Citizensí Aid to the People of Bajawar

    October 13, 2008
    Pak Tea House

    We are publishing a note drafted in early October, 2008 by Shandana Khan – a citizen activist – who has been visiting the camps and raising funds for the displaced residents of Bajaur. The note is an eye-opener, it has that earthy, real feel to it and of course one need not agree with the conclusions on the war on terror. However, it displays that citizenry in Pakistan is alert to the menace of war, aggression and displacement of unarmed people – the real victims of war. In Shandana’s words, she is not only assisting but also “keen to tell their story, a story much ignored”. (Raza Rumi ed.)

    In a span of about six weeks, starting in August 2008 and ending on 30th September 2008, we have collected PK Rs 558,000 from 27 people. These donations came mainly from inhabitants of Islamabad and also Dubai and the UK.

    We are doing philanthropic work, only as citizens with a conscience. We feel that our own people need to wake up to the plight of the displaced from Bajawar and other areas being bombed and torn asunder by ourselves and by outsiders.

    The fund raising is spearheaded at present by myself, my aunt and her sister in Mardan, and my cousin Habibullah Khan. The funds are going to camps and people from Bajawar outside the camps, in Mardan district. Mardan is at the edge of the trouble, bordering Malakand agency. Many of us fear it is ‘next in line’ as the law and order situation and the infiltration of the ‘Taliban’ is staring us in our faces.

    The immediate reaction of the people of Mardan was to donate to the thousands who had run from the bombing. The Mardan District Nazim, Himayatullah Mayar, estimates about 60,000 people from Bajawar have entered Mardan District alone, since the operation in Bajawar Agency started. Of these 60,000 only about 4000 are in Mardan’s one camp of Shaikh Yasin.

    In the beginning the people poured in. Into relative’s homes, into schools, into make-shift camps and, sometimes, just sat by the road side and in empty field – wherever they found a peace of land and some peace of mind. Being absorbed into the local population, the feeling of helping them was strong and Mardanwals started donating ‘degs’ of food and other items to these people who were driven away from their homes. Some ran in the middle of the night – without shoes, some left their dead under the rubble of their homes, some walked for days before they found peace, most left their livestock behind.

    My cousin Habibullah called me and said we must do something for these people. I think the main driving force behind him is his own driver, Khan Syed, who belongs originally to Bajawar and who has 13 relatives from there in his home. He is bearing the ‘host family’ burden but with courage and a smile.

    We were first wondering whether to give out the cash we collected or buy items. My Mami (Habibullah’s mother) said that there were many women and that they would not be able to go to the bazaar to buy anything. She took matters in hand like a tough Pathan and went around the schools and the make-shift camps and assessed what was needed. The immediate need was food, clothes, shoes and something to spread on the floor to sleep on.

    After some of the displaced people were moved into camps in and out of Mardan District, our campaign continues. We now work in the Mardan camp of Shaikh Yasin but we are open to working in others, especially in the Benazir Camp in Nowshera District, as it is close by. We also continue to assist people who are living with their relatives – there are many, many more of these than those in the camps.

    We are not only keen to assist but we are keen to tell their story, a story much ignored.

    Visit to Two Camps in Nowshera and Mardan Districts

    As you have all given generously I thought I must go and see the camps and visited with two cousins, my Mami and her sister Shahida (a real woman activist), on 28th September, 2008. But when I went I asked nothing at all about the things and the money that bought the things. After all, we had the details and we knew their use (see Table1). I increasingly thought about one question – why is this all happening to these poor people? When I went I decided to walk into quite a few tents, to talk to the women. These were the ‘purdahs’ that keep our women inside. They are inside anyway and now they have had to run, some barefoot, traumatised, leaving dead children and husbands behind. The first tent flap I raised I got a strong reaction until I spoke. She was surprised – I spoke Pukhto – they had probably never seen Pathan women roaming around. “For God’s sake”, I said, “I want to come in and talk to you”. She suddenly smiled and was most welcoming and once I had sat with her, another one and another one came. Hot, humid and dank the tent was. Suddenly there were many children on the muddy floor. Their faces were scared and expressionless.

    ‘What is going on?’ I asked her. She was young and beautiful. Sitting with her were two small children and one about ten years old. She said ‘It is a war against the ‘kalma’ and against Islam. The big American planes, the black frightening ones, they come and bomb us. My 18 year old son was killed in a madrassah 2 years ago – I only have his name on the tip of my tongue and in my mind. Wherever I look, he is there –  Sajid, Sajid’. Her eyes filled with tears and dried up as quickly. She continued to talk. But then who are these people who preach Islam and killing and who have brought killing upon you. ‘Yes’, she agreed, ‘there is chaos. There is killing everywhere’. We talked for a while and then I moved out.

    Suddenly a man opened the flap of the tent and then shut it. It was her husband – an old man. ‘What are you doing with this old man, you are young?’ I said to her laughing. ‘He has grown old with worry.’ she responded.

    Outside the tent I spoke to him and the women came out and joined in. What do these people want, who claim to preach Islam? They said they want Shariat and to bring Islam. “What does that mean?: I asked. “Then they should give women their rights”. “Yes, they tell us to give our daughters and wives their right to property”. Clearly the sentiments were confused, confused because foreign planes were also bombing them. The more these planes bomb, the more will these people be pushed towards yet another monster. Right now they hate them both – both bring killing and death.

    The Benazir Camp in Risalpur Noshera has about 400 families and is managed by the Pakistan Red Crescent. It is well managed. There are other NGOs providing food, health and education in the camp, there is a primary school and the people have also been vaccinated. Despite our own people managing the camp, three things struck me – and  have stayed with me since. One was rows of stoves or mud ‘chulas’ under a large, large ‘shamiana’. What are these for – well the camp management said these are for the women to cook but they never come out. I was surprised. Why would they come out? These women have had cloistered lives, suddenly unprotected by bombing, running from their homes, loosing their children and thrown into this place with strangers all around. They are shattered.  They will certainly not come out into the open and cook in a communal kitchen. At least not now. They will cook right outside their tents, maybe even in them when winter comes. This reminded me of the situation in the earthquake stricken areas of NWFP and Kashmir – exactly the same issues and yet exactly the same blindness. Of course the ‘chulas’ remained unused. The other thing was the school in the camp. It was good to see it. I asked a child of about 5 whether he went there and he said yes. He said this was the first school he had ever attended. The third was the woman in the tent I spoke to. She said they had vaccinated her and her arm was still hurting. She was suspicious – what is this, is it a bad thing? I said I had also had a vaccination and that it was to prevent her from getting sick. She had never had an injection in her life. Yes, this is the plight of these people. This is what our government has done for them – nothing. So, yes when others come and claim they will do more – what do we expect them to do? For these people, anything is better than nothings – and that is what lies at the route of all this. This is the crux of it all. But now it is too late, it is much too late.

    In the Benazir Camp, 25 families were sitting out in the open – no tents. The Red Crescent said they could accommodate no more people but they fed them and gave them other facilities. They said there was a standard distance between tents which they had already shrunk, to avoid hazards such as possible spread of fire, etc. They could not take in any more people. Mufti Sahib, who was the Red Crescent camp manager, was a dedicated and professional man. His camp was clean and he coordinated other NGOs who came in with health, education and food. Water was available. Tents were provided by UNHCR. The Benazir Camp comes under the Afghan Commissionerate for refugees. How ironic it is, that in our own country Afghan refugee camps have been turned into camps for our very own people.

    At one side of the camp there was much activity – we saw banners of the Ummah Welfare Trust. We went to talk to them. They were busy stocking Eid packets, which also contained toys for the children. Each box was colourful with a large ‘Eid Mubarak’ written on it. They also had large stocks of essential food items – flour, tea, sugar, etc. They looked like a motivated and organised team and we were curious about them. They explained that they were registered in the UK and were set up by Shaikh Idrees from Sawabi District. They had a brochure which showed that they worked in about 6 Muslim countries across the world and in relief, mostly. A truck arrived of new stock and the team got busy.

    We moved next to Shaikh Yasin camp in Mardan District. This was run by the Civil Defence department of the District Government. It was not as well run as the Benazir Camp. We were inundated by five women in blue burqas. They had been sitting out for days – no tents. Why not? The camp supervisor said the camp was full, despite the fact that there was a huge field next to the tents. He said we should talk to the DCO to sort this out. I sent a message to the District Nazim through an uncle and late that night he called. He said the open field was used for camp meetings with the people and that no more families could be accommodated. I requested him to at least let these poor people know that they had to go to Kacha Garai camp in Peshawar. He said he would go there the next day and do so.

    Here again, I went into many tents. One woman, Badro, was in her tent with 3-4 small children. Her husband had been killed in the bombing. Nobody ever found him. She knew no one around her and stayed inside. “They were meant to bomb the Khan’s house but it fell on our house. I never saw my husband”. Why the Khan’s house? ‘Because he was harbouring the ‘Mujahideen.’ At this point a beautiful 13 year old with green eyes said “He was harbouring them because they gave him money. He also harboured the Army when they gave him money”. The cynicism in her voice at that age was painful to see.

    Another tent, another woman. “They want to bring Islam and Shariat” said one. “So what are you then? What are you if you are not Muslims?” I asked. She smiled “Yes, I know we are Muslims. We don’t know what they mean and what all this is about”. Another woman picked up a black burqah. “This..”  She said “no more chaddars, they say, women now have to wear burqahs”. She laughed “Yes, this is what it means to them.”

    We walked and walked and talked. We made lists of people who had no tents. We were inundated by children who had no shoes. We took children’s shoe measurements to put our money towards shoes next. We drew the outlines of their dirty little feet on lots of paper – a good distraction from them.

    The day passed so quickly and the brain was fuzzy. It was hot and it was Ramzan.

    I went there with my Mami and her sister. Tough women, concerned about their people. Mami said that the main guy who helped them in distribution was ‘Nazim.’ Who was this Nazim? Well he called me in the evening and I asked him – Nazim Qayyamuddin. He said he was not a Nazim but that people called him that! He was actually the head of Al Khidmat Society, the JI NGO, for Mardan district. He had helped day and night and when I spoke to him he said he had full lists of people living in the villages and promptly sent me neat excel sheets that evening, via e mail.

    At night when the Mardan Nazim called me he said that there are about 60 thousand people from Bajawar in Mardan District. Only 4000 are in camps. They are mostly in the villages, with relatives. He said the District Government could not accommodate more – “we have to think of our security”. He said that the government had to be careful as ‘there are all sorts of people amongst them.’ This is the plight of these people and the response of our government. Who is to decide who is what and who is right?

    Here are these poor people, having fled from their homes, petrified. They have never had to ask the questions they ask today. But they MUST, they must now ask themselves these questions. Is it not too late? Their lives may have changed for ever. Tossed about by those who want power, whether through religion of simply through money. Wining hearts and minds, as the Americans say, cannot be done in this way. It is a cancer and a fire that is coming our way. It is a deep fire that will destroy us all.

    And people like you and me – what should we do apart from donate a few thousand without blinking, a few thousand at a charity to make ourselves feel good about ourselves? Surely we need to do more – why – because we also have to save ourselves. Yes, we have to save ourselves because that is what it is all about now. So the divisions are deep. Deep between our own people. Yes, this IS our war, our war with our own people. It is a war we will never win.

    Note: Please note that a donation of Rs 115,000 still remains with us on 6 October 2008, for further distribution.

    Orignal article can be viewed here