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Archive for May 11th, 2009

Credit: Reuters, Children displaced from Buner Reach for Food at UN Camp

Credit: Reuters, Children displaced from Buner Reach for Food at UN Camp

As the military intensified its offensive against the Taliban, media outlets on Monday cited Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who announced that 700 militants have been killed in the last four days, although the BBC added, “it is impossible to independently confirm these figures.” The NY Times also noted the difference between this number and the figures cited by the Pakistani military,  reporting that Malik’s number was a “far higher figure. No official reason was provided for the discrepancy.”

The Times added in its coverage, “At the weekend, the military put the number of killed militants at around 140 and has reported additional militants killed since then. The Taliban have not commented on their own casualties since the start of the latest offensive, and the death toll cannot be independently verified because aid agencies and journalists are barred from the conflict areas.” Haji Muslim Khan, a Pakistan Taliban spokesman, did tell Al Jazeera that the military was “lying” about the number of dead fighters, “to impress the Obama administration, because that’s where they get their money from.”

According to the Associated Press, Pakistan has not revealed how many civilians have been killed in the fighting, but the offensive “has unleashed a stream of refugees looking to leave the valley for safer parts of Pakistan’s northwest.” In Geneva, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] provided more specific details about the growing humanitarian crisis, announcing that over 360,000 civilians in the past 12 days have fled from the fighting and registered with the agency as displaced people. The figure brought to over 900,000 the number of people registered as uprooted in successive waves of fighting since last August. Other statistics I have read have put the number at one million. An article in the Washington Post today included interviews with IDPs from two camps. The Post’s Pamela Constable wrote,

…There is a pervasive sense of loss and worry among the families that keep arriving in overcrowded farm trucks and rented vans. In interviews in two camps Saturday and Sunday, some refugees said their homes had been destroyed in the fighting. Others said they had to abandon their goats and cows. And some, in their rush to escape, even had to leave their children behind.

Taj Mahmud, a vegetable cart puller, told the Post, “When the shelling started, my wife and I ran out to gather the children. It was like a hell outside, and we just started running…I realized that my son and my smallest daughter were missing. She is only 3. But my wife cried and said the rest of us would be killed if we stayed, so we kept going. I have no idea what happened to them.” The truly disturbing development is not just the people who are displaced, but also those who have been left behind. This past Friday, I listened to a chilling interview with a man who was still with his family in Mingora. He told BBC World Service the Taliban had cut trees to block the roads so people could not leave by vehicles. While many who are left are too frightened to escape, some are trying to get out on foot, which is increasingly dangerous given the intensifying offensive.

Fortunately, reported the BBC, “Tens of thousands of civilians took advantage of the lifting of a curfew in parts of the valley on Sunday to escape the fighting and join those already flooding refugee camps.” The news agency recently spoke to Dr. Arshad Ahmed Khan, who is director of medical services for the regional center at Mardan, and spoke about the provincial government’s ability to handle the influx of IDPs. Although BBC’s correspondent said the authorities may not have the capacity to deal with the displaced, Dr. Khan did note, “For the time being, we don’t have any big problem regarding medical facilities, but we are anticipating and requesting for help from international NGOs…that they should come forward and help these people.” Although he said the NWFP government was “doing a great job” by providing free medical and food to those who are displaced, non-profit organizations need to step up as the numbers increase.

On Monday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed Samina Ahmed from the International Crisis Group, who also discussed what has been labeled Pakistan’s “largest humanitarian crisis.” While I found the entire discussion to be incisive and insightful, Jones asked one very pertinent question that I wanted to highlight. When asked, “Would you expect… countries like Australia, which have troops just across the border in Afghanistan, to be doing a lot more than they currently are for the IDPs,” Ahmed answered,

That is absolutely correct. It’s important to understand that when you have people who’ve left a conflict zone, as these IDPs have, they are deeply distrustful of the militants. They know they’ve been displaced because of them. Here is an opportunity to win hearts and minds, but on the on the other hand it’s also in the interest of countries such as Australia because if that assistance isn’t forthcoming, if it isn’t provided urgently, the only gainers will be the militants. You already see some of the jihadi organizations setting up relief camps in places where there is no other assistance, either from the Government or the international community.

While this crisis is heart-wrenching, the media attention and international response it has garnered does give some hope that our government will be held accountable for the million who are already displaced. We all for the most part agree that this military offensive should occur, [well, unless you’re Imran Khan], but that does not absolve any of us – not the government, not the international community, and not the citizens of Pakistan – of the responsibility of helping these casualties of war. [Click here to read CHUP’s past post on how to help the IDPs in Pakistan]

Billboard in Peshawar, Image credit: http://www.twitter.com/bilish

Billboard in Peshawar, Image credit: http://www.twitter.com/bilish

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