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Pakistan: a bed for the night

11-06-2009 Feature

The ICRC and the Pakistan Red Crescent Society have set up a camp in Swabi, North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), to receive up to 35,000 people who have fled the fighting in the province. They represent just a fraction of the overall number of displaced NWFP residents, who now number over two million according to official figures, but their stories give an idea of the phenomenon as a whole.

  ©ICRC/K. Kiviat    
Shah Mansoor camp, in Swabi.    

  ©ICRC/S. Mahmood    
Construction of latrines at Shah Mansoor camp.    

  ©ICRC/S. Mahmood    
Three-year-old Hassan finds a solution to the scorching heat.    

  ©ICRC/S. Mahmood    
A doctor attends to fellow IDPs at a primary health post in the camp.    

In the distance, neat rows of tents shimmer in the scorching heat. Not a cloud obstructs the glaring sun. The earth underfoot is barren and dusty on the outskirts of Swabi, but to the people who have had to flee their homes in the cool, green North-West to come here, the camp signals hope.

" When we saw the signs of the crescent and the cross, we knew help was at hand, " recalled Hamid, Zakia and Ilyas. " We’d seen these symbols before, but they had never meant so much.”

For some, displacement has meant the loss of their children, misplaced during their escape. Ilyas'eyes cloud over as he recalls his panic.

" Halfway between my village and Swabi, in the middle of the night, my wife woke up in the truck screaming. We couldn’t find our daughter. We had left in a blur. It was dark. There was shooting and it was pitch dark. I piled everyone into the truck as fast as I could, " he says defensively. " Azzam the truck driver screeched to a halt when he heard all the screaming. He came running to the back.'Is it a bomb?’ he yelled, his eyes wide with fear. We told him'No, it's our five-year-old'.'Is it a girl?’ he asked.'There's a child sleeping on the floor in front of the passenger seat, is she yours?’ I jumped out of the truck and sprinted to the front. Sure enough, it was my dear Humaira.”

" Azzam is like my brother now, " says Ilyas. " He saved our lives. But he’s not been so lucky himself. There’s no trace of his teenage son.” He continues, sorrow visible in his eyes, " It’s the will of God. If we hadn’t have found Humaira in the truck, she would have been found some other way. I’ve seen your organization asking people questions and trying to help find people who are lost. That’s good work. I’ll tell Azzam to come and ask your people.”

Azzam did just that, and established contact with the ICRC teams in the IDP camps who are working to re-unite the thousands of families separated during the fighting and its aftermath. It is a provision of international humanitarian law that families separated by conflict must be re-united as quickly as possible.

Fortunately, the camp is not just a scene of loss; children are being born there too. Charbagh lies in Swat, some 300 km from Swabi. Nine months'pregnant, Zakia made it all the way from there to give birth at the Shah Mansoor camp. Proud paternal grandfather Sayid Wahid cautiously holds his newborn grandson, Sahil. " His name means the sea shore, " says Zakia. A happy occasion, but incomplete. Zakia's husband stayed behind. " He had to look after the crops,” she explains. " Otherwise we would have no income. We haven’t heard from him since. We hope the Red Cross will help us. "

An uproar of laughter halts the tears gathering in Zakia's eyes as her sister grabs her three-year-old, Hassan, and hauls him off for a bath after an impromptu session of mud-wrestling with his cousin. The provision of clean water and sanitation facilities has been one of the core objectives at the Red Cross/Red Crescent camp. Good water and sanitation are essential if disease is to be avoided. The teams have been extremely meticulous in maintaining the tap stands, and have been both successful and popular, as little Hassan would undoubtedly agree. Once under the tap stand, he refuses to move or let anyone share the stream of fresh water engulfing him. The rest of the camp dwellers giggle as Zakia's sister lures him away. " Come on, I'll give you a sweet when you’ve had your lunch.” She goes on “It's so hot, he's not eati ng anything. He just wants to play at the taps. " Another mother tries to pull her child away from the running water. " Come with me, or I'll phone your father and he’ll be very angry when he sees you,” she threatens. But her face betrays her uncertainty as to whether they will ever see him again.

The echo of loss resounds deeply across the camp, but there is a parallel sense of resilience. " I'm sending my older kids to the community school, " says Zakia. “I don’t want them to get lazy and forget everything, " she laughs. " You know how kids are.” The school is just one project set up by the camp committees, which are entirely made up of IDPs. There are all sorts of committees, dealing with issues such as sanitation, crisis management, food and discipline.

" The Red Cross is setting up community kitchens, so we can cook for ourselves now. That will be nice, " says Zakia. " I never much liked the way they prepared the food. Now they’re going to give us the food directly, and we’ll make it the way our families like.”

Zakia waves to a committee member. " Her husband was the one who caught the thief the day before yesterday; he's from the discipline committee. It’s important for us all to feel safe in this place. I think we’re recreating a sense of community.”

These are strangers turned neighbours in the camps. The only thing they have in common is the loss of their homes and, in some cases, their loved ones.

" A bullet hit my father, " recalls Hamid. " At first I didn't understand what had happened. He just fell to the ground. He was dead before I knew it. I am the man of the house now. I have to take care of my mother, brother and sisters. "

" How many brothers and sisters do you have Hamid … and how old are you? " we ask.

" Ten. "

" Years or brothers and sisters?”

" Both.”