‘Both sides were firing mortar shells — an inaccurate weapon that often hits targets other than the intended one.’ — AP
MARDAN: Moabullah dragged the dead in his wheelbarrow for burial behind a girl’s school. There were about 30 bodies, he says, many blown apart in fighting between the Pakistan army and Taliban militants in the Swat Valley.
As Pakistan fights to take back the valley and other parts of the northwest, residents fleeing the fighting are pouring into hospitals and refugee camps. Many, like Moabullah, are telling their stories to anyone who will listen.
Taken together, their accounts — along with those of aid workers and hospital staff — suggest significant civilian casualties, mostly as a result of aerial raids by an army more equipped for conventional war with India than guerrilla warfare with the Taliban.
The Associated Press conducted more than 150 interviews in refugee camps from Mardan to Swabi, at hospitals and basic health units as well as into the battle zone in Buner to seek a picture of the plight of civilians amid the combat.
No independent tallies of the dead have been conducted. Aid groups like the international Red Cross and US-based Human Rights Watch say such a task is impossible until they are able to enter most parts of the roughly 4,000-square-mile area of fighting — about four times the size of Hawaii.
But the very perception among villagers of the causes of widespread killings, injuries and damage to homes could undermine popular support needed for the US-backed Pakistan army campaign and possibly generate sympathy for the insurgency.
‘Civilian casualties are much higher than those of either the army or the Taliban,’ said Ali Bakt, speaking at a hospital in the northwestern capital of Peshawar after fleeing the Taliban mountain stronghold of Peochar.
He said both sides were firing mortar shells — an inaccurate weapon that often hits targets other than the intended one.
Yusuf, a 21-year-old man who fled the fighting in Buner, said he supported the military operation but was fed up with the civilian casualties.
‘It’s good to take action against the Taliban, but there is a problem for civilians,’ said Yusuf, who like many in the Pakistani frontier region offers only one name. He recalled the killings of 10 people whose bodies could not be recovered for three days because of the fighting.
The army is not releasing tolls of civilian casualties, but insists they are minimal and that it is doing everything possible to avoid causing them.
‘In our judgment there are very few casualties,’ military spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas said, emphasizing the main targets are militant training camps and their mountain hide-outs. ‘But even if we are fighting in a populated area, we are using precision strikes.’
At a government-run hospital in the town of Mardan just south of the Swat Valley, Moabullah gave his account of the carnage.
‘I myself put the bodies in the wheelbarrow and took them to a graveyard behind a girls’ school,’ Moabullah said as he held the hand of his dehydrated nine-year-old son, Abu Bakr, who was lying in a rancid-smelling bed.
Intravenous drips from makeshift poles were nourishing the thin boy and, in the next bed, an elderly gentleman who appeared to be malnourished and barely breathing.
The old man’s nephew, Nawab Ali, said they fled their homes in the Swat Valley’s main city of Mingora on May 22, defying an army-imposed curfew. They had run out of food, and water supplies were low.
‘People were coming on foot. We had just reached near the village of Abwa when the army fired on us. Six people were killed and seven others hurt. I saw this myself,’ Ali said. ‘The army was trying to hit the Taliban but hit civilians trying to flee instead.’
Four women were killed including the mother of a four-month-old baby, whose grandfather carried him to safety, according to Ali.
The AP interviews suggest that many casualties occurred after residents defied the curfew to flee their homes, often out of desperation because of little food, water or medical aid. Most villagers blamed the casualties on government aerial assaults and missile attacks. They said they were either caught in the crossfire or targeted for defying the curfew.
But villagers also recounted, particularly in Mingora, Taliban refusing to allow people to leave because the militants wanted to use the civilians as human shields, according to Ali Dayan Hasan, Human Rights Watch’s Pakistan representative.
Hasan said he had a report that militants slit the throat of one man after he said he told soldiers there were no Taliban in his village. The Taliban didn’t believe his account of what he’d said to the army.
The army launched its offensive to oust the Taliban nearly a month ago after a peace deal soured and Taliban streamed out of their Swat Valley stronghold to take over neighbouring regions. So far, the fighting has caused 1.5 million people to flee.
The military claims to have killed more than 1,000 Taliban fighters, a figure that cannot be independently verified, and says more than 50 soldiers have also died.
The International Committee for the Red Cross said it fears the fighting has taken a high toll on civilians but that verification is impossible in most parts of the battle zone. In areas it has been able to enter like Dagar in Buner the Red Cross has treated 240 war wounded, said spokesman Sebastian Brack.
In the emergency room at The Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar, a dirt-smeared admission ledger indicates the majority of the wounded were from Swat, Dargai, Buner and Dir, where the heaviest fighting has taken place.
In one week the hospital received more than 50 victims including a three-year-old, two 13-year-olds and a 10-year-old from Swat.
Most, like sweets salesman Saddar Ali of the Shah Deri area in Swat, had shrapnel wounds while fleeing in defiance of the curfew. Four relatives carried Ali into the emergency room. He was then laid gently on a stretcher covered with a hot, sticky, brown plastic sheet.
Khan Maluk, 50, said most of the sun-baked mud homes in Fizaqat, not far from Mingora, were destroyed in blistering shelling.
‘One of my relatives died and the security guard was killed,’ he said as he watched over his mentally handicapped son, who had an arm wound. The young man rocked back and forth, crying and moaning as his father spoke.
Lying on a bed, his head propped up by a handful of rags, 20-year-old Saddam Hussein — the name is not that unusual in the Muslim world — said he too was wounded when he defied the curfew.
His family had fled their Kalam home in the Swat Valley during a previous army operation against the militants, then returned within days of a peace accord last month. When the new fighting broke out, Hussein, a day labourer, packed up and left, hoping to find work.
Left behind and trapped in their home were his mother, brothers and sisters.
‘It’s been eight days now since I have heard from my family. The last phone call I received, they said they had nothing to eat and to send them something,’ he said. ‘Since then I have had no contact.’
In another small hospital room, more than eight patients crowded into four beds.
Jahan, a middle-aged woman wrapped in a pale green chador, said jets bombed Pir Aman Qilla, just next door to her village in Takhtabund.
‘I could see 10 houses were destroyed,’ Jahan said. ‘But we couldn’t leave our homes. We couldn’t find the dead.’
A patient at the Mardan hospital, Ziaullah Khan, said he heard aircraft overhead in the Buner town of Pir Baba after fleeing his Mingora home.
‘Then we came under fire,’ Khan said. ‘We were using a back road. Five vehicles were hit. One van had 15 people from one family in it. But our van was still running. We had to leave. We couldn’t stop.’
The stories were similar at a dusty, wind-swept refugee camp on the edge of Mardan.
Hayat Khan, of Odigram village in the Swat Valley, said he lost his niece to the fighting: ‘In front of me, two or three were killed by the army,’ he said.
Fazlur Rahman, who fled from Dir, said ‘350 homes in our village was destroyed. You can decide from that how many are dead, and the others can’t move because of the curfew.’
Another refugee, Sirajuddin, said he fled Gumbatmera village in the Swat Valley on May 20 after military jets pounded the area, destroying a large number of homes.
‘I am a local and I know who is there and who was in the houses. For some 24 days it has been going on. I went to seven funerals in two days and one time we all ran away because of the jets. What I know is that in the destroyed houses there are people who are dead. But we can’t get to them.’
Afzal, a 65-year-old wearing a beard dyed bright red with henna, said he saw soldiers fire shells at two vehicles that were defying the curfew to harvest wheat.
‘Maybe they thought they were Taliban,’ he said. ‘We don’t know about army or Taliban — but we know lots of civilians are dying.’