(New York) – The Pakistani authorities should immediately lift a 24-hour curfew in place since May 18 in the Swat valley and adjoining areas of the Malakand Division of Pakistan’s Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA), Human Rights Watch said today. Severe shortages of food, water, and medicine are creating a major humanitarian crisis for the hundreds of thousands of civilians still trapped in the region where Pakistani armed forces are fighting Taliban insurgents.
Human Rights Watch has continued to receive persistent reports of ongoing civilian casualties from Pakistani artillery shelling and aerial bombardment as desperate civilians break the curfew in search of food and water or to flee hostilities. Even with a curfew in place, international humanitarian law requires all parties to a conflict to take all necessary measures to minimize civilian casualties.
“People trapped in the Swat conflict zone face a humanitarian catastrophe unless the Pakistani military immediately lifts a curfew that has been in place continuously for the last week,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government cannot allow the local population to remain trapped without food, clean water, and medicine as a tactic to defeat the Taliban.”
Human Rights Watch investigations have established that thousands of civilians ordered by the army to vacate the villages of Guljaba and Aligrama, among others, of the Kabal sub-district of Swat remain trapped in Chakdara, a town in Lower Dir district. Speaking to Human Rights Watch on May 25, villagers reported that they were ordered out of their homes by the military authorities on May 22 and told to head for Chakdara and beyond to safe areas. However, once they reached Chakdara the same day, they were prevented from traveling further or going back. The town of Chakdara itself remains under 24-hour curfew and fleeing civilians reported that they were without shelter and lacked food, water, and medicines. The trapped civilians reported that many of them were suffering from dehydration and other health problems and their children were particularly weak and vulnerable.
Residents of Swat fleeing into the districts of Mardan and Swabi also reported a worsening humanitarian situation in these areas. They told Human Rights Watch that the prices of essential food items, when available, had risen tenfold, that scarcity of water had reached a critical point, and that the continuous curfew meant that residents risked their lives if they ventured out in search of food. Dead bodies lay unburied and the critically injured faced likely death as all medical facilities in the valley had shut down and medicines were unavailable.
“The Pakistani government should take all possible measures including airdrops of food, water, and medicine to quickly alleviate large-scale human suffering in Swat,” said Adams. “Both sides should allow a humanitarian corridor that would let civilians escape the fighting and for impartial humanitarian agencies to evacuate and aid civilians at risk.”
Human Rights Watch expressed concern about continued summary executions by the Taliban and civilian casualties from shelling by the Pakistani military. Internally displaced persons who had fled to Swabi district from Khwaza Khela village in Swat told Human Rights Watch that on May 18 the Taliban publicly beheaded in the local mosque a villager named Kalimoon Khan, who had joined 10 others in a delegation to a Pakistani military checkpost to request the military not bombard their village. The Taliban accused them of being informants for the Pakistan army and badly beat three of them, beheaded Khan, and threatened to hunt down and kill the rest. Human Rights Watch also spoke to a villager who described heavy shelling on May 19 that resulted in the deaths of 11 civilians from the village, none of whom were Taliban.
Separately, a resident of Charbagh village in Swat told Human Rights Watch that villagers were unaware of any Taliban presence in the village when, on May 12, the Pakistani military fired a missile that struck the central market, killing one resident instantly and injuring another. When villagers rushed to the scene to retrieve the casualties, another missile hit the same location, killing another nine civilians and wounding eight. The resident said that, after the second attack, villagers were too scared to come to the aid of the injured, but the screams of the injured proved difficult to ignore and 30 minutes later more villagers went to collect the bodies and administer to the wounded. A third missile then struck in the area. In total 19 civilians were reportedly killed and 30 wounded in these attacks, including two children who died of their injuries due to lack of medical care.
Human Rights Watch said that because the area where the fighting continues is a closed military zone with journalists and human rights monitors barred from entering, it is currently not possible to verify this information independently. Local journalists have left the area, and the army is not permitting Pakistani reporters or foreign correspondents to enter.
“Civilians continue to suffer at the hands of the Taliban and now their misery is being compounded by the military’s disregard for civilians and refusal to allow them to leave the conflict zone,” said Adams. “If the Taliban are to be truly defeated, Pakistan’s military must act to ease the suffering of the people of Swat, not compound it.”