Refugees on a wild frontier between army and Taliban

Islamabad's war with its militants is destroying lives and dislocating communities, as civilians flee in rising numbers
Declan Walsh in Totalai, Buner,
Two hours' drive from downtown Islamabad, with its leafy avenues and upmarket restaurants, a chain of jagged mountains in North-West Frontier Province marks the frontline of Pakistan's war with the Taliban.

A flood of refugees spills down from the hills and on to the plains at the edge of war-torn Buner district, bringing tales of bloodshed and destruction. Many are angry at the Pakistani army which, they say, has shelled homes and mistakenly killed civilians.

In Totalai, on the southern edge of Buner, a clutch of angry men piled off an overloaded tractor pulling a trailer filled with burka-clad women clutching cloth sacks and exhausted children.

"At night we are bombarded by the big guns and in the day by the helicopters," said Muhammad Saleh, a farmer, gesticulating wildly. They had come from Nawagai, a village caught in the crossfire, he said, pointing to a teenager with a bandaged leg, injured by army shelling.

"They should use smaller weapons. They are trying to hit a pigeon with a cannon," he said.

On another vehicle, a 30-year-old teacher, Abdul Aziz, said the head of Nawagai secondary school, Bakht Garim Shah, had been shot in his car by a helicopter gunship as he returned from an examination centre. "There were three other people with him and all were killed. And on the television the government was calling them suicide bombers!" he said. "Now we can't even get their corpses."

Last Friday, a day after the alleged incident took place, a military spokesman said the army had destroyed eight "suicide vehicles" and six vehicles containing fleeing militants.

Other refugees backed the operation, despite its heavy toll. Zakir, a 22-year-old computer store clerk, said his village, Swari, was straining under food shortages and a 24-hour curfew. But life under the Taliban had been worse, he said.

After seizing control last month, militants had robbed two banks, closed barber shops, banned music and forced people to disable their satellite television receivers, he said. They had tried to impose a crude form of justice, threatening to flog a man alleged to have made a sexual advance to another. "This is not right. There is no [use of] force in Islam," said Zakir, speaking from the safety of a house where he had taken shelter.

A journalist from the main town, Daggar, said the Taliban stole women's jewellery at gunpoint, occupied several marble factories and looted the homes of tribesmen who had dared to oppose them.

There is no official estimate of the number of refugees, but it is thought to be thousands. Many are being welcomed into Buner by al-Khidmat, the charity wing of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the country's largest religious party. Volunteers offer food, drink and an Islamist-tinged critique of the situation.

"They should not have launched this operation. The problem could be solved through negotiation," said Ghuluam Mustafa, a JI official and deputy mayor of Buner district.

Further north, along the border, on the edge of the fighting, there were no refugees. In Rustum, the army had set up artillery to fire on Taliban positions in the Ambela pass, scene of the heaviest fighting. On Saturday afternoon the main street was empty and most shops shuttered. But Muhammad Javed, an elderly watch repairman, kept his door open.

The sound of shelling, from a nearby field, was keeping him awake at night, he complained. "Our people are not bad," he said. "It's just our terrible system of governance that has caused all this."

Down the road, Khalid Khan, a teacher and landowner, said the fighting had upset his nightly sessions of online Scrabble. Instead of playing with fellow enthusiasts in England, he said, he used his internet connection to share the sound of battle with them. "Obviously they were pretty shocked," he said.

Khan said the battle was "critical" to Pakistan's future, but US fears of a Taliban takeover in Islamabad, 55 miles to the south, were ill-informed. "The concept that this is an organised army, moving towards the capital, is just wrong," he said.

Last night, though, more fighting loomed as a peace pact in neighbouring Swat hung by a thread. Tensions rose as armed Taliban started patrols in the main town, Mingora. They beheaded two security personnel and blew up a bridge; the government imposed a curfew.

President Asif Ali Zardari, who flies to Washington this week for talks with President Barack Obama, urgently needs a victory. US officials, dangling $400m in aid, have been sharply critical of his government. But it is not just Zardari's fault. Earlier efforts to tackle militancy have been hampered by poor strategy and, sometimes, the ambivalence of those fighting the battles.

Among a small number of refugees in Rustum was a paramilitary soldier with the Frontier Constabulary who said he had surrendered to the Taliban after his platoon was overrun at the Pir Baba sufi shrine last week.

The soldier, who requested anonymity, said the Taliban treated him surprisingly well – offering food, tea, a torch and even a bus fare home. The shalwar kameez he was wearing had been donated by a Talib who took his uniform, he said.

The experience made him develop a certain sympathy for the militants, he said with a shy smile. "From what I heard them say, and what I saw, I feel we are in the wrong," he said.

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