Only a fraction of nearly two million Pakistanis displaced in an onslaught against the Taliban went home on the first day of an organised return on Monday, with many fearful about security.
Pakistani offensives against Islamists in the northwest have forced 1.9 million people to flee their homes since last year -- most seeking refuge with relatives and in schools, and the rest packed into sweltering camps.
The latest assault was launched in April under US pressure to flush out Islamists that Washington branded an existential threat, but Pakistan said last week the military had “eliminated” extremists in and around the Swat valley.
The government laid on buses and trucks to return displaced families on Monday, the first day of large-scale organised returns, but only a fraction of the families earmarked for voluntary return actually left the camps.
Azam Khan, a senior official in the government’s emergency response unit said 192 families out of an estimated 2,680 left three camps on Monday.
“We expect an increase in coming days,” Khan told reporters at Charsadda, where 22 out of a planned 247 families left for the northwest Swat district.
Dozens of displaced people blocked a road outside one Charsadda camp vowing not to return until they received ATM bank cards on which they can draw 25,000 rupees (300 dollars) of financial aid to rebuild their lives.
Crops were left to rot during the two-month offensive and the local economy has been shattered by a two-year uprising to enforce sharia law in Swat.
“Some people did not receive their ATM cash cards and they refused to go until they got this card,” said Khan.
But those who returned to Swat spoke of their joy in returning despite the uncertainty about peace that many expressed back in the camps.
“Everybody is so happy. They are crying tears of joy,” Sakhawat Shah, a 25-year-old English student, told AFP by telephone after reaching Landakai.
“My room was destroyed in the shelling. My computer and books were also damaged but I’m not worried because if I’m alive I can buy more books.”
Pakistan launched the offensive in the northwest districts of Buner, Lower Dir and Swat after armed Islamist militants advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad last April in defiance of a peace deal.
Pakistan says more than 1,700 militants were killed but official death tolls are impossible to confirm independently and many suspect that the Taliban simply melted away into the mountains as after past operations.
The government says it has worked hard to restore electricity and running water in main towns since the fighting but analysts warn that much needs to be done to sustain the returnees.
“They will start living a normal life if the environment is secure and their fundamental needs are addressed. Secure environment means army, police and civil administration,” said independent analyst Imtiaz Gul.
AFP reporters said they saw just over 200 people leaving Jalozai and the nearby camp of Charsadda but officials swept aside concerns.
“Twenty-four buses reached Swat. These are full of displaced people,” Bashir Ahmad Bilour, a senior provincial cabinet minister, told reporters.
“We hope the situation will improve in the coming days and that people will come back with the passage of time,” he said.
But Shamsher Ali, a 55-year-old shopkeeper, also said he was worried after previous military operations failed to crush the Taliban.
“The army promised us twice before that they cleared the area but then Taliban came again and again to Swat. Perhaps this time the Taliban will come again to Swat,” he said.