Image: Displaced Pakistanis
Emilio Morenatti  /  AP
Pakistani people from the Bajur tribal region receive donated food Saturday in a vocational school building on the outskirts of Charsadda, Pakistan. It's one of more than 20 relief camps the government says are for displaced people.
updated 8/23/2008 6:18:08 PM ET 2008-08-23T22:18:08

Some of the women were eating lunch, while others were busy making bread.

Then, the bombs fell like rain.

Pakistan's latest military offensive against Taliban-led insurgents in its northwest had reached 60-year-old Haya Bibi and her extended family. They soon abandoned their mud homes in the Bajur tribal region and joined an exodus of tens of thousands of civilians walking and driving across rugged terrain to escape a 17-day operation some now call a war.

Bibi and some 45 relatives have spent the past week in sweltering, mosquito-infested tents in Pir Piai village near Peshawar city in one of more than 20 relief camps the government says are for the displaced.

'We don't want the fighting'
Like others among the nearly 1,000 people at this camp, Bibi won't utter a critical word about the masked militants in her area. Pressed on whether she blames the government or the Taliban for her current state, she diplomatically says both, and requests the two sides try to work things out peacefully.

"We are the sufferers," a tearful Bibi says, fingering prayer beads while surrounded by a crowd of nodding relatives. "We don't want the fighting."

Aiding — and not disillusioning — those displaced by the war on terror is a huge challenge facing Pakistan as it tries to wipe out the insurgent presence in Bajur, a rumored hiding place for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri.

U.S. officials say tribal regions such as Bajur are turning into safe havens for militants involved in attacks on American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Image: A Pakistani man and his baby
Emilio Morenatti  /  AP
A Pakistani man from the Bajur tribal region holds his baby in a vocational school building, one of more than 20 relief camps the government says are for displaced people on the outskirts of Charsadda town, Pakistan, on Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008.
Pakistani officials have been reluctant to divulge details of the operation in Bajur. Death tolls given more than a week ago put the number of suspected insurgents dead at more than 460 along with 22 paramilitary troops killed. No civilian death toll was given, though witnesses have reported dozens.

The information has been difficult to confirm because of the remote, dangerous nature of the fiercely independent and deeply conservative tribal areas, where the federal government has long had limited authority.

But if the numbers given so far are accurate, it is one of the bloodiest episodes since Pakistan first deployed its troops along its volatile border with Afghanistan in support of the U.S.-led war on terror nearly seven years ago.

Attempts to reach the army spokesman Saturday were not immediately successful. But previously officials have said army helicopter gunships and jets have been pounding militant positions since Aug. 6, when scores of insurgents attacked a military outpost.

Exceptional political turbulence
The offensive comes amid exceptional political turbulence. Pervez Musharraf, a stalwart supporter of the U.S. in the war on terror, recently was forced to resign as president, and the young ruling coalition is on the brink of collapse.

And in Washington, American officials are worried about the new civilian government's resolve to fight militants.

Estimates vary, but at least 50,000 to possibly more than 200,000 people have fled Bajur and nearby Mohmand tribal region, officials say. Many are staying with relatives, while others are at camps facing difficult conditions and the prospect of disease.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said thousands of people had also shifted across the border into Afghanistan.

The U.S., which has pressed Pakistan to forcefully crack down on insurgents in its tribal belt, has declared the resulting civilian uprooting a "disaster" situation, and given $50,000 for aid such as gas stoves and utensils.

The conditions in the two camps visited by The Associated Press were dismal.

In Bibi's camp, for instance, the nearly 1,000 people, more than half of them children, are crowded into classrooms and tents in a school compound. Babies' skins were red raw with mosquito bites. In the sweltering heat, one woman lay shivering under a blanket — a sign of the malaria medical officials say has sprung up.

More families arriving daily
Diarrhea is ravaging the population, camp officials said, and the smell of fecal matters hangs in the air. There's no air conditioning, which is especially tough on women, who are trying to observe their cultural and religious traditions of staying indoors and out of the sight of unrelated men.

Every day, more families are arriving. On Friday, children helped clear grass to allow space to set up more tents.

"It is so hard here," said Jamshid Khan, a 20-something with a bum leg who reached the camp five days ago. "We want to go back as soon as possible."

Pakistan's Taliban movement, meanwhile, has claimed responsibility for at least three major attacks in recent days, calling them revenge for the Bajur operation and a military offensive in Swat. One attack, a twin suicide bombing at a weapons manufacturing complex near the capital, Islamabad, killed 67 people.

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, which lies next to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and is absorbing many of the displaced, called the civilian exodus a "gesture of cooperation from the local people," to allow the operation against the insurgents to avoid "collateral damage."

"To us, the main objective is to bring peace and stability in this area," he said. "We will fight until the last victory."

No open criticism of Taliban
In interviews at two camps visited by the AP, virtually no one would criticize the Taliban or openly support the military action.

It was difficult to say why — whether they were scared, sympathetic, or genuinely not bothered by the insurgents, or whether tribal loyalties wouldn't allow them to speak ill of the militants to a foreigner.

Did the Taliban force them to give up male members to fight the jihad? "No."

Did the Taliban threaten the people? "No — they leave us alone, and we leave them alone."

Did the Taliban punish men without beards or women who wandered out alone? "No ... they might encourage people to observe Islamic law, but most of us do so anyway."

Is the Interior Ministry chief correct when he says more than 3,000 armed militants — many of them from other countries — are in Bajur? "We don't want to take sides."

Three women, including Bibi, said they saw militants offer to pay drivers to give lifts to civilians trying to escape.

Sartaj Khan, a slender 21-year-old with a sad face in the Pir Piai camp, said, "If anybody says anything bad about the Taliban, they'll go after them."

Military operation could bring Taliban support
Not far away, in a separate camp on the outskirts of Charsadda town, more than 150 people are staying in classrooms in a vocational school building.

Khan Wali, a 29-year-old with one wife and four children, said the military operation could lead to more sympathy for the Taliban.

"Why is the government bombing our homes? The Taliban want to bring peace to the area," he said.

He and others also decried suspected U.S. missile strikes that they said have killed innocent people in compounds allegedly inhabited by Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.

"It is because of these atrocities that people are giving the militants more and more sympathy," said Mohammad Shoaib, a 23-year-old manual laborer.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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