PESHAWAR, Pakistan—Until a few months ago, hundreds of young men used to sit, chat, and play cricket outside a dusty refugee camp located in the outskirts of Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's troubled Northwest Frontier province, which borders war-ravaged Afghanistan. However, for the past few months, the number of youths has been decreasing.
They have not moved to one of the dozen or so other refugee camps that have sprung up in the area. Instead, many have apparently joined hands with different Taliban groups to "avenge" the killing of their relatives and friends in ongoing Pakistani military operations and U.S. drone attacks in the restive northern tribal belt along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
A recent report by Pakistan's intelligence agencies suggests that hundreds of angry young men, who earlier along with their families had taken shelter in different refugee camps set up by the government with the help of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, have joined the Taliban ranks during the past few months.
According to the report, some Afghan refugee camps have also turned out to be safe hideouts for Taliban fighters, who are involved in cross-border infiltration. "We have received concrete reports that Taliban militants have been frequently visiting and holding secret meetings with small groups of tribal youths in various refugee camps set up in different parts of the NWFP during last many months," says a senior Pakistani intelligence officer involved in preparing the report.
More than 250,000 people belonging to Bajur, North and South Waziristan, and other troubled tribal areas have taken shelter in these camps during the past two years, following fierce artillery duels between the pro-Taliban tribesmen, commonly known as local Taliban, and Pakistan's security forces. They are also fleeing missile strikes from unmanned U.S. aircraft that target suspected al Qaeda hideouts.
The new intelligence report says, however, that these refugee camps have turned out to be recruitment centers for the Taliban, who are looking for fresh recruits to cope with the accelerated military operations in different parts of the tribal belt. Taliban militants have been exploiting the deaths of women and children in both U.S. drone attacks and bombings by Pakistani forces to coax angry young men to join hands with them for revenge, the intelligence official said.
The U.S. forces based in neighboring Afghanistan conducted at least 37 attacks in 2008 in different tribal areas, killing more than 200 tribesmen, including women and children, according to Pakistani government sources and local reports. Pakistani and U.S. officials, for their part, report that several suspected Taliban and pro-al Qaeda foreign fighters have also been killed in the drone attacks. And U.S. officials say that the stepped-up efforts in Pakistan are bearing fruit. Outgoing CIA Director Michael Hayden recently said that while Pakistani tribal areas were once an al Qaeda safe haven, "it is my belief that the senior leadership of al Qaeda today believes it is neither safe nor a haven."
On the ground, however, there are new worrying trends. Mohammed Jan, an aging tribesman who migrated from Bajur some nine months ago, confirms that scores of young men have recently joined Taliban ranks. "I don't know the exact figures, but hundreds of thousands of people are residing here. But I can safely say that more and more youths are joining Taliban with every passing day," says Jan, wearing a traditional gray turban and wrapped in a long sheet to keep himself warm.
Along with his 17-member family, Jan migrated nine months ago from Damadola, a small town in the Bajur region, after a series of artillery duels and shelling between Taliban and Pakistani security forces. The town was also the site of a U.S. drone strike in November 2007 that allegedly killed 80 people.
Jan's 19-year-old nephew, Ibrahim, is one of those hundreds of young men who are believed to have recently joined the Taliban's militant force. Ibrahim, who lost his elder brother in security forces' bombing of his village near Damadola six months ago, has been fighting against security forces in Bajur for the past three months, his uncle says. "As far as I know him, he was a cool and calm boy who did not agree with Taliban philosophy. But he had no other force which could help him avenge the death of his brother," Jan says.
According to Jan, the Taliban do not have to work all that hard to persuade the young men residing in the camps to join them. He blames both the indiscriminate bombings and the lack of basic human facilities in refugee camps, saying they have left "negative" psychological effects on the youths. "Our youths have become bitterly angry. The courageous among them have joined Taliban, no matter whether they agree with their philosophy or not," he adds.
Most of the refugee camps lack basic health, education, and food facilities. Women have to stand in long lines to get potable water for various hours. Only a few clinics have been set up in such camps by the government, where several nongovernmental organizations provide medical treatment to hundreds of thousands of refugees suffering from diarrhea and other waterborne diseases because of contaminated water and substandard food provided by the government agencies.
Refugees are living in low-quality makeshift tents, which are unable to protect them from the northern chilly winds. Each family, no matter its size, is allocated one tent. In several cases, more than 15 people inhabit a single tent.
Pneumonia and diarrhea are the most common diseases these days, said Abdul Hameed, a doctor volunteer for the Al Khidmat Foundation, one of Pakistan's largest charities, which has been running three temporary clinics at the camp. "We are trying our level best, but we cannot cope with such a huge number of refugees here. The government must focus on that," Hameed says.