June issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 11 years ago

It is difficult to assess the exact number of people who have been displaced by the fighting in Pakistan’s north-west region. According to Medecins Sans Frontières, as of May 19, 2,321,000 IDPs have been registered — about 275,000 in camps and 2,046,000 outside camps. As many as 26 camps are in operation in six districts of the Frontier province. The number of displaced continues to soar as more people flee Swat and other areas of the Malakand district. However, tens of thousands of people still remain stuck in areas of intense fighting with limited access to food, water and emergency medical care.

Recently, while visiting some of the IDP camps, I was afraid that the situation would be as chaotic and disastrous as that following the October 2005 earthquake.Surprisingly, it was not as awful as I anticipated; there were no wailing women and people were not distressed to the same degree. The weather, however, was unbearably hot.

The dislodged youth seemed unable to comprehend the awful reality.  Children were running around everywhere, oblivious to the sizzling sun. To them, their displacement seemed like a picnic, with no schools to go to, and suddenly having thousands of other children to play with.  But eventually, they will want to return to their routine life, enjoying the safety and security of home. When might they be able to do so? No promises have been made so far.

The majority of the women were sitting at the entrances of their tents, covering their faces when men were in sight. The heat inside the tents was intolerable, but the culture of purdah was preventing them from coming out into the open; most of the tents had been opened from both sides to let in some fresh air. There were fewer men than women or children, and I wondered about their absence. Many had apparently decided to stay back to look after their property — the cattle and crops. Who knows if some of them are Taliban, fighting the armed forces at that very moment when their families were being looked after by the same forces they are confronting?

The army could be seen supplying water in some camps.  In one camp, military personnel distributed toffees to children.

Most of the tents were neatly placed and marked with the UNHCR logo. In addition, water tanks were set up by UNICEF, and water tankers could be seen replenishing them at regular intervals.

Cleanliness is also becoming a matter of concern for the IDPs; the absence of a waste disposal system has led to an unhygienic environment for the displaced Swatis.  In addition, a lack of bathing facilities is adding to their hardships. On one occasion, the latrines being used at the camps were found at places where drinking water was being accumulated for the displaced. It will be a nightmare once the camp inhabitants start drinking this water. I was comforted by observing the conditions at the Yar Hussain camp in Swabi district, where hundreds of children, along with some women, were seen standing and playing in a small canal flowing behind the camp site.

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Al-Khidmat Foundation, the charitable wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, appeared quite active and popular among the IDPs.  The foundation is providing medical services, food, and helping out local authorities with the registration process. One stall being operated by the PPP seemed deserted.  I did not come across any relief efforts being offered by the ruling ANP.

There is talk of some jihadi forces also working among the IDPs but none came to my attention. This was quite unlike the state of affairs after the 2005 earthquake when jihadis were seen everywhere. Ummah Welfare Trust, a UK-based religious trust, was also conspicuous by its widespread presence.

An absence of female doctors is a matter of concern. Meagre medical facilities were available, but can only deliver limited services in such an environment.

Providing food for the displaced is also a primary concern.  One can understand that it is a difficult task to feed such large numbers two to three times a day.  The authorities concerned should be applauded, however, for providing enough food for everyone.  Many even came for a second helping. At the time I visited these camps, the food was being served with the cooperation of the district authorities.  The food consisted mostly of rice, which is not a popular staple diet in this part of Pakistan, and some vegetables — mostly potatoes in the form of a curry.  Daal was also being served at some places.  I remember how, while distributing sacks of wheat after the earthquake in 2005, I saw one woman — in search for any sort of ration — watching me from a distance. I sent a sack to her and she reluctantly took it. Evidently, she could not muster the courage to join the crowd to beg for wheat, although she needed it.

The question is, for how long will this last and how many can the authorities feed? The best course of action would be to give a ration card to each family, or even some stipend money, so they may be able to cook the kind of food they want.

While visiting the IDP camps, one should keep in mind that the evacuees at these camps represent only the tip of the iceberg. A large number of children have been enrolled in government schools in the Mardan district, and hundreds of thousands of others are living in villages, mostly being looked after by the local residents.  The slightly well-off ones are seeking refuge with their relatives.

The current situation is disturbing to witness. It is apparent that the issue is not simply one of displacement; it is also about poverty. The families in the camps are completely dependent on the state and private donors for help. Although such donations are providing the IDPs with some relief, it is not a long-term solution to the problem. The best course of action is to generate employment and to also provide them with a decent source of income during their indefinite displacement period.