MARDAN, Pakistan — Tales of Taliban terror, accusations of being shelled by the army, and the misery of sudden destitution fill sprouting refugee camps for those fleeing Pakistan's military offensive against extremists in Swat valley.
A tide of bedraggled people, who often escaped with just the clothes on their backs, has descended from the mountains of Swat into the scorching heat of Mardan city in the plains of the North West Frontier Province, as the Pakistani army tries to regain control of their scenic homeland from Islamic militants that Washington has described as a "mortal threat" to Pakistan.
The vast Jalala camp, just north of Mardan, the first big town on the road south out of Swat, was established just four days ago, but it was declared full on Sunday with over 1,200 families crammed into tents that sit in neat rows in a field.
That's at least 6,000 individuals, yet they are but a fraction of the 250,000 evacuees registered by Saturday night. The other main camp in Mardan, called Sheikh Shehzad, is also full, so future arrivals will have to trek further to find shelter. Most Swat refugees are not in the camps, having rented rooms or been put up by family and friends.
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The lifting of the curfew in Swat for a few hours Sunday opened Mardan to a surge of refugees, some coming on foot, others in cars, tractor trolleys and donkey carts.
"There were so many people coming today (Sunday), they could not be counted," said Muhammad Adil Khan, a senior official in the Mardan district administration. "The influx is beyond imagination. I think it can go to 700,000 or 800,000."
The army said Sunday that it had killed some 200 Taliban militants in the previous 24 hours, pushing the claimed death toll of insurgents to around 500 since it launched a full-scale offensive in Swat on Thursday.
The success of Pakistan's war against armed extremists will hinge partly on the avoidance of "collateral damage" to non-combatants and also the treatment received by those displaced by the fighting. Among the refugees, the army's offensive appears to have scant support.
"They should have told us to get out before the operation began. We are humans, not animals," said Yaktiar Ullah, a 21-year-old. "Even the Indians haven't done to the people of Kashmir what the (Pakistan) army has done to us."
In Washington on Sunday, Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, told Fox News Sunday that Taliban militants are a "true threat to Pakistan's very existence," and that their militancy seems "to have galvanized all of Pakistan" into action against them.
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari denied that Pakistan was going to collapse in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press." He pleaded for more U.S. aid.
As the army's offensive started last week, there were perhaps 1 million people still in Swat. Pakistani authorities have said that they expect between 500,000 and 800,000 to flee Swat and its neighboring two districts, Dir and Buner. Adding to 550,000 already displaced by anti-Taliban operations elsewhere in Pakistan, the country faces a refugee catastrophe second only to the crisis in Darfur, Sudan.
The Jalala camp, run jointly by the Pakistani government and United Nations agencies, appears well ordered, with water, latrines and an outdoor kitchen where huge pots of food are cooked and served to long lines of hungry Swatis. Inside the tents, where the women are mostly consigned out of conservative tradition, temperatures are sweltering.
Each family, which often number up to 10, is supposed to be given a tent, food utensils and other provisions, but many complained bitterly that they weren't getting them. The frustration caused a mini-riot over the weekend at the Sheikh Shehzad camp, with the refugees looting the U.N. stores there.
"It's just problems everywhere," said Zahid Khan at the Jalala camp. "Whatever we receive, it is with shame, after jostling and rowing. There are queues for everything and only one doctor for all of us."
Those not in camps are either eating into meager savings by renting accommodations or they are proving to be a huge burden on host families. The people of Swat and Mardan are ethnic Pashtuns, the same group that dominates Afghanistan, who are famous for their hospitality.
But those traditions are being severely tested by the scale of the refugee flow. If more help is not provided to those living outside of camps soon, aid workers fear that they will soon prove too much of a financial drain on their hosts, pushing them too into the tent cites.
At the District Headquarters Hospital, the main emergency center in Mardan, there is grim evidence that the Swat offensive has provided civilian casualties - the army has declined to put any figure on this. But doctors say they're surprised that far fewer cases have appeared so far than expected — less than a dozen at this hospital. So it seems that either the refugees' stories are exaggerated or the injured haven't managed to get out.
Patients from Swat and Buner at the hospital have heart-wrenching stories. An eight-year-old girl called Shaista lay on a bed, her leg in plaster. According to a distant relative, Sher Mohammad, who found her at the hospital, a mortar hit the street outside her home in Mingora, the biggest town in Swat, on Thursday.
She was with her mother, two sisters and brother, who were all killed. Shaista was saved only because she had run ahead of them. Neighbors brought her to Mardan.
"Her whole family has been wiped out," said Mohammad. "We're not terrorists, we're ordinary people but we're the ones dying."