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Life, death and the Taliban: Blowback

What we don't know is killing us.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — On a dusty plain not far from the border with Afghanistan, mud-brick walls weathered by rain and time still mark the boundaries of what were once sprawling Afghan refugee camps.

The walls are a crumbling memory of the first time I came to this frontier town in 1995 to report on what was then a new force in the region, the Taliban.

And now, 14 years later, on this same patch of earth, the Jelozai Camp is filling up once again. Beyond the remnants of the old walls are new rows of white, UNHCR tents sprouting and filling up with hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people.

These are not Afghan refugees, they are Pakistanis fleeing the Pakistan military’s offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, a fractured movement that has in recent years grown out of the Afghan Taliban that hides in waiting on this side of the border.

There is anger in the camps these days at both the Pakistani government for the fighting that has left so many displaced, and the Taliban for going too far in imposing its puritanical beliefs.

In mid-July, the government began allowing some people to return to their villages but many are too fearful of reprisals from the Taliban to go. The camps are crowded, hot and dusty and there is disease and desperation in the air.

In June at the Jelozai Camp, a crowd pushed and shoved with buckets in hand to get a turn at the spigot of a water truck. Jad Mohammed Khan, a welder from Mingora, the capital of Swat, tried to hold his place in line as he said, “Life is very hard here. It’s the government bombings that drove us from our homes. We were in the middle and there is nowhere but here. ... There is anger here now.”

There are also reports that the Taliban and its supporters are hiding in these camps and lying low with newly shaven faces. But most people with whom we talked expressed frustration with the Taliban militants in Swat, even though they did so nervously.

Ikramullah, a 18-year-old student from outside Mingora, looked over his shoulder several times as he said, “The Taliban do one good thing and follow it up with a bad thing so the people turn against them. They slaughter people and they flog women in the streets. This is all wrong.”

And so the layers of war and displacement that have defined this region’s history continue to unfold in ridges and valleys as impenetrable and hostile as the terrain itself.