The Swat Exodus

Fear and Taliban sympathisers follow flood of refugees from Swat
Declan Walsh in Mardan, Thursday 7 May 2009

A billboard on the verge of a country lane that glides through the wheat fields of North West Frontier province offers a hopeful vision of the future – a modern, two-storey residence advertising a smart new housing scheme. But the field behind the billboard presents a darker but truer picture of what this corner of Pakistan has become: the overflow of a battle zone.

Instead of smart new houses, the building site is filled with rows of newly pitched tents where desperate, dispossessed people, full of tales of civilian casualties and abuses at the hands of black-turbaned Taliban fighters, have come to seek refuge.

Among them is Imran Khan, a 24-year-old textile worker who fled the Swat valley two days ago after a stray army shell landed near their house, injuring several relatives. "Windows, doors, everything, was blown in," he says.

Abandoning the modest possessions they hold dear – cattle, crockery and clothes – the family stumbled through the fields on foot, dodging Taliban checkposts and a government curfew, before reaching a bus that carried them to safety. Now they are looking for a new home amid the rows of green UN tents, which are already turning into mini-ovens under the morning sun. Behind him a clutch of burka-clad women squat under an awning; a few dare to lift the veil to fan their faces.

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