Thousands of people have fled Pakistan's Waziristan region as the army prepares for a ground offensive against the Taliban. Activists say Islamabad is not doing enough to provide much-needed relief to those displaced.
At least 430,000 people have reportedly left Pakistan's restive North Waziristan region in search of safer areas. Thousands of them have also migrated to neighboring Afghanistan since the start of air strikes against Taliban hideouts in the area earlier this month.
On Monday, June 23, the Pakistani air force temporarily halted its strikes to allow residents to leave the remote mountainous region ahead of a widely anticipated ground offensive against the Islamists. The army claims to have already killed hundreds of local and foreign fighters so far.
The Taliban have been waging an insurgency in the Islamic republic for around a decade and want to impose stricter Islamic laws both in Pakistan as well as in neighboring Afghanistan. The West has for years complained to Islamabad about its failure to launch an offensive in the area which Washington considers to harbor the country's most dangerous militants.
The United States, for instance, believes the region is being used by al Qaeda and Taliban operatives as a base to strike international troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan, however, had previously refused to comply, telling Washington that the time was not right to start a full-scale military operation against the militants.
Rights activists tell DW the mass exodus from the tribal areas is the biggest the country has witnessed in years, and that the military operation is resulting in a huge humanitarian crisis in the insurgency-marred and poverty-stricken area.
"Those who could afford to leave have left the area, but some are still there and could die in the fighting as they don't have any means to come out of Waziristan," Zakirullah Khan, a refugee, told the Reuters news agency. Others complain the government is not doing enough to help them.
Pakistani politician Imran Khan, whose PTI party governs the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, says "people are dying in Waziristan."
"It is a disastrous situation," said Khan, whose party prefers a dialogue with the Taliban. "It is extremely hot in the area. Those who are migrating from Waziristan include around 150,000 children and 110,000 women. They don't have money to come to safer cities by car, so they are coming on foot."
Khan demanded that Islamabad increase the aid for refugees. "One tribal family is usually comprised of ten to fourteen members. At the moment, a single family is receiving a meager amount of 7,000 rupees (less than 70 euros) as a one-time aid."
Activist Sartaj Khan says Islamabad is only focused on bombing the area and is least concerned about providing relief to Waziristan refugees. "It is shameful that these people are not being allowed to enter major Pakistani cities," Khan told DW. "Authorities claim that the Taliban could flee the area along with refugees. The attitude of Pakistan's liberal community is appalling towards these poor, helpless people, who are caught in the middle of a war between the Taliban and Islamabad."
The activist also criticized the country's independent Human Rights Commission, HRCP, for supporting the military operation. "The offensive is hurting the tribal people. Have you ever heard of a rights organization which supports war? It's ridiculous."
Many people have also criticized the local media for not giving adequate coverage to the plight of the internally displaced people (IDPs).
"It is the media's responsibility to spotlight the issues of those who had to leave their homes in Waziristan. It is a pity that other political issues get more air time on television than this humanitarian crisis," Matiullah Jan, an Islamabad-based journalist, told DW.
Despite these concerns, many in Pakistan support the military offensive in North Waziristan and believe their government is serious in eradicating terrorism this time.
"I completely support the operation against terrorists," Mohsin Sayeed, a journalist, told DW. "We should be prepared to pay the price as militants will strike back in the cities. We are in a state of war now. This is our war of survival. We need to support our government and the army in these tough and testing times," he added.
However, Abdul Agha, an Islamabad-based analyst, is not as optimistic as Sayeed: "Islamabad is killing only the 'bad guys' - the ones that have turned against the state, or who don't agree with its long-term plans vis-à-vis Afghanistan. The government is also going after Central Asian warriors because they are creating problems for Pakistan's ally, China. They will eliminate some and will preserve some for the future."
The Pakistani establishment, analysts say, still considers the Taliban an important ally and representatives of the majority Pashtun Afghans who it thinks should be part of the Afghan government after the NATO pullout in the coming months. Observers say that the Pakistani military hopes to regain the influence in Kabul it once enjoyed before the United States and its allies toppled the pro-Pakistan Taliban government in 2001.
"In the past, the military launched several offensives against the, Taliban but we know that the terrorists are still active in the country," the analyst says, adding that until the Pakistani state abandons its pro-Islamist narrative, military actions won't yield positive results.