Thousands flee war in Pakistan

The New York TimesMay 7, 2009 

— The dank and shadowed hallways of the Mardan Tuberculosis Hospital, crumbling relic of another age, were transformed here on Wednesday into a clinic of a more modern sort, when the refugees of nearby battles came streaming in the whole day.

Hundreds first, then, thousands; tattered, woebegone, well dressed. They piled into the hospital courtyard, then into the hospital itself, moving down the hallways, sitting on the floors. It was mostly men who came but women did, too, nearly all of them lost and bewildered and wondering what fate awaited them.

"Reza Mohammed, mother of five," said a voice behind a burqa; she was seated on the floor. She was offering her government identification card to an official in a chair. The hallway was dark without electricity. "We came six days ago. Please take down my name."

The refugees like Mohammed are fleeing the battles that are now unfolding across a 50-mile arc northwest of the Pakistani capital, where the army launched air and ground attacks Wednesday against up to 7,000 entrenched Taliban militants.

The men and women who gathered at the hospital said they were fleeing fighting in Dir, Buner and Swat, the three mountainous districts where the Pakistan army has chosen to confront the militants.

Government officials here say that about 40,000 people have already left and that a half million might ultimately be forced to run. That day seemed to come closer Wednesday. The Pakistan army reported fighting the Taliban in two places; in Swat, where they claimed to have killed 35 militants, and in Buner, where they said they killed 27. Those reports could not be independently verified, in part because the government has banned reporters from the area.

The Mardan Tuberculosis Hospital, built by Danish missionaries in 1907, was besieged by the refugees early on Wednesday when government officials declared it a place where refugees could sign up for food and other help. By late afternoon more than 2,000 people had passed through.

But the needs seemed far greater than that, and encompassing far more than just bags of wheat and cans of cooking oil. More than 22,000 refugees have asked for help in Mardan alone, and most of them in the past 10 days. Watching the crowds swell, it was not difficult to imagine the problem growing worse, quickly, should the fighting intensify.

"We are overwhelmed here," said Amir Zeb, the director of the hospital. Zeb said the Pakistani government was dispatching a group of employees from the Education Department to pitch in, and that the U.N. High Commission on Refugees was also sending a team. For the moment, he and his tiny staff were all but alone.

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