Army has said around 200 militants have died since a long-awaited offensive began on Sunday, a week after an all-night siege on Karachi airport claimed by the Taliban. It has been impossible to verify the toll independently or the identity of those killed. Hundreds of tribesmen crowded around a bus-stop in the town’s main bazaar Tuesday, hoping their loved ones would arrive soon by the lone road that links Bannu to the tribal zone. Laver Khan, a trader from Datta Khel village, fled to Bannu five days ago and rented a house for his 25-strong family.
Now another 75 people from his village have also taken shelter in the cramped house, he said. “They (authorities) should have given us a chance to vacate our areas,” Khan said. The army has imposed a curfew and issued shoot-on-sight orders for anyone leaving their homes in the fighting zone. “I haven’t contacted them since days, I am worried what is happening there,” he said. Haji Saleem Khan, a 60-year-old from Shawa village who owns a transport business, said he visited Bannu’s taxi-stand every day to find out whether the road to the tribal area had opened to civilian traffic.
He said he plans to take a taxi to collect his relatives as soon as the curfew is lifted. But Saleem questioned why tanks, troops and jets were bombing the area when the fighters there had already left. “Why did they begin this operation so late? Most of the militants has already fled, those leaving behind are non-combatants,” he told AFP. Like many others, Saleem also suggested that the air strikes were not as surgical as the military claimed. “They killed women and children in the air strikes, I myself took out dead bodies from under the rubble,” he said.
Zahidullah Khan, 31 from Mir Ali, said he would prefer drone strikes – a controversial view in Pakistan where the unmanned US aircraft are highly controversial. “A US drone hits its target accurately and does not cause other damages but jet fighters smash everything,” Khan told AFP. An AFP reporter in Bannu said landlords had doubled their rents and hotel-owners had increased rates fivefold to take advantage of the influx. Some 62,000 people are believed to have fled North Waziristan ahead of the operation, according to government figures, though many consider the true figure to be far higher. The government is building camps just outside Bannu, but in the blistering summer heat — 47 degrees C on Monday – refugees are avoiding them because of the lack of shade, electricity and running water.
Muhammad Rashid Dawar, a 42-year-old labourer, said he could not afford to rent accommodation and did not want to go to a camp, instead taking his wife and six children to a school that was closed for summer. He said he decided to leave in late May following air strikes. “There was a huge bombardment, the whole village shook like an earthquake. “I saw women and children buried under the wreckage of their houses and I knew it was time we must go.”
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