As the military offensive in Pakistan continues, an increasing number of people from the country’s northwest are left displaced, a topic I have consistently covered on this blog, [see this past CHUP post]. According to the BBC News last Friday, “The total number of people internally displaced within Pakistan over the past 12 months has risen to around 1.4 million,” and the UN reports that nearly a million have fled in the last two weeks. In order to gain further insight into the situation, CHUP interviewed Abdul Basit, who recently conducted an assessment of the situation of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Swabi and Mardan with the Human Relief Foundation in Pakistan. Below, he discusses the on the ground realities he viewed first hand:
Q: You recently visited IDP camps in Swabi and Mardan with your organization, Human Relief Foundation. Can you tell us a bit more about your trip, and specifically can you address how dire the current situation is?
I have been working for Human Relief Foundation for approximately nine months now as the Media and Project Manager and our slogan is that when we do something, we do it 100%. As soon as the crisis erupted in parts of Swat, Buner and Dir, we knew the biggest losers out of this conflict would be the civilians and no one else. So, we rushed to Swabi and Mardan, where most of the IDPs are moving to, to understand their problems and then become the catalyst that will bring relief, peace and harmony into their lives once again.
The current situation is very treacherous for the IDPs. The number of people are increasing everyday, and people who think it is going to stop at the one million mark are erroneous. I want to tell them that there are many parts in Swat (such as Bahrain and Kalam) where people are still stuck, once they get a chance, they will move out too, and therefore the numbers will increase. I would also like to share an important point that people who are living in camps at the moment are just around 100,000, i.e. 90% of them are living with friends, families, schools and even in poultry farms! These people are wandering in the streets of Mardan and Swabi asking for help; certainly this crisis has made them beggars and they don’t like this one bit.
Moreover, the biggest threat I can foresee is related to health issues. The problems are plenty: way too many people in a single tent, pregnant ladies are under severe trauma/stress plus there are no proper facilities for delivery, food quality is under par, malaria threat is obvious, toilets are few and far between and most shockingly, there are no separate toilets for males and females at most of the camps. The list is long; action speaks louder than words, and it’s time for action.
Q: What completely surprised you during your visit? What inspired you?
The thing which astonished me the most was how the IDPs reached safer places. One person told me that he walked for few days to reach Daragai with his family, from there, he hired private transport and reached Swabi. I and most of us could never walk for days!
A little boy stirred me in Mardan. This boy is suffering from thalassemia [a genetic blood disease] and is living in shambles with his family. They have no mattresses, no pillows, and beyond that, they don’t even know how to provide treatment to their son! Yet this boy had a wider smile than me and was giggling all the time. It shook me and I was out of this world. It took me some time to come back to reality if I was not witnessing it in front of my eyes. That boy is a prime example of strength and belief.
One thing is for sure, these people are strong indisputably, therefore I know they will survive this catastrophe but there will be complications later on.
Q: What is the current sentiment among the people you interacted with? How do they perceive their situation, and who do they feel is responsible for their predicament?
Everyone I met wanted to go back home. I can vouch for this; they stand for peace and not aggression. They cried to me that they don’t deserve this. In their areas, the harvest season of wheat arrives at this time, late compared to other parts of Pakistan, and this year they are going to lose their entire crop.
They allowed me to take photographs and none of them refused. I of course asked for permission, though I made a point not to take photos of their ladies. The impression in the media that is spread wildly about them is that these people are extremists and live in the Stone Age – this is entirely wrong and I believe it’s high time this nonsense is stopped.
Personally, I think the residents of Swabi and Mardan deserve accolades. Most of them have opened the doors of their homes to accommodate the IDPs. I have met people who have left their jobs and businesses temporarily just to settle the IDPs down. Besides that, on their own expense they are providing them food and shelter – an outstanding display of nobility.
Q: In your opinion, is the government doing enough to address the situation? Are supplies reaching these camps?
On my visit to the camp in Chotta Lahore, i.e. Yar Hussain camp in District Swabi, I was lucky to meet with the Chief Minister of NWFP – Mr. Ameer Haider Khan Hoti. I told him that we, i.e. non government agencies, require your support and resources to help these people and he assured me that his support is on our side.
In addition, the District Government is providing food at many camps. The problem is that all the camps have surpassed their capacity. Sheikh Yaseen camp in Mardan was made for 900 families; four days ago there were 1600–1700 families. I am sure that by now it would have reached 2500 if they have not stopped accommodating more families. Therefore, the government is not able to work efficiently. The influx rate of IDPs is increasing at an alarming rate and is becoming too difficult to manage. I met Mr. Sikandar Irfan, MPA [Member of Provincial Assembly] Swabi, who is running an excellent camp in Ambar – a few kilometers from the motorway – he is running one of the best camps as he has got all items in good stock – medicines, food, etc.
Interestingly, I have witnessed many District Nazims taking charge of the situation without using any resources from the government. They have taken up the responsibility of some schools where IDPs are living and are collecting funds on the roads from the general public to run their camps. They are undoubtedly doing unbelievable work. I believe more time should be given to the government because it is not humanly possible to accommodate more than a million guests who come all of a sudden. But on the same note, the government should speed up the relief work, because if people don’t find government officials supporting them, I am sure feelings of hatred would occur. Most importantly, the best way I think the government can help in this crisis is by winding up its military operation immediately and proficiently.
Q: What more can the international community and Pakistani citizens do to help?
The international community, overseas Pakistanis and Pakistani citizens need to act instantaneously as their brothers and sisters are in distress. They are in dire need of the basic amenities required to sustain a life and most horrifically the high temperatures in Mardan and Swabi are exacerbating their injuries. I would appeal to everyone to please send in their donations as soon as they can. The resources of the government and non government relief organizations will not be enough as the IDP numbers increase. Plus, I would ask doctors in general, female volunteers & mid wives, and pharmaceutical companies to visit these people and try to control the spread of disease and to facilitate the traumatized pregnant ladies. We would be mobilizing ourselves to the area in a week inshallah [God willing] and would look forward at the community to help us by any means they can. Charity is kind and never fails; please help us to help them!
If you would like to contribute to HRF, click here. For a central website where you can view statistics on the situation and numerous ways to help Pakistan’s displaced, please visit the Wikia Pakistan website. Finally, there are several notable websites/blogs that are solely dedicated to this situation – please see The Swat Plea, as well as IDP-Relief.