A Pakistani woman holds her baby at a camp for internally displaced people who have fled escalating violence. (Photo: Emilio Morenatti / AP)
Timergara, Pakistan - A flood of internal refugees fleeing from fighting in Pakistan's tribal area now look as if they'll spend the biting winter in tents, in squalid conditions, and may be marooned for years.
Around 190,000 people have streamed into the North-West Frontier Province from the neighbouring tribal territory of Bajaur, where, at the start of August, the Pakistani military launched perhaps its most serious offensive against Taliban extremists since Sept. 11, 2001.
At least 10 makeshift camps run by the government now house tens of thousands, while others have taken shelter with family and friends settled in the NWFP. Up to 100,000 more have made the journey hundreds of kilometres to Karachi, to join a huge community of fellow Pashtuns in the port city. Bajaur has been virtually emptied of its inhabitants.
Bajaur is one of seven "agencies" of the tribal belt and, with the expectation that the operation will move on to other parts of the tribal area, the misery of the people of Bajaur may be replicated across the region, which runs along the Afghan border and is a stronghold of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.
On a scenic hillside outside the town of Timergara, in the district of Dir, which borders Bajaur, a grim settlement is taking form. The month-old camp has just started a rudimentary open-air school for the younger children, taught by the older kids.
"We don't have enough water to drink, let alone the chance to bathe," said Gul Mohammad, 25, who arrived with seven other family members. "We brought nothing. We just came here to save our lives."
Toilet facilities so far amount to a communal ditch or a trip to the nearby river. There is no electricity; water is trucked in. Food supplies are distributed but the refugees say it is inadequate, leaving them to scavenge or buy wood to cook with.
There are 880 families at the Timergara camp, or 6,260 individuals, the majority of them children, according to the official in charge. Most families are given one tent each, which, given their traditionally large number of children, means that eight or more share a tent.
"First we thought this would be for a month. It looks like years to me now," said Abdul Hameed, a Pakistani government official who runs the facility.
"We have stopped more coming in. There is no space left."
The refugees' anger is directed mostly at the Pakistani authorities - not the Taliban - both for launching the operation and for the miserable conditions they now endure. They allege that Bajaur is being pounded indiscriminately by jet fighters and helicopter gunships, with most of the casualties being innocent civilians and widespread damage to houses.
"Even when a two-year-old dies in a strike, they [the army] say in the media that he was Taliban or al-Qaeda," said Rahim Gul, who had come from a village close to Damadola, an alleged hotbed of militancy. "It's a double game they're playing. They don't hit the Taliban's houses, they hit ours."
A man who gave his name only as Sherpao said: "It is the fault of both sides. The army throws bombs on us from above. The Taliban terrorize us on the ground. We just want peace. We don't care who wins."
The Pakistani authorities claim to have killed more than 1,000 militants in Bajaur, with 10 more reported Sunday. The chief spokesman for the army said he had no figures for civilian casualties.
"Houses are being used by the militants, as bunkers. They're firing from there. Therefore all houses from where the firing is coming are being engaged by the security forces," said Major General Athar Abbas. "To our knowledge, the civilians of this area have left."
Around the provincial capital of the NWFP, Peshawar, three former Afghan refugee camps - only cleared of their inhabitants in the past year - have had to be hurriedly pressed back into service, this time to take Pakistanis from Bajaur.
On the outskirts of Peshawar, in the Hayatabad suburb, the vast Kacha Garhi camp, where the mud houses had been largely bulldozed after the Afghans left, has taken on a bleak new life as a tented home for 5,500 people from Bajaur. Again, facilities are rudimentary and supplies are short.
An old man, Mohammad Amin, said he had been passed from camp to camp. "When will we get the blankets and bedding? After dying?"