(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

"Trapped" Swat civilians see little food, plenty of missiles

Families continue to pour down from northern areas, bringing what they can with them
Tariq Saeed/IRIN

The 24-hour curfew in Swat Valley, North West Frontier Province, which started on 18 May, has led to severe shortages of food, water and medicines, creating a humanitarian crisis, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).



"People trapped in the Swat conflict zone face a humanitarian catastrophe unless the Pakistani military immediately lifts a curfew that has been in place continuously for the last week," Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement on 26 May.



"The government cannot allow the local population to remain trapped without food, clean water and medicine as a tactic to defeat the Taliban," HRW said.

Shireen Zada, who works for a private TV station and visits the conflict zone regularly, told IRIN: "The people who are stuck there are facing a very real food shortage."



Asif Khan (not his real name), 55, who fled with his family of nine, from Mingora last week, told IRIN: "We had lost count of the days and nights and waited to die. There was no electricity, gas or even water. Cell phones did not work because the army had jammed communications. Except for BBC radio we were completely cut off from the rest of the world."



Mingora, Swat’s principal town, has been the scene of intense street battles between the Pakistani military and Taliban insurgents, according to media reports



"Trapped"



"An estimated 300,000 people are trapped in Swat Valley’s Miandam, Madyan, Bahrain, Kalam and Mingora [towns], which is 20 percent of the total population of the area," Lt-Col Raja Waseem Shahid of the Special Support Group (SSG) for internally displaced persons (IDPs), set up by the government, told IRIN.



Of these, 10,000-20,000 civilians are stranded in Mingora, Shahid said.



The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in a statement on 26 May that many people were still reportedly stranded in conflict zones. The curfew is only lifted for a few hours, and during this time the roads get quickly congested as people rush to flee.



"Those still there do not have the resources to flee. My neighbour has a family of 45 people. They had very little food left last week when I was leaving," said Khan.



"We survived on just lentils as the market was deserted. Another few days and we would have run out of even that," he said.












The Pakistan military, which remains active in both fighting and relief work in Swat, confirms landmines have been found in the area

Tariq Saeed/IRIN
The Pakistan military, which remains active in both fighting and relief work in Swat, confirms landmines have been found in the area
http://www.irinnews.org/photo.aspx
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
"Trapped" Swat civilians see little food, plenty of missiles ...
The Pakistan military, which remains active in both fighting and relief work in Swat, confirms landmines have been found in the area


Photo: Tariq Saeed/IRIN
Pakistani army's aid delivery to the affected people in Swat

Aid efforts



According to the SSG’s Shahid, 110 tonnes of food supplies had been distributed to civilians in Khwazakhela three days earlier. “It was good for some 160,000 people.”



Another 50 tonnes (for 80,000 people) had reached Kalam and was supposed to be distributed on 27 May after a relaxing of the curfew, Shahid told IRIN.



“We have sent four trucks comprising 40,000 ready-to-eat food packages to Mingora today. It is from the USA and is `halal’. Each package is good for 10 people,” he said.



Civilian casualties



Khan said he had decided to leave his area not because of lack of food but after witnessing “the annihilation of the village of Teeraman Dehri, with about 150 people, and livestock…



“The entire village came under heavy missile attack by the army, killing the entire population… I am a man of very strong nerves, but that day, I just broke down completely… The following day, people from adjacent villages came and buried all the dead in a mass grave.”



While what Khan said could not be independently verified, HRW said it continues to receive reports about civilian casualties from “Pakistani artillery shelling and aerial bombardments”.



The military says 1,095 militants and 63 soldiers have been killed since the fighting began, but has no data on civilian casualties.



“We are doing our best to ensure there are minimum civilian losses and that's why the operation is slow,” AFP quoted chief military spokesman Maj-Gen Athar Abbas as saying on 23 May.



The army says it may need another two weeks to clear the area of militants.



As he walked out of the city, Khan, giving a sense of the place, said the once bustling town was “like a graveyard”. The silence was broken only by the “barking of stray dogs and the braying of some donkeys”.



In the last two weeks he said he had only seen Taliban patrolling the streets. “The hospitals are bolted. There are no medicines, no doctors. All shops have their shutters down,” said Khan.



Stranded people face a cruel dilemma: If they do not flee, they may get killed in the crossfire; if not that, then they face imminent starvation, according to observers and some IDPs, including Khan.



ze/at/cb
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