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Eight lakh homeless as Taliban-army fighting intensifies

world Updated: May 12, 2009 01:24 IST
Kamal Siddiqi

Dodging army shells and the Taliban, Sikh families from Swat and other parts of war-ravaged northern Pakistan have landed in a gurdwara on the plains of Punjab.

Many arrived at Gurdwara Panja Sahib in the dusty town of Hasan Abdal, about 40 kilometres northwest of Islamabad, with only the clothes on their back.

“We headed for Hasan Abdal because this is the only place we knew of,” Dr. Ashok Kumar, a six-foot Pathan from Pir Baba village in Buner district, told Hindustan Times.

Displacement is haunting the country as the military takes on the Taliban. A total of 3.6 lakh have fled their homes in northwestern Pakistan in the last week, the United Nations estimated on Sunday. This is in addition to the five lakh displaced in previous bouts of fighting.

Suran Singh, affiliated to the Pakistani Gurdwara Parbhan-dak Committee, is a worried man. He is concerned about meeting the daily needs of about 340 families in Hasan Abdal.

Singh, a homeopathic doctor, left his clinic in Buner and fled with six family members packed in his Suzuki on April 28.

Since his arrival, he has taken charge as spokesman and chief organiser. At home, he was an elected member of the local council. “The only thing people want is to go home,” Singh said.

In many ways, the Sikhs were lucky— they had some place to go to. “Many of our Muslim neighbours and friends have ended up in tents,” he said, stressing that fear of shelling was paramount.

On the imposition of the jaziya tax – a levy by the Taliban on non-Muslims -- Singh said, “I was not approached. In fact, the Taliban came to my area on April 4 and for almost a month we lived under their control. We fled when the fighting intensified.”

Others, however, say they heard of the jaziya tax. “I know families in Tirah were told to pay,” said a young man, who preferred anonymity.

Others said the Taliban were holding some Sikhs against their will.

Manzoor Bhatti, the caretaker of the gurdwara, said the Sikh refugees, many of whom are professional doctors and engineers, are happy to run their affairs.

So far, both the government and the United Nations have helped with supplies. However, to sustain such a large number over a longer period would be difficult.

Sandeep Kumar, a student of Edwards College in Peshawar, said his family never migrated to India after partition “because the Muslims in our area begged us to stay on.” Now, however, “we have been forced out by extremists, not our neighbours.”

“We are Pathans first and Sikh later. These times are troubling for all Pathans not just the Sikhs,” said Suran Singh with a smile, when asked to comment on the offer to migrate to India. “We need to fight this challenge together.”

This is a sentiment shared by many in the Panja Sahib Gurdwara.