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Pakistan: civilians continue to pay the price of conflict

09-09-2008 Interview

As clashes escalate between the Pakistani military and armed opposition along the Afghan border, civilians bear the brunt. Pascal Cuttat, head of the ICRC delegation in Islamabad, talks about how the organization is helping them.

  © ICRC / PK-E-00639    
North-West Frontier Province, Mardan, North of Peshawar. Displaced children in a mosquito tent.    
  © ICRC / PK-E-00635    
North-West Frontier Province, Mardan, North of Peshawar. Camp for people displaced from Bajaur Agency.    
  © ICRC / PK-E-00632    
North-West Frontier Province, Mardan, North of Peshawar. ICRC providing food and material aid to displaced people.    
  Pascal Cuttat, head of ICRC delegation in Pakistan    
     How concerned are you about the humanitarian situation in Bajaur Agency on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan?  

The recent escalation in the fighting forced more than 200,000 people to flee their homes in Bajaur Agency with little more than the clothes on their backs. From 31 Augus t the government suspended military operations in the border region for the Ramadan season. Some sections of the armed opposition did the same. This prompted tens of thousands of displaced people to return to their villages in Bajaur.

However the humanitarian situation is still extremely volatile, and there is no guarantee that the current lull in hostilities will last. We therefore remain very concerned about internally displaced people, the majority of whom are women and children. Around 50,000 are staying with host families or in improvised camps in locations such as schools. To give you an idea of just how desperate the situation is, some 14,000 people crossed over into Afghanistan because they felt that they would be safer there.

The displaced people most urgently need clean water and sanitation facilities, as well as shelter, food and access to health care.

 What sort of assistance is the ICRC bringing to those caught up in the fighting?  

This is a very complex conflict, with the situation changing constantly. While fighting seems to be calming down in certain regions, it is escalating elsewhere. There are large numbers of people on the move, some returning to their homes, others fleeing.

We are determined to make a real difference and to alleviate the suffering of those affected. Together with the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, we have been responding to the needs of the most vulnerable among the displaced.

Considering the cramped conditions in which displaced people are living and the risk of disease, our primary concern is to ensure that they have access to clean water and sanitation facilities. No amount of food, medication, or shelter is going to do much good if people contract water-borne diseases. The ICRC has brought equipment into Lower Dir District in the North-West Frontier Province, which absorbed some 50,000 displaced pe ople, to facilitate the installation of water-supply and sanitation facilities. Seven engineers are on the spot and have been installing systems, including water tanks and distribution ramps which are now operational. Clean water is being trucked in.

Some of the people wounded in the fighting were evacuated in ambulances organized by the Pakistan Red Crescent and treated with medical materials and drugs supplied by the ICRC. We are providing medical care for the wounded and organizing it for the displaced. We want to maintain this momentum.

We are distributing blankets, kitchen sets, tarpaulins and other emergency household items to hundreds of families every day. Together with the Pakistan Red Crescent we provided hot meals to families arriving in Peshawar. We are also distributing food.

 Do you have free access to all those in need of assistance?  

This is a conflict in a very volatile environment, and has implications for our own operational security. Therefore access to civilians in need is a challenge. However we are confident that we will continue reaching out to them. ICRC and Pakistani Red Crescent teams are present in areas with concentrations of displaced people. Together, they identify the most vulnerable among the displaced and assist them.

At the same time, the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan is assisting more than 14,000 people who have left Bajaur Agency for the other side of the border.

We are convinced that together with the Pakistani Red Crescent Society, we have deployed our humanitarian efforts in a way regarded by all actors on the ground as neutral and independent.

 Does the ICRC already have operational experience in the areas you have mentioned?  

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 complex, and its outcome, unpredictable. 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 acknowledge our neutrality and independence. This will give us the credibility on which we count to be able to move and work in the midst of armed conflict.

 Do you expect those who have returned home to stay there, or are they likely to flee again?  

For the sake of the victims we must hope that they will be able to stay in their villages, regain their dignity and resume their lives. A situation where women, children and the elderly live 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 ideal.

This said, we must be ready for all eventualities. Before the latest escalation, the conflict in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan had already been going on for some time. We are therefore monitoring developments on the ground very closely and stand ready to intervene if and when necessary.

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