Mohammad Jameel, aged around 30, along with his extended family of 35 people, is among thousands of local residents forced to flee their village in the restive Bajaur tribal agency, north of Peshawar.
The rate of displacements has picked up since last week, when the Pakistani authorities launched a military operation against pro-Taliban militants in the area, say residents.
"We hired three big vans, each costing Rs 1,000 [about US$14] per trip and reached Lower Dir safely," said Jameel, speaking in Timergarah, the main town of the district that borders on Bajaur to the east. They were able to take along some household items and Jameel intends to return to Bajaur (in North West Frontier Province - NWFP) to fetch more stuff.
He saw hundreds fleeing on foot, in some cases covering distances of up to 40km. "There were women, children and even the elderly. Not everyone can afford a vehicle. They had left their homes with nothing, just the clothes they were wearing," he said.
Bajaur is one of seven agencies in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in northwest Pakistan. The area is among the least developed, and is deeply conservative and poverty ridden, say observers. Six of the seven agencies - North and South Waziristan, Kurram, Orakzai, Khyber, Mohmand and Bajaur - share a border with Afghanistan.
Photo: Abdullah Shaheen/IRIN
|Officials say there are over 3,000 armed militants in the area, most of whom are reportedly foreigners - Chechens, Yemenis, Afghans and Afro-Asians|
Briefing the media recently, NWFP Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani said that since the operation began, 462 militants and 22 soldiers had been killed. The action came after threats by militants of violence against cities.
According to official sources, over 3,000 armed militants, most of whom are reportedly foreigners - Chechens, Yemenis, Afghans and Afro-Asians - need to be weeded out. Religious parties say the operation is being carried out at the behest of the USA.
Jameel said local people had lost faith in both sides. "Militancy has increased and we are forced to accept their version of Sharia [Islamic law]. On the other hand, the government, which is allied with the USA is also not bothered by our plight," he said.
Memories of a 2006 air-strike on a seminary in Damadola, in Bajaur, in which around 82 students, some of them children, were killed, are still fresh in many minds. The government took responsibility for the attack.
Jameel, currently staying at a cousin's home, has begun looking for a place to live, as he feels it will be some time before he can return to Bajaur.
Photo: Hazrat Bahar/IRIN
|The displaced civilians, including children, need foodn and non-food relief items, say officials|
For now he is also without work. "My TV channel wants me to send footage of what is happening in Bajaur but I'm scared stiff. Many people I know have been beheaded by the Taliban on the mere suspicion of spying," he said.
Along with the people of Lower Dir, who opened up their homes to those fleeing Bajaur, the first ones to provide shelter and set up camps for the IDPs were, according to Mohammad Javed, working with the government's Social Welfare Department (SWD), and political parties.
400,000 seek refuge in Lower Dir
In the last two weeks, about 400,000 people have left their homes and found refuge in Lower Dir, estimated Sultan Room Badshah, relief officer with the SWD, who is looking after six camps.
Talking to the media, provincial relief commissioner, Jamil Amjad, termed this the biggest internal displacement in Pakistan's history and acknowledged that over 250,000 individuals had been displaced from Bajaur, with more continuing to leave. The NWFP government has set up 17 relief camps.
The relief commissioner (Amjad) said the NWFP government had so far announced Rs13.5 million (about $183,673) for the rehabilitation and relief of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the federal government had pledged Rs100 million (roughly $1.4 million) and 50 trucks of relief goods for the displaced. Similarly, the FATA Secretariat in Peshawar had announced Rs1 million (about $14,285) for medicines.
The SWD’s Badshah, who is supervising six camps for the IDPs in Jandool, said the government was unable to manage the large influx: "There seems to be no let-up in the number of people coming in every day. People prefer to stay with relatives and friends. Those who cannot, are setting up makeshift tents wherever they find an open place, even along roadsides. We are thinking of setting up tent villages if the influx does not stop."
Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
|The government has closed down all schools and colleges to accommodate the refugees in those buildings|
As a contingency step, the government has closed down all schools and colleges to accommodate the refugees in those buildings.
It's been a tough week for Lal Zada, 26, and his extended family of 15, who fled from the village of Jani Shah, in Bajaur's Mamoond Tehsil administrative unit. "We started walking from our village around midnight and reached the camp around 10 the next morning."
They are among the 4,000 taking shelter at a school in Samarbagh in Satbar Killay, Lower Dir. His parents remain in the village "because somebody needs to feed the animals or they will die", said Lal Zada.
"Between 18 and 20 women and children sleep in the classrooms that are 8x6 metres, while the men sleep outside on the adjoining verandahs," he said. "There's no latrine and no water," he said, adding that they had to fetch water from a spring about 2km away.
Badshah said: "Yes, there is an acute shortage of water in most of these camps as we don't have storage tanks to cater for so many people."
The situation has been aggravated by the inclement weather. "There has been an increase of children suffering from malaria and many are complaining of diarrhoea as well," said Badshah.
"These people are used to `roti’ [unleavened bread] but we are providing them with rice and lentils, and they cannot adapt to this change of diet," he said.
"The flour is there but there is no facility to bake the bread [in earthenware ovens called `tandoor’] for so many people," he said.