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Pakistan: displaced people face social upheaval

17-09-2008 Feature

Fighting between government forces and the armed opposition continues in the region bordering Afghanistan. Civilians are paying a heavy price. The ICRC’s Sitara Jabeen reports on the cultural and social challenges facing displaced people on the Pakistani/Afghan border.


©ICRC/A. Majeed/pk-e-00631 
Children fetch drinking water in a camp for people from Bajaur. 
    The existing conflict between Pakistani government forces and the armed opposition intensified on 10 August, forcing thousands of civilians to flee. Abandoning one’s home with just the clothes on one’s back is tough, but now these proud people face the emotional trauma of a temporary lifestyle that clashes with deeply-held values.

The seven agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) lie in Pakistan, along the border with Afghanistan. Here, the mountains alternate between lush green and barren brown, providing a backdrop to what has traditionally been a peaceful culture. The valley of Swat is known as the “Switzerland of Asia,” renowned for its beautiful weather and vibrant culture. For these hospitable but proud people, with their culture steeped in ancient tradition, adapting to life in a camp for displaced persons can be hard.

For a map of the area, see ReliefWeb’s map Pakistan: Floods and IDPs (as of 5 Sep 2008) . Sticking it out in Swat – tough times for those who stay
A 20-year-old widow cries. Her four-month-old daughter is all she has left since armed men raided her house at night. They took the women outside, then burned the house and its contents. Next, they opened fire on five men of her family. Her husband, his brother and his father died before her eyes. Two of her brothers-in-law escaped. The bullets took the man with whom she expected to spend her life. The flames erased every tangible memory of him. Now, this young mother will bring up her daughter alone, and the little girl will grow up without the love and affection of a father. With every picture gone, she will never know what he looked like. 
    Many have fled the fighting in Swat, but many more remain. Those who stay do so for a variety of reasons; attachment to their homeland, fear of looting or fear of the conditions awaiting them in camps for displaced persons. Nevertheless, the strain of living in an area beset by fighting is taking its toll.

Food shortages are creating their share of problems. Economic life has come to a standstill, with shops closed and market deliveries halted. Local residents are dependent on external support for food, medicines and other basic items. Traditionally, the residents of Swat have been well-off, and this unexpected dependency is both an affront to their dignity and a source of low morale. People who were enjoying a high standard of living until recently are scraping to find basic food and shelter for their children.

Fleeing Bajaur – tough times for those who leave

Bajaur is one of the agencies that make up the FATA. Over 200,000 displaced persons from Bajaur are staying in relief camps in North West Frontier Province.

Most of these people fle d their homes on 10 August as the conflict intensified. They had no time to collect any possessions, and are completely dependent on aid. Temperatures are in the forties, making hygiene conditions in the crowded camps even worse.

One problem with living in camps is that people in this region are used to houses segregated strictly on gender lines. It is forbidden for women to be seen by males other than their close relatives, so living in tents has a major impact on civic life and daily routine. In their homes, women can put aside their veils in the absence of male strangers. Here in the camps, where men could see them at any time, they have to remain covered from head to toe 24 hours a day. This makes washing impossible. According to Wasif, a senior ICRC field officer who has been distributing relief goods in the camps, “These women have been unable to wash their hands and faces for over ten days.”

©ICRC/A. Majeed/pk-e-00636 
ICRC distributes emergency household items to displaced people from Bajaur. 
    Women are not the only group hard hit by camp life. Wasif continues: “It’s the children who affect me the most. When they saw our vehicle they gathered round it one by one, and soon there were 50 to 60 of them. All in rags, with dirty faces. Their beautiful b lue eyes and fair skins had been dulled by what they’d been through. Sorrow, shock and worry were written all over their faces. Their eyes were pleading for hope and security. Once-healthy skins had turned dry, and heavy perspiration coupled with a shortage of water had resulted in diarrhoea. Poor hygiene has been spreading epidemics. These children need help.”

Wasif knows and respects the people of the region: “Their social norms remain strong. They are the most hospitable people in the country and will offer you whatever they have, even if it’s only a cup of water. You’re always their guest. But you have to be careful, because if they feel that their self-esteem is being infringed, or that cultural values are being ignored, they can get pretty angry.

The ICRC has been working on both sides of the border, so many of the displaced people know the organization. It’s always a pleasure for field workers when people welcome us.”

The peaceful past of the Swat and FATA may be a rapidly fading memory, but its people long to return to normal life. What is needed now is a comprehensive response. This means not just meeting material needs but enabling these people to regain their dignity.