MANGLA, Pakistan (Reuters) - More than 80 percent of the 2.2 million Pakistanis who fled their homes after a military offensive against the Taliban have now returned home, the government’s top relief official said on Thursday.
The fighting in North West Frontier Province has seen one of the largest internal displacements in recent times, as hundreds of thousands of people were forced to seek refuge in camps and with host communities, mostly since April.
Families began flooding back to their homes to rebuild their shattered lives after the army declared much of the conflict area safe last month.
Lieutenant-General Nadeem Ahmed said he was surprised at how quickly the counter-insurgency operations and the return process had occurred.
“As of today, more than 80 percent of the people have gone back home,” Ahmed, who is the Chairman of the Special Support Group for the displaced, told Reuters in an interview.
He dismissed concerns from aid workers who say that returnees are at risk while the army conducted mopping up operations, and said that people were helping the army hunt down remaining militants.
“They are ones who are saying to us ‘We will take you to the tunnels, we will take you to the caches, we will take to the places where they have been storing ammunition and explosives and suicide jackets’,” said Ahmed.
The Taliban took control of the former tourist beauty spot of Swat valley in 2007 and attempted to impose their own version of Sharia law -- forcing women to wear burqas, stay indoors and destroying girls’ schools.
The people were used to a less severe form of sharia and say they lived in fear of the brutal punishments carried out by the Taliban, who carried out executions and whippings in public.
Ahmed said it would take time to completely wipe out such a large-scale insurgency, but that did not mean that life could not go back to normal.
“Insurgencies don’t go away in months, they go away in decades. We have seen this in our own neighborhood -- in Sri Lanka, India and Afghanistan -- but this is the first time that we are talking about dealing with it so effectively in months.”
Humanitarians have, by and large, applauded the government’s response to this crisis.
But some say the return process may have started too early with such a huge number of people returning so quickly to areas which are not fully secure or where basic services are not fully functioning.
But Ahmed said in most areas, civil administration and law enforcement had been established, basic health care and schools were operational, and markets were open.
He expected incidents of militant violence to continue, but not on a scale to merit holding back families from returning.
“If you ask me whether it was the right time to allow people to return home, then I would say yes,” he said. “You cannot hold 2.2 million people hostage to a little insurgent incident which may or may not happen.”
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