Peoples response to the IDP crisis

    Wednesday, 13 May, 2009
    The News (Jang Group of Papers)
    By Rahimullah Yusufzai

    The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar

    A town named Rustam is often the first stop for internally displaced people (IDPs) leaving conflict-hit Buner district and entering Mardan. At a roadside gas station amid fertile farmland, volunteers young and old stop every vehicle bringing uprooted families to offer them packs of juices and packets of biscuits. Cooked rice is also offered and, at times, the displaced men and women are almost forced to eat before continuing their onward journey.

    The transit relief camp at Rustam is one of the dozens that have sprung up all over Mardan, Swabi and Malakand agency to assist people displaced by the military operation against Taliban militants in Lower Dir, Buner and Swat districts. It was set up by Sher Afgan, a retired colonel of the Pakistan army, with the cooperation of friends and members of his extended family. It was a spontaneous effort that began when one of his brothers, who happened to be the least fortunate in terms of wealth among this family of landowners, handed him a donation of Rs10,000. It motivated others to chip in with their own donations and now the daily expenses of running the transit relief camp range from Rs50,000 to Rs70,000. More than 20 degs of rice are cooked daily, a dispenser is at hand to provide first aid to ailing IDPs and there are plenty of volunteers ready to provide any assistance possible to the Buneris fleeing violence in their green and picturesque valley.

    The outpouring of goodwill and sympathy for the IDPs is amazing. People feel the pain of the displaced families and many believe this is going to be their fate in due course of time. The spiralling violence resulting from Taliban militancy and repeated Pakistan army operations has spread from one area to another and there is a strong belief that it will eventually engulf the whole of NWFP and then spread to the rest of Pakistan. Displacement and suffering, along with death and destruction, has become something normal for the Pashtun people in both Afghanistan and Pakistan since the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2007 because the world's only superpower couldn't let go an opportunity to avenge 9/11 by destroying Al Qaeda and the Taliban sanctuaries in the Pakistan-Afghan border areas. America's revenge is unending and it isn't bothered if its occupation of Afghanistan and its blatant interference in Pakistan's affairs is fuelling further anti-US sentiment and destabilising the lone nuclear Islamic country.

    The federal and the NWFP governments, ill-prepared despite being aware of the looming humanitarian crisis, are lucky that an overwhelming majority of the IDPs aren't taking refuge in the hastily established camps to accommodate them in Mardan and Swabi. Instead, they are putting up with relatives, friends and, in many cases, with complete strangers. Almost every village in Mardan and Swabi located close to Swat and Buner has taken in the IDPs and put them up in spare houses and hujras, the male guesthouse in Pashtun homes. There are hundreds of worthy examples of villagers with limited means opening their hearts to welcome the displaced households and offering them space to stay. One such example is that of Fazal Mahmood from Bakhshali village in Mardan who said he was hosting 100 displaced people from Swat in his spare rooms and hujra. Obviously, he wanted to motivate others to do the same. But most people didn't need any motivation because the public response to the humanitarian challenge throughout the length and breadth of NWFP and gradually even outside the province has been tremendous.

    The makeshift camps for the IDPs leave much to be desired. These are open spaces, often agricultural land where the wheat crop has been freshly harvested, where the UNHCR-supplied tents are pitched both for living and for housing community toilets, kitchens, mosques and medical centres. At the Jalala camp near Takht Bhai town, known for its archaeological site dating from the Gandhara civilisation, the tents are haphazardly pitched so close that one cannot walk between them. According to the aid organisation, World Vision, the conditions in the IDPs camps at Jalala and Sheikh Shahzad in Mardan district and at Chotha Lahor and Yar Hussain in Swabi were intolerable due to high temperatures and lack of electricity.

    The government's inefficient handling of the IDPs at the camps is compensated by the good work done by the UN agencies, the ICRC and the non-governmental organisations, not the western-funded that figure prominently in the media and love to do advocacy work concerning issues of human rights and gender but the Islamic-rooted ones like Al Khidmat and Ummah Welfare Trust. As was the case during the 2005 earthquake in Azad Kashmir and NWFP, this time too the Islamic NGOs are far ahead of others in quickly and efficiently responding to the needs of the IDPs. Traders, doctors and other professionals are also providing resources, skills and time while caring for the needs of the IDPs.

    The most desperate IDPs, the ones who don't have relatives and friends with whom to stay and are required to put up at camps, generally prefer the schools and colleges that are being converted into makeshift camps. The provincial government announced an early start to the summer vacations to make the educational institutions available for use as IDP camps. Built-up places like schools provide certain basic services and some privacy that isn't available at the open, tented camps. Cultural and religious constraints often restrain the IDPs from the conservative Malakand division to live in these camps. However, many IDPs have no choice and they agree to stay at the tented camps.

    Many IDPs are heading for cities outside the NWFP and it includes Karachi, where there are better chances of finding means of livelihood than anywhere else in Pakistan. It is another matter that the MQM leader Altaf Hussain, anxious to retain his grip over the affairs of urban Sindh, sees a Talib behind every displaced and suffering Pashtun family that manages to reach Karachi. The well-to-do among the IDPs, who obviously aren't many, have rented houses in urban areas in the Frontier and beyond. They have their own peculiar problems after having left behind precious property and homes full of costly household goods. Reports of gunmen breaking into houses in Swat, Buner and Dir and looting things are causing concern among all the IDPs, particularly the wealthy ones.

    The total number of IDPs is anybody's guess with all kinds of figures floating around. They could have crossed the figure of 1.3 million by now considering the fact that almost 600,000 IDPs had come from Bajaur, Mohmand, Orakzai and Darra Adamkhel tribal areas before the launching of the new military operations in Lower Dir, Buner and Swat in April and May. The figure will definitely rise because more people are leaving and even come from places like Malakand Agency and parts of Lower Dir where no military action is taking place. The bombing by jet-fighters and strafing by gunship helicopters and the use of long-range artillery shelling by the armed forces in densely populated areas is causing fear and forcing more frightened people to move to safer places. It is possible the military leadership considers these tactics as the best in the circumstances to tackle the militants but the IDPs and many others think otherwise. The general feeling among the IDPs is that the aerial strikes and artillery shelling don't inflict much damage on the militants and instead displaces inhabitants of peaceful villages. As a military victory against the Taliban may not come soon, the government will have to come up with better and long-term plans to look after the IDPs. This would be important because the common people presently hosting the IDPs and offering them assistance cannot sustain this effort for long.

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