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Pakistan: displaced populations in extreme need

26-08-2008 Interview

Fighting between Pakistan's government forces and the armed opposition on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has intensified recently with many thousands of people forced to flee their homes. The ICRC's head of delegation in Islamabad, Pascal Cuttat, clarifies the humanitarian situation and explains what the ICRC is doing to help.

   

   
 
  Pascal Cuttat, head of ICRC delegation in Pakistan    
     
   
 
  See also video on Mardan Camp for displaced persons    
     
 How serious is the humanitarian situation on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan in Bajaur Agency?  

We are very concerned for the victims of this latest sudden upsurge of the armed conflict. Around 200'000 persons have left their villages in Bajaur Agency with not much more than what they had been wearing when the conflict intensified. Around 80% of these displaced people are women and children who are now staying with host families or in improvised camps in locations such as schools. They lack everything and need everything: shelter, access to clean water and sanitation, health care and food.

 What action is the ICRC taking to help those affected by the fighting?  

    

This is a fluid situation. The armed conflict is developing according to its own logic and large numbers are on the move. In order to make a real difference and to alleviate the suffering of those affected, we had to act quickly. Together with the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, we intend to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable among the displaced population. The very first families who arrived at Peshawar bus station received a hot meal from the ICRC and Pakistani Red Crescent Society teams. Some of the wounded who arrived first were evacuated in ambulances organized by the PRCS and were treated with medical material provided by the ICRC. We want to maintain this momentum. We are distributing blankets, kitchen sets, tarpaulins and other emergency household items to hundreds of families every day. Safe water distribution points are being set up in five camps sheltering around 25,000 displaced people in the Lower Dir district in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Seven engineers are on the spot working to establish systems including water tanks and distribution ramps that should be operational by the end of the week. Clean water will be trucked in. Medical care is being provided for the wounded and is also being organised for the displaced. Food for the displaced is on its way and distributions will start over the next few days.

 Are you confident of being able to reach all those requiring assistance?  

    

We are confident even if the environment is a very challenging one. Joint ICRC/ Pakistani Red Crescent teams are on the ground where the IDPs arrive and we are, together, able to identify the most vulnerable and to assist them. At the same time, our delegation in Afghanistan has started to assist more than 2,000 families who have left Bajaur Agency for the other side of the border. This is a conflict in a very volatile environment, which has implications for our own operational security. However, we are convinced that together with the Pakistani Red Crescent Society, we have been able to deploy our humanitarian efforts in a way which is regarded by all actors on the ground as those of a neutral and independent actor.

 What experience does the ICRC have of already operating in these areas?  

The ICRC has been permanently present in Pakistan since 1981. This includes work in the Tribal Areas and the North West Frontier Province. The situation has of course changed over the years and the current conflict is following its own logic and dynamic. We are nevertheless confident that the Government of Pakistan, its Armed and Security Forces, as well as the armed opposition and the civilian population know us well, and our neutrality and independence. This will give us the c redibility on which we count to be able to move and work in the midst of armed conflict.

 Do you expect the displaced to be able to return home soon or are we looking at a long term assistance operation?  

    

For the sake of the victims we must have the hope that they can quickly return to their villages, recover their dignity and resume their lives. A situation where women, children and the elderly are living in camps and with host families, separated from their husbands, fathers and sons because the men have remained in the area affected by fighting to protect their property, is not one that must last.

While maintaining this hope, we nevertheless have to be ready for all eventualities. Before this most recent escalation, the conflict in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan had already been going on for some time. We are therefore following developments on the ground very closely and stand ready to intervene if and when necessary.