a nakba in the making

it is unreal. it is deja-vu. i cannot believe what i am watching and reading about the massive flight of half a million pakistanis because of the united states project of state terrorism and upheaval in in the region. just take a look at this raw footage from al jazeera of pakistanis fleeing their homes in the swat valley:

both mohammed idrees pulse media and an article from the independent by andrew buncombe call this “the biggest human flood since 1947.” here is part of buncombe’s report:

Aid groups have warned of a human tide of up to 500,000 people fleeing their homes. The UN said an estimated 200,000 have fled the Swat valley and its main town, Mingora, in the past few days alone, while another 300,000 are poised to flee if they get the chance. This would create a total of one million people forced from their homes by fighting in the past 12 months. It represents the biggest internal displacement of people in Pakistan since independence more than 60 years ago.

“People are in shock. In some cases their homes have been destroyed by mortar shells. They are wondering when they’ll be able to go back. Others say they will not be able to go back,” said Antonia Paradela, an official with Unicef who interviewed Sahin and other refugees in the Sheikh Shehzad refugee camp near Mardan, a city in the south of the Swat valley. “This is the place where the families are coming. They are tired, sweaty, dusty. There are whole families crying because they have lost someone. But there is also a sense of relief to be out of the danger.”

Under mounting international pressure, the government of Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistan’s military launched this week’s operation to drive the Taliban from the former tourist destination of Swat after a controversial, three-month ceasefire with the militants fell apart. After a previous military effort failed to dislodge the militants who had extended their violent influence throughout the valley over a two year period, the government in February signed a peace deal which included an agreement to establish Sharia courts in Swat and some neighboring areas.

The Taliban, however, failed to meet its end of the agreement and lay down its arms. Indeed, emboldened by the government’s acquiescence, the militants then spread from Swat into the neighbouring and strategically important Buner valley. The army is also battling to drive the Taliban from Buner and nearby Lower Dir.

While journalists are, in effect, prevented from reaching the war zone, the military’s operation – which involves more than 5,000 troops pitched against an estimated 5,000 Taliban fighters – appears unexpectedly firm, and officials said that 140 militants had already been killed in the past two days. Some observers had wondered whether the army, trained and prepared to fight a conventional war against India, had the will or the capability to take on a well-trained guerrilla enemy.

There was also speculation whether, in the week that Barack Obama outlined his new “Af-Pak” strategy to Mr Zardari and the Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, in Washington, there may have been a reluctance to fight what could have been seen as another battle in America’s war. The Obama administration’s policy of using missiles fired from unmanned drones at suspected militant targets and the subsequent civilian “collateral damage” this causes is hugely unpopular in Pakistan.

Yet this time, several things appear different. From the start, the battle for Swat has been pitched as a battle for the future of the Pakistan – and one that has been directed by the Pakistani authorities rather than Americans. In a televised address on Thursday as the military operation was formally announced, the Prime Minister, Yousaf Gilani, said: “In order to restore honour and dignity of the country, the armed forces have been called in to eliminate militants and terrorists. We will eliminate those who have tried to destroy the peace of the country.”

The seemingly widespread support for this operation, as opposed to Washington’s drone strikes, appears based in large part on growing public dismay with the Taliban. With the Taliban having embarked on a policy of burning girls’ schools and beheading their opponents, only to be “rewarded” with a deal that saw Sharia law enacted, the Pakistani public is growing more anxious as the militants’ threat has increased rather than reduced.

Those involved in brokering the ceasefire say the Taliban have now exposed their true colours and must be dealt with by force. “What the people know is that we tried everything possible. The Taliban had their own agenda and that has become clear to people,” said Bushra Gohar, the vice-president of the Awami National Party, which heads the regional government in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). “We hope this will be a clearly targeted operation that will go after the training camps and the leadership.”

Analysts say the operation to drive the militants from Swat and then hold the ground to allow the return of a civilian administration could take months. With the militants having established themselves across Swat’s mountainous terrain over the past two years, even if the military succeeds in forcing them from Mingora and other towns, the Taliban could retreat to smaller adjacent valleys and strike back with bomb attacks on convoys, checkpoints and military camps. It is also likely that the militants could increase suicide strikes on targets outside Swat to act as a diversion.

Some commentators have speculated that in such circumstances, an inconclusive but bloody campaign with a large number of civilian casualties would undermine public support for the operation. The army says it is determined to succeed. “The army is now engaged in a full-scale operation to eliminate the militants, miscreants and anti-state elements from Swat,” said the army’s spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas. “They are on the run and trying to block the exodus of civilians from the area.”

As a result, hundreds of thousands more people like Sahin are likely to be rushing desperately out of Swat and towards the refugee camps at the southern end of the valley in the coming days. At the moment, only a tiny fraction of the displaced are being housed in the camps – the majority being able to stay with relatives or in rented rooms – but in the coming weeks that could change.

Sahin, her children and some other members of her family have nowhere else to go. Five months ago, when an earlier spike in violence drove them from Swat, they were able to stay with relatives in Peshawar. This time, that option was not available to them, she said. For now the family must sit amid the tents of the camp at Sheikh Shehzad, waiting and wondering.

al jazeera further reports of the humanitarian crisis as a result of the flood of internally displaced people:

The announcement by the Pakistani military covers the towns of Mingora, Kamabar and Kabal.

Tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians in the Swat valley have found themselves trapped amid worsening fighting between government forces and the Taliban.

Bodies were reported to be lying in roads, homes reduced to ruins and people left cowering with no means of escape after the military imposed curfews across the region amid the fighting.

“Anger is growing that the government did not give the citizens adequate warning to escape,” Hyder reported.

“Many people are saying their government has abandoned them … what is unfolding here is the tip of the iceberg, the worst is yet to come.”

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have already fled the fighting.

But Hyder said those who have fled the fighting are in refugee camps and receiving little government help.

al jazeera’s sohail rahman reports on this refugee crisis in the swat valley:

m. junaid levesque-alam offers some insight into the current crisis in pakistan, particularly the u.s. role in this crisis which many people seem to leave by the wayside forgetting who started this problem to begin with.

I often wondered what would happen to those whose misery I impotently observed; those left for decades without the housing, food or education I was afforded. History has now caught up to the present and supplied us the answer in the form of the Taliban.

The militants, of course, assert that they are simply bringing “true Islam” to Pakistan. Even a cursory glance at Islamic precepts and the Prophet Muhammad’s own example reveal an ethos sharply at odds with the Taliban’s harsh practices which, more than anything else, reflect a history of Pashtun tribalism that precedes Islam’s arrival by centuries and constitutes the militants’ base.

The Taliban’s ascent is not a failure of Islam, but rather the failure of the Pakistani national project to fulfill the basic functions of a sovereign state; to heed the call of its great poets, who denounced inequality and called for a revival and modernization of Islamic thought.

Most Americans are, understandably, more interested in results than reasons: As the Taliban limns the outlines of Pakistan’s demise with the unforgiving scalpel of extremism, will Pakistan confront this force, or succumb to it?

It is difficult to say. Ironically, it is America’s own mode of involvement that harms its interests: Our only visible contributions there today are drones, missiles and destruction. This has produced a polarizing effect whereby any force that opposes America — regardless of its real aims — elicits sympathy from sectors of the military and the rural masses.

Pakistan may be willing to plunge a sword through its heart just to pierce the skin of American interventionism, a case of spite through national suicide.

It is also impossible to know when a people will say enough is enough. While it’s incomprehensible to most of us that any government could comport with the Taliban and its horrors, it is worth remembering that America was willing to permit the horror of slavery for almost 100 years until the slave states declared secession and initiated war.

there are certainly all sorts of recent and past horrors that this fighting and flight reminds one of. here is a brief reflection of the partition, which is, in part, what this exodus makes me think of, by arundhati roy:

The Radcliffe Line, which separated India and Pakistan and tore through states, districts, villages, fields, communities, water systems, homes and families, was drawn virtually overnight. It was Britain’s final, parting kick to us. Partition triggered the massacre of more than a million people and the largest migration of a human population in contemporary history. Eight million people, Hindus fleeing the new Pakistan, Muslims fleeing the new kind of India left their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

that flight–that initial flight–was every bit as much of a nakba as the one following it in 1948 when palestinians were uprooted from their land and homes and many massacred as well. i watched deepa mehta’s disturbing, though beautiful, film earth again last night, which is based on the wonderful novel cracking india by bapsi sidhwa. i highly recommend the novel and the film–so many lessons, reminders for us not to repeat the past. here is a trailer of the film:

of course now we are not seeing–yet, anyway–that large scale massacre, but we are seeing that level of large scale stream of refugees. and given that all of this started with the united states bombing afghanistan and pakistan (albeit the latter is undeclared) it seems to me that the united states should take responsibility for this flood of refugees and this new humanitarian crisis that it created. under international law the one state initiating the armed conflict is responsible for the refugees it creates in the process. of course, the united states has found all sorts of ways to get out of its responsibility with respect to iraqi refugees so it’s not like it will be stepping up to the plate in pakistan either. but i think the issue should be raised, especially as various united nations agencies are indicating that there is a serious lack of all sorts of basics for pakastani internally displaced people.

2 thoughts on “a nakba in the making

  1. I asked local Pakistani friends in the military if they agreed with your statement “….because of the united states project of state terrorism and upheaval in in the region”.

    They do not.

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