With his four children, Khurram Ahmed, 36, huddles around a fire in his cousin's house in the mountain city of Abbotabad, in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Temperatures have fallen to zero degrees Centigrade and Khurram's children, the eldest aged 12, complain of "always being cold".
There is a shortage of warm bedding in a house that normally accommodated five prior to the arrival of Khurram's family, which arrived two weeks ago.
"We all wish to return to our home, in a village near the town of Matta in the Swat Valley. But our house was damaged by army bombing and it is impossible to live in it yet. We will repair it in spring, after the winter," says Khurram.
By then, Khurram also hopes to have saved up enough money to replace some of the belongings he has lost.
"We saved our TV and a cassette player, but we lost so many other things - including my sewing machine, our clothes and my pots and pans," said Razika Bibi, 30, Khurram's wife.
The scenic Swat Valley, 250km northwest of Abbotabad, has for over a month been the setting for violent clashes between government forces and pro-Taliban militants, led by Maulana Fazalullah - a religious leader who has made attempts to establish his own writ over the area.
Over the past two weeks fighting has died down, with many of the militants’ strongholds taken over, but residents of Swat Valley, home to around 1.5 million people, have paid a heavy price, residents and non-governmental organisations say.
"According to what preliminary data we have, over 1,000 houses have been damaged or destroyed and there have been at least 400 civilian casualties," Shaukat Saleem, core group coordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told IRIN from Swat.
This belies an official death toll of 230 civilians and 90 military personnel killed.
Much of the destruction was caused by heavy use of helicopter gunships against villages believed by the Pakistan military to harbour militants.
However, Sher Muhammad Khan, a Swat-based activist, described the bombing as “indiscriminate”, particularly in hilly areas where villages were bombed and houses destroyed. He said a curfew in the area made it difficult to assess the full scale of the damage.
"For years, we faced difficulties due to the militants whose actions drove away tourists and deprived us of a major source of income. Therefore we supported the military action, but it also caused great destruction," Afsar Khan, 30, a resident of the Miandam tourist area, said.
Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
|Extremist elements in Swat have been urging parents to send their children to Islamic schools|
Afsar, whose family remains in Swat, has travelled to Abbotabad - about 116km north of Islamabad - to find work, as tourism was not expected to resume in the affected areas of Swat for at least a year.
Estimates vary as to the extent of displacement, but at the height of the conflict, some reports suggested that up to 60 percent of people in the valley had fled, mainly to the homes of friends and relatives.
But many have since returned, although some have chosen to move out of the area altogether.
"Who knows when things will become violent here again," said Sher Mir, 45, a bus driver from the Kalam area in Swat, who hopes to move to Islamabad or Peshawar in the near future.
Schools affected, children traumatised
Meanwhile, fighting and curfews have badly disrupted life, particularly education, with over 2,000 schools reportedly closing down for varying periods.
"The school term has been shattered for children here," said Amjad Abbas, a high-school teacher speaking from the city of Mingora. He said that "most likely" future holidays for affected schools would be cut short to make up for lost time.
Curfews continue and there are still outbursts of fighting between troops and fighters in a few villages. But overall, a process of recovery is now under way. There is also a lingering sense of trauma. "The children in particular have been deeply affected. They feel unsafe," said Abbas.
Photo: Google Maps
|A map of Pakistan and the surrounding region highlighting Swat District|
Apart from bombing raids, acts of revenge by militants against those whom they believed were sympathetic to the government have also led to violence and death. However, there now seems to be some sense of relief that the worst is over.
"The action in Swat was carried out for the sake of local people who have suffered a great deal due to militancy," said Brig (rtd) Javed Iqbal Cheema, spokesman for Pakistan's Interior Ministry.
As normalcy returns to the region, people hope the peace for which Swat has long been known will now return, and there will be no repetition of the violence witnessed here over the past six or seven weeks.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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