June issue 2009
Between the Devil and the Deep Sea
Such is the desperation of the people displaced by the military operation in the NWFP, that some of those staying in the camps in the unbearably hot plains of Peshawar valley felt the head-money announced by the ANP-led provincial government for the 21 top Swati Taliban commanders should, instead, be spent on delivering badly-needed services to the internally displaced persons (IDPs). Most of them have no love for the militants but they do believe that the lure of money in Swat’s peculiar circumstances is unlikely to net the wanted commanders.
As things stand, the 200,000 or so IDPs in the 10 designated camps are far from satisfied with the relief effort put in place by the government, international donors, and foreign and local non-governmental organisations. The IDPs make up less than 20% of the total number of displaced people. The rest are largely hidden from the public eye, scattered in villages and hamlets, and staying with host families in Mardan, Swabi and other neighbouring districts. They occasionally receive some relief goods but don’t burden the government, thanks to the generosity of simple rural folk.
If one were to believe the NWFP government, the number of IDPs has crossed three million. And it is estimated that the figure could go up to 3.5 million, which would make it a challenge and a burden equal to the one posed by the Afghan refugees in Pakistan over the past three decades. But unlike the 1980s, when the West and its allies elsewhere in the world mounted a massive, sustained relief campaign for the Afghan refugees in a bid to strengthen the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan, there is little hope of getting the needed assistance for the Pakistani IDPs. This is evident from the poor response that the UN appeal for international assistance for the IDPs has received thus far.
The UN appealed for $543 million to cover the cost of looking after the needs of 1.5 million IDPs, and not counting the ones who were displaced later and are still being uprooted, for the six-month period ending December 2009. But until the end of May, it had received $88 million only, constituting 16% of the appeal. There is hope that more money would be pledged and delivered by the donor countries in June, but the needs are rising with the displacement of more people due to the prolonged military campaign in Swat and the rest of the Malakand division as well as the extension of the zone of conflict to new fronts in tribal areas such as South Waziristan, Orakzai and Kurram. There is certainly donor fatigue as this is not the first time that Pakistan is standing in the queue seeking international assistance. Besides, the IDPs’ issue isn’t a natural calamity but is a man-made disaster, as an unprecedented number of people were driven from their homes due to excessive bombing by fighter jets and gunship helicopters, and shelling by long-range artillery guns.
It is still early to question the military tactics being employed to defeat an insurgency fuelled by religious slogans and local grievances, including the unresponsive system of justice and governance. But questions would be asked in due course of time whether this was the proper way to tackle a shadowy enemy that operates as a guerilla force, and is committed, battle-hardened and familiar with the terrain. Perhaps, there would be better ways to win the hearts and minds of the people while pursuing counter-insurgency operations. The military’s inability to kill or capture top Taliban leaders and commanders and the NWFP government’s decision to announce head-money for Maulana Fazlullah and his 20 comrades also raises questions about the lack of good intelligence needed for mounting effective counter-insurgency campaigns. Indeed, the media blackout imposed by the armed forces enabled it to portray only one side of the story and put a lid on reports of civilian casualties and human misery. This policy also created doubts about the claims of battleground achievements made by the military and fuelled rumours. The government will have difficulty reining in the media in case its military effort in the Malakand region faltered or failed to achieve its major objectives.
The NWFP government faced embarrassment when its list of the 21 most wanted Taliban commanders from Swat contained the name of a commander named Liaqat who was already in jail. The list, which was advertised in newspapers along with the head-money for each Taliban commander, also carried the photograph of a wrong person: a 29-year-old banker, Mohammad Mushtaq, who was wrongly identified as the Taliban commander Qari Mushtaq, carrying a head-money of three million rupees. As the advertisement announced the reward for any person who could help in the capture of commander Qari Mushtaq, dead or alive, the poor banker had to go into hiding to avoid being harmed. The two blunders committed by the NWFP government exposed the chaos and lack of coordination at the level of the provincial administration. It also highlighted the need for bolstering the inefficient intelligence network in the province and the country. While the secret service organisations have increased in number and expanded their networks, their performance in hunting down anti-state elements and preventing terrorist strikes hasn’t been up to the mark.
A minor controversy has also erupted about the exact number of IDPs. Doubts are being expressed in certain quarters about the figures provided by the NWFP government almost on a daily basis through its tough-talking information minister, Mian Iftikhar Hussain. Major General Nadim Ahmad, entrusted with the task to coordinate and spearhead the relief and rehabilitation work for the IDPs, pinpointed a few anomalies by claiming that the number of displaced persons in Dargai and Palai camps in the Malakand district was certainly not 100,000 as claimed. He felt duplication took place while registering IDPs at certain places and that long-time residents living in Peshawar, Mardan and other districts had got themselves registered as recently displaced persons. This was obviously done to claim some of the relief goods now being provided to the IDPs.
However, these are not the major issues at a time of the largest displacement of people in Pakistan ’s history. Someone estimated that more than 10% of the population in the NWFP has been displaced and the numbers are increasing due to unending violence. Those displaced are living in traumatic conditions because they were uprooted from familiar surroundings and thrown into alien places that were unsuited to their lifestyle and lacked privacy. The human and material losses have shocked and embittered them. Then there is the concern for family members and properties left behind. The IDPs, who are overwhelmingly farmers, are constantly lamenting the loss of their wheat crop that needs harvesting, the ripened peaches, plums, apricots and other fruits that cannot be picked, and the precious buffaloes, cows, goats and poultry that they left behind. In fact, many IDPs risked their lives and travelled back to their villages in Swat, Buner and Lower Dir to harvest their wheat crop, tend to their orchards and tobacco crop, and bring back some of their cattle herd.
While the government was finding it difficult to cope with the situation arising from the displacement of so many people, not much attention was paid to the thousands of people trapped in the war zone, without any access to food, water, electricity, medicines and other necessities of life. The New York-based Human Rights Watch highlighted the issue on May 26 by warning about a developing humanitarian catastrophe and urged the Pakistan government to lift the curfew in Swat and other conflict areas to allow food and medical supplies to reach the trapped population. It demanded airdropping food supplies and also facilitating the people wanting to shift to safer places. The army slowly began sending food supplies to the blockaded villages and to towns such as Mingora, but the affected people complained that the demand was higher than the goods that were supplied. A ten-fold increase in the prices of essential commodities was reported from the war zone, where medical supplies ran out and doctors fled for their lives.
The government tried to unburden itself of the IDPs from Bajaur and Mohmand tribal regions who had come here last year and are still staying in the seven older camps. However, not many agreed to return due to the uncertain situation in Bajaur Agency, where the militants, after suffering losses in the military operation last year, have again become active, and Mohmand Agency, which is still suffering from Taliban-inspired violence and retaliatory action by the security forces. The number of IDPs before the launch of the military operations against the militants in the Malakand region was almost 600,000. An overwhelming majority of them are still living in the camps, in rented houses or with friends and relatives, and are angry that the new IDPs from the Malakand region are getting a better deal.
By the first week of May 2009, there was a new influx of IDPs. The UN officials described it as the fastest major displacement in the world. The authorities in Pakistan failed to anticipate the level of displacement and were caught unawares. They were not equipped to cater to the needs of the half-a-million IDPs projected to abandon their homes as a result of the military action in Buner, Lower Dir and Swat. There would have been an unmanageable humanitarian crisis had the people of Mardan, Swabi, Peshawar, Charsadda and Nowshera not opened their doors and hearts to the IDPs and shared whatever they had with their uprooted Pakhtun kith and kin.
The government too, does not seem to have adequate resources to take care of such a large number of displaced people. And the situation could become dire if the IDPs are unable to return home within a reasonable period of time. That would obviously depend on the outcome of the military operations in Swat and the rest of the Malakand division. Having been made to sacrifice so much, the discontentment among the IDPs could reach alarming levels if they are stuck in the camps or in someone else’s home for a long time or are asked to return to their villages without ensuring protection for their life and property and making provisions, for the necessities of life.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.