People living in Buner, just 60 miles from the Pakistan capital Islamabad, have revealed how abusive and repressive Taleban groups seized the area on Tuesday, imposing their severe brand of Islamic law on a defenceless local population.
Eyewitnesses told Amnesty International that the Taleban have banned music, ordered all girls over the age of seven to wear a burqa and told all men to grow beards.
“The Pakistani government is fiddling as the North West Frontier Province burns and residents are left at the mercy of the Taleban,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director, in Islamabad.
“The government has not given any sense of how it intends to protect the rights of hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who are now subject to the repressive rule of the Taleban, just in the shadow of the capital.”
Residents of Buner, home to nearly 650,000 Pakistanis, said 400 to 500 heavily-armed Taleban now roam freely throughout the district. The takeover follows the Taleban’s assumption of power in the neighbouring Swat valley.
For the past two days, the Taleban have established a checkpoint on the main road entering Buner, at Babaji Khandao, at which they check every vehicle and target anyone working with non-governmental organizations.
Taleban have forcibly taken at least 23 vehicles belonging to NGOs and government officials, including local health facilities and security officials.
They have also ransacked the offices of several NGOs, including Pakistani groups such as Paiman, involved in health education and hygiene to primary schools, Rahbar, working on poverty alleviation, as well as projects associated with international groups such as ActionAid and the International Medical Corps.
“Important development work has now stopped or been severely curtailed in many parts of North West Frontier Province,” Sam Zarifi said. “A population suffering from poor health care and low literacy now receives even less crucial assistance.”
Eyewitnesses told Amnesty International that local police – widely described as poorly- armed, under-paid, and untrained – remained in their barracks and did not challenge the Taleban’s takeover.
On Wednesday, two platoons of Frontier Constabulary troops moved in to Buner to provide reinforcement to the one existing platoon and resume patrolling, but they have not stopped the Taleban’s movement and activities.
Several people, including journalists and NGO workers, told Amnesty International that the local population was terrified that the Pakistani army would launch retaliatory operations in Buner.
“Amnesty International has documented serious harm to civilians as a result of indiscriminate army operations in the past, which have led to displacement of hundreds of thousands of people,” said Sam Zarifi. “The people of Buner are desperate for government support but they don’t want another inconclusive army operation that destroys what it can’t protect.”
The Taleban commander in Buner, Mufti Bashir Ahmed, known as Abu Sultan, through his spokesman, Mullah Khalil (also known as Abu Usman and Mufti Ghreeb), has prohibited all actions that violate the Taleban’s harsh and restrictive interpretation of Islamic law.
Local NGO staff told Amnesty International that Mullah Khalil has also warned against any action that could be construed as cooperating with the United States of America.
The Taleban have closed down the shrine of Pir Baba, a poet and Sufi saint. They have also burned down houses surrounding the shrine of Rana Chandar Gi, a Hindu saint, at Elum Mountain, but the shrine itself was not harmed and remains open.
Members of the small Sikh and Hindu communities living in Buner told Amnesty International that the Taleban have not targeted them, but that many of their members are preparing to leave out of fear of a significant deterioration in the situation.
“The Taleban in Buner are establishing themselves as the ruling authority instead of the Pakistani government, just as we’ve seen in several other areas they have taken over,” Zarifi said. “The people of Buner are now at their mercy, particularly women and girls, whose rights the Taleban systematically deny.
“Any response has to focus on the well-being of the people of Buner and other areas now affected by the Pakistani Taleban. For too long have the Pakistani government, and its international backers, chiefly the US, dealt with this problem purely as a military or counter- terrorism issue, instead of demonstrating that their chief intention is protecting the rights of the people who are most directly affected.”