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Longing for Peace in Pakistan

Inter Press Service, OneWorld US, News Report, Posted: May 14, 2009

WASHINGTON, May 14 (OneWorld.net) - British aid worker Habib Malik describes the situation for some of the 1.3 million Pakistanis -- mostly women and children -- that have fled their homes in the country's conflicted northwest and are now residing in camps.

Days of walking across northwest Pakistan's mountainous terrain without sufficient food and water. Families separated in the chaos of flight from their native villages. Sweltering heat, a shortage of tents and other resources, and a growing number of people made homeless by the fighting between the Taliban and Pakistan's armed forces in the nation's North West Frontier Province (NWFP). These are the realities that Malik, a staff of the international humanitarian organization Islamic Relief, witnessed and was told of when visiting the Tara Kai camp in Swabi, Pakistan, where many of those displaced have taken shelter. "These people did not want to have to leave their homes, or to be living in camp," writes Malik. "All they want is to return home, and to return to peace." (Read Malik's full statement below.)

The number of people fleeing and seeking to flee their homes in northwestern Pakistan has spiked since a massive operation by the Pakistani military was launched on May 5 "to flush out Islamic fighters in Buner, Swat, and some areas in the nearby Dir district," reports the humanitarian news agency Inter Press Service. "The provincial government estimates between 150,000 to 200,000 people have already arrived in safer areas of [NWFP] over the last few days, with another 300,000 already on the march or about to leave," stated the United Nations late last week. These internally displaced persons (IDPs) are joining an additional 550,000 IDPs from Pakistan's tribal areas and NWFP. The influx "will place huge pressure on the resources already shared by around 93,000 people sheltering in 11 [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] UNHCR-supported camps and over 450,000 staying in rental accommodation or [with] host families," added the United Nations. In response, the humanitarian agency has established three new camps for people made homeless by the conflict and is providing relief supplies and necessities -- including tents, jerry cans, safe water, and hygiene kits -- to hundreds of thousands of those affected.

"Pakistani armed forces and Taliban militants should take all necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties in fighting in Pakistan's volatile Swat valley and adjoining areas of the North West Frontier Province," appealed the international monitor Human Rights Watch (HRW) this week amid reports that the Taliban is preventing civilians from leaving the combat areas and using them as human shields. The watchdog "also received reports from people forced to flee the fighting, that the Taliban are continuing their vigilantism and violent attacks, including killings and public beheadings, particularly in Mingora."

"Since 2007, the Taliban have imposed their authority in Swat and adjoining areas through summary executions -- including beheadings -- of state officials and political opponents, public whippings, and large-scale intimidation of the population," writes HRW. "Girls' schools have been shut down, women have not been allowed to leave their homes unless escorted by male family members, polio immunization programs were halted, and nongovernmental organizations were expelled." In early April, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari signed a peace accord increasing the Taliban's control over numerous districts within the NWFP and allowing them to establish their version of Islamic law in Swat in exchange for laying down their arms. Last week, however, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani "declared an end to the peace deal with the Taliban, citing multiple violations of the deal by the Taliban and vowing to 'eliminate them,'" explains HRW.

The U.S.-based Islamic Relief launched an initial $750,000 emergency appeal Monday to assist the nearly 2 million people affected by the violence and growing humanitarian crisis in Pakistan. "Assistance will include the provision of emergency aid such as blankets, clothing and cooking sets, supplies of clean water, and psychosocial support for traumatized children," writes the organization.

Women and children struggle alone in Pakistan camps

Habib Malik is a British aid worker with Islamic Relief. He is currently in Pakistan's troubled North West Frontier Province and reports from the camps in Swabi where many of those displaced by the fighting have settled. This was originally published by Reuters AlertNet.

Today we visited the Tara Kai camp in Swabi, home to many of those displaced by fighting in northwest Pakistan. This camp is on the site of a middle school but none of the 500 children who study here are in lessons at the moment. Their classrooms have all been taken over by those forced from their homes by fighting in the Swat Valley.

People have made their way to this camp, and many others like it, any way they can. The lucky have come by truck or cart, the unlucky on foot. The majority of those in the camps are women and children. They have come on their own leaving their husbands to look after their land and houses.

Many of the women I spoke to talked of walking for many days over the mountains with little food or water. Most had no possessions except for the clothes they were wearing. A few did not even have any shoes and their feet were badly cut and bleeding after walking so far.

One ten year old boy I met was in the camp on his own. He had been separated from his family in the chaos as everyone fled from his village and has not seen them since. Unfortunately his story is not unique.

At the entrance to the camps I saw many people, mostly the very young and the very old, gathered and begging the security guards for information about their loved ones. They wanted to know if those they had been separated from had turned up in the camp or if anyone had seen them. It was heart breaking to see the looks of despair on their faces when they were told that the answer was 'no'.

Latest estimates put the number of displaced at 1.3 million and yet people are still continuing to pour out of the Swat Valley. A curfew is imposed every evening which means people do not have long to reach a place of safety, otherwise they will be trapped for the night.

All along the road from Buner to Swabi, local people have set out stalls with food, juice and water and were handing these supplies out to those on the move. These small gestures are greatly appreciated; I saw looks of joy and relief on the faces of mothers whose children had been given a small amount of juice to drink.

This region is poor and the people who live here are already struggling with the influx of newly displaced people, but they all want to do what they can to help.

The temperatures here are currently well over 30 degrees and will continue to rise, making conditions in the camps desperate. I spent only a few minutes in one of the tents and found it unbearable; I cannot imagine what it must be like to live here day after day. But these people are lucky to have a shelter. As more people continue to arrive at these camps it is becoming clear that there is a serious shortage of tents that will only get worse as the displaced population continues to grow.

There are shortages of food in the camps and I saw lines of men who had been queuing for hours since after morning prayers for rations of food; all of them looked defeated and desperate.

Clean water is also in short supply and many children are already suffering from diarrhoea. As the number of displaced people continues to swell, the threat from waterborne diseases will also increase.

The people I spoke to in the camps said that they felt they no longer had any future as they had lost everything they had worked so hard for in their lives. The children all said that they wanted to go back to school, but that is simply not possible. They want to lead a normal life, to play, and to dream about becoming doctors and teachers. But nothing is normal at the moment and this is adding to the trauma that many are experiencing.

In the Tara Kai camp I met with Mohammed and his daughter who was born in the camp two days ago. This little girl has become something of a celebrity and everyone in the camp has been calling this new addition to the community Aman, meaning 'peace.' They see her birth as a sign of hope and a better future.

These people did not want to have to leave their homes, or to be living in camp. All they want is to return home, and to return to peace.

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