The infiltration of Taliban militants into Pakistan's northwestern Buner district, earlier this year, marked the end of a controversial peace deal to allow strict Islamic law in Swat Valley, in return for peace with the militants. The fight to wrest control of Buner from the militants was fierce, shattering towns and forcing more than half the population to flee the mountainous region. This VOA correspondent traveled to Buner, under military escort, and found deserted villages with few signs of security.
A helicopter circles the mountains that surround the recently established military headquarters in Daggar in Buner district, a sandbagged structure where Pakistani troops launch fierce battles to flush out Taliban militants.
Colonel Naseer Janjua is the acting commander of the military force in Buner. He says, when the operation began in late April, there were about 1,000 Taliban fighters in Buner. He says about half were killed and the district is now 99 percent secure. The colonel insists normalcy is returning to Buner but, adds the district's infrastructure has been destroyed, preventing internally displaced people, IDPs, from coming home.
"So far, there is a problem with electricity and that is our major source of concern for IDPs," Janjua said. "That's why they are not retuning in great numbers. But I can tell you, the civil administration and the provincial government, they are is working around the clock. Ishallah [with God's help], in a week's time, we will have electricity, in a week's time in the whole district of Buner."
Many have fled
Officials say about half the population of Buner, 700,000 people, fled the conflict. A journey through the district bears that out. Mosques stand empty on a Friday, the traditional day of prayer in Pakistan. Only a few trucks and cars travel the roads. Crops have not been harvested. And, white flags dot buildings, signaling that no combatants are present.
Despite repeated assurances from officials that the area is secure, the peace in Buner feels fragile. Outside the military headquarters in Dagger, there is little presence of paramilitary troops or police. During the drive into Buner, up a steep and rocky road of hairpin twists and turns, no vehicles were stopped and searched.
But Colonel Janjua is adamant. He says Buner is safe.
"There are certain areas which have been handed over to the police," Janjua said. "Now they are taking care of it. There are certain areas which we are in the process of giving that area to the police so that they can function there and the system can function."
Battle scars are evident
Some of the most intense fighting in Buner took place in Sultanwas, a strategic village where Taliban fighters repulsed a local civilian army - known as a "lashkar" - and set up headquarters. Evidence of pitched battles include a large burned-out army tank still sitting on the main road . Directly across from it is large building that was reduced to rubble. The army finally called in air strikes and prevailed over the Taliban.
Resident Shabar Khan was trapped in Sultanwas, as the fighting raged on.
Khan says he feels safe now that the military is here. But he says, when the Taliban first infiltrated Sultanwas, the Pakistani police did not do much to protect the population. He worries that, if the police are not willing to assert their authority, the Taliban could return.
Plans for temporary housing
The top civilian administrator of Buner, Yahya Akhandzada, says officials are ready to assist people like Khan with plans to build temporary housing for those whose homes were destroyed. He says other necessary aid is on its way and that the population is ready to come back.
However, he will not rule out the possibility of a future assault by the Taliban.
"It is a fear that they will rise up again and they can create a problem," Akhandzada said. "So, for that purpose, it is our suggestion that the military or paramilitary forces should stay with us in some time, in the background, for a supportive role for certain check posts that are very strategic."
The goal now is to hold Buner. When asked where Taliban fighters who were not killed during the conflict fled to, the military appears unsure, saying only that many were wounded and others have melted away into the districts' mountains.