Page last updated at 16:03 GMT, Wednesday, 20 May 2009 17:03 UK

Journey to Pakistan's 'war zone'

The scene at one checkpoint in Buner district

The BBC Urdu service's Haroon Rashid is one of the first journalists to travel to the north-western Pakistani district of Buner, since heavy fighting broke out between the army and the Taliban.

"It's just a firecracker," our driver said as a sound like a rifle round whistled above our vehicle.

We had just passed through the last checkpoint into Ambela, a sub-division of Pakistan's troubled Buner district.

Passing through the checkpoint allows the traveller to enter what is effectively a war zone.

Front line

Buner is now on Pakistan's front line in its battle with Taliban militants.

Pakistan's security forces say they now have control over most of the district and are asking people to return to their homes.

Meanwhile, all-out fighting continues in the bordering district of Swat.

destroyed vehicles in the Buner district
Evidence of the war can be clearly seen in Buner

Our first impressions were that Buner does indeed appear to be calmer - but also more deserted.

Stopping where we heard the sound of the shot - to debate its origins - a passer-by told us it was a warning shot fired by the army.

He indicated the hills around the road, where I was told that it was possible for me to see troops in entrenched positions all around.

I was told this was the way that the army enforced the curfew in the absence of local police.

Earlier on Tuesday, we had headed towards Buner after the government announced a relaxation in the curfew from 1000 local time.

But later it was changed to start from 1300 onwards, leaving us standing at the checkpoint for several hours in the extreme heat.

We were not alone as many other journalists and some families also waited for the curfew to be lifted.

Most were farmers hoping to get back and check whether their homes and livestock had survived the fighting.

Emotional return

Among these was Saleh Mahmoud, who stood by an ambulance carrying the body of his recently deceased mother.

"I have brought her from Peshawar to be buried in our ancestral graveyard," he told me as the heat beat down.

On the way towards the Daggar sub-district, the police were absent

When I asked him if it wasn't a better idea to bury her in Peshawar or even nearby Mardan, he replied in an emotional tone: "She will be buried here come what may.

"I have brought her here and will remain here on God's support till they remove the curfew."

But unlike this simple man who was prepared to wait, I and other journalists chose to return to Mardan as we saw little hope of it being lifted.

I jokingly remarked to my colleague that the curfew had been prolonged because we had told the army we would be visiting the area.

But no sooner had we reached Mardan than we got the news that the curfew had been lifted.

Turning the vehicle around, we rushed straight back towards the war-torn district.

As we crossed into Buner from the Ambela pass, we saw a glimpse of the weaponry deployed by the army - several artillery pieces and a tank.

The tank was parked in a narrow lane lined with houses, and seeing it made me think that it is not just the Taliban who are using civilians as human shields.

As we moved through the main town, we saw a petrol pump and two trucks burnt to cinders.

Further down the road we passed several other destroyed vehicles - evidence that just days ago this was the scene of a fierce battle.

Police absent

It was clear though - judging by the largely intact markets and homes - that the army had been careful in targeting the enemy.

Taleban member in Buner
Buner is effectively a war zone

But there must be some concern that on the way towards the Dagar sub-district, the police were absent except for a lone official on duty at an intersection.

Even the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) troops were nowhere to be seen.

All the checkpoints were manned by regular army troops.

At the last checkpoint before Dagar, the soldiers made us get out of vehicles and then made us close our cameras.

"We know you are professional journalists," the otherwise friendly troops told us.

"But the fact is that in here suicide bombers are also running around with cameras."

Despite the relaxation in the curfew, Dagar was largely deserted.

A couple of shops were open, and some people were seen buying vegetables.

A livelier picture, however, was evident in the surrounding fields where sickles were employed to harvest the abundant wheat crop.

The army had apparently given the farmers leave to work in the fields, even during the curfew.

But they were strictly forbidden to come on to the roads.

One of these farmers was Wakeel Khan, who had left his studies in Peshawar to come and help harvest his family's crops.

"For some people their lives are precious and for some people like me the crop is precious," he told me.

"That is why I am busy harvesting it. If the crop is not cut within a 10-day period, it will wither and die."

Despite the difficult situation, the hospital in Dagar - and indeed the larger district hospital - remained open and continued to provide services.


"But we can only provide 20% of our available services," Dr Sher, medical officer at Dagar told me.

Displaced people in Buner
Thousands have fled

According to him, this was due to the unavailability of staff who had left during the fighting.

"We received the bodies of seven civilians in all during the fighting," said Dr Maqsood, head of the district hospital.

"Two of these were unidentified, so they have been buried in the hospital compound temporarily.

"We did not receive any bodies of soldiers killed in the fighting."

I was quite surprised to discover that it was his wife who decided that he should stay behind, despite the fighting.

"The only reason me and my kids are still here is my wife," said Dr Maqsood. "She convinced me to stay as she said the people here need you more."

I wanted to stay and talk with this lady and the lone policeman who was on duty at an intersection.

But we had to leave the front line before the curfew was reinforced in the "liberated" district of Buner.


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