After returning from a relief distribution to Mardan in May 2009, I regularly followed up with events concerning the IDPs in N.W.F.P. Regardless of the numerous analyses (and conspiracy theories) emerging in the public discourse about the war and its affects, the priority for me remained in providing assistance to displaced families.
I tried to replicate the great work done by Lahore’s Concerned Citizens of Pakistan (CCP), who have adopted 9 IDP schools in Mardan and Swabi and are looking after the needs of 300 families by collecting donations from Lahore and giving food, medicines and other items through local NGOs of the area. Their families will be assisted after their return to Swat as well.
Besides the obvious difficulty of managing such a program alone, the great distance between Karachi and Mardan, my inability to follow up due to a hectic work schedule with Indus Resource Centre (IRC) and the lack of interest shown by people in Karachi discouraged me to the degree of becoming indifferent to the crisis.
By mid June, the IDPs had taken a backseat in the media networks, whereas the plight of displaced families became a routine matter for people, easily ignored and shrugged aside like another hunger strike by haris in Hyderabad or a drone attack in Waziristan. Friends who were trying to collect donations faced what’s called in the NGO world: ‘donor fatigue’. Everyone had given something from their pocket or bought food items, clothes or beddings and deposited them at one of the stalls in their city. Multinational corporations, wealthy businessman and salaried middle classes at home and abroad had given their share to the ‘Prime Minister’s Special Fund for Relief of Victims of Terrorism’ or to an NGO operating in the affected area. Average Pakistanis thought that maybe our role in this crisis had finished or as I heard from many people, ‘The military operation is succeeding and the crisis shall end soon.’
The horrible bomb blast in PC Peshawar on June 10th and the subsequent decision of World Food Program (WFP) and other UN agencies to rollback from N.W.F.P sent shockwaves in the relief efforts to IDPs. Threat to the survival of IDPs became real since WFP supplies the largest amounts of wheat and other consumables to camps all over N.W.F.P. Thankfully, foreign field staff exited the region but the agency is still operating quite effectively with local employees.
Then the news of IDPs returning home began to trickle in. This was fantastic since it’s impossible for a nation like Pakistan to care for a massive population displaced from their homes. Sadly, contacts at Mardan and Peshawar were narrating a completely different story. I had been itching for a month to go back and to learn about the situation first hand. Like before, it took me four days to arrange another trip to N.W.F.P.
I had friends joining me from Lahore and Islamabad. We had decided to carry as much relief as possible but were only able to gather Rs.200,000. At the last minute, the largest pledge of Rs.125,000 was pulled back and the remaining amount was too little for buying and delivering goods. Ms. Uzma Aslam in Karachi amazingly arranged Rs.50,000 in one night but I refused to take the money since it was impossible for me to manage procurement and distribution alone. I would like to thank and apologize Uzma for the sudden change in plans, hopefully her funds were utilized for IDPs in Karachi or Hyderabad.
I already had a ticket to Islamabad and thought of at least visiting the camp with friends to learn about the situation. However, these promised travelers also changed their plans after I had reached the capital on Friday night, July 3rd. I thought of canceling my trip and spending two days in Islamabad but then realized that I was too near the affected area to just sit around in the heavily guarded streets of our capital.
The next morning, I dragged a good friend, Foize Nasim, to accompany me for interviewing females at the IDP camps. We reached Mardan around 11 p.m. where I had already lined up people to interview at Jalala Camp and was surprised to see how much it had changed since I had last been there in late May.
The place where a reception and registration tent was present six weeks ago had moved out of sight into the farthest corner of the camp. In its place were long rows of newly pitched tents and a playground for children. Surrounding the playground were more tents and open shelters with groups of men involved in fervent activity.
A volunteer of an NGO Khwendo Kor met us here and introduced us to the camp manager Raheemullah, who worked for Salik Development Foundation (SDK), a Mardan based NGO which had worked in AJK for earthquake relief in 2005.
SDK had been funded by Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) to organize the playground, schools and training facilities for IDPs. This included vocational training of sewing and embroidery for women and electrician, plumbing and carpentry classes for men. The details of this program are available here: (http://www.ppaf.org.pk/idp.asp)
We sat inside a newly constructed primary school and waited for female teachers to arrive. I had been given the contact of Burhan from Swat, who was working at Jalala camp. Burhan had tried to go back to his home in Mingora and was keen to share his experience.
Foize went to interview the women in a training centre next door while I spoke with Burhan.
Married with 2 kids, Burhan Din is 28 years old and belongs to Amankot in Mingora, Swat. He is pursuing an M. Phil. in Anthropology from Peshawar University. He had been working for a trust called Muslim Aid in Mingora as a hygiene promotion officer for one year before he was forced to leave his home on the 2nd May, 2009.
Burhan mentioned that the problem of Taliban had begun two years ago and although they were not targeting civilians they were considered a threat by the people of Mingora. Security personnel, government servants and especially the military were their main targets as well as anyone they deemed worthy of punishment such as criminals, drug dealers and political party workers.
The arrival of the army in late April was a severe threat to his life and with the fighting intensifying, he like everyone else in Mingora city, decided to leave. Burhan took his family and reached Takht-Bhai on May 4th and was registered at the Jalala Camp. However, there was no room for people then in the camp. Along with five other families, Burhan, his wife, two children and parents settled at Government Boys Primary Schools Sher Hasan Kilay at Pir Saado in Takht-Bhai.
Luckily, Burhan found employment in the NGO SPAARC at Jalala Camp as a community mobilizer, running fun centers for children. When the violence began in Swat two years ago, Burhan had started collecting data for an anthropological study of the affects of talibanization on pakhtun culture. He had exact details of Taliban attacks in Swat and the changes he felt in peoples daily mannerisms. He was compiling this data for a thesis on his computer at home and the loss of this preciously collected data worried him most. He decided to return to Mingora for retrieving this data, along with other valuable which included his wife’s jewelry and property documents.
Along with his friend Sarfaraz Khan who wanted to go to his home in Saidu Sharif (his account follows later), Burhan left on May 28th and returned three days later.
This is Burhan Din’s story, summarized from his interview conducted on July 4th, followed by a few questions I asked him:
At this point Ataullah, who works for NRSP showed up at the school. He was accompanied by Shaukat Ali, who works for Olasi Khegara(Pashto word that means ‘Public Welfare’) a local Community Based Organization working in U.C. Madey Baba of Takht-Bhai.
I spoke with Shaukat about the situation from his perspective as a social worker of the area. He mentioned that all schools were occupied by IDPs these days. His CBO had started basic education classes for children in occupied schools and in camps as well. Shaukat shared that they were running an emergency boys middle and secondary school at Jalala Camp and for IDPs living in schools, they were conducting short classes.
Following is a small Q&A with Shaukat:
Is anyone funding you?
No, there’s no one funding us at the moment. We have volunteers, often IDPs themselves identified in schools, who work as teachers. We have books distributed free by the government or donated by NGOs and we have also collected used books from occupied schools. A few organizations have also donated notebooks, pencils and other items which we have distributed in IDP schools.
How long have these IDPs been in schools of your area?
They started arriving on 1st and 2nd of May. Some people have begun to go back, especially people from Buner in small numbers. Rest are families from Swat, Upper and lower Dir, Bajaur and Mohmand agencies, who have been living here for the entire last year.
First, there were only people from Bajaur and Mohmand and since May 2nd, when the operation began in Dir, most of the people have come from there.
If looked at in percentages, how many people have gone back?
As of now [July 4th] only two or three percent people have actually returned. People mostly from Buner have settled in Swabi, whereas Takht-Bhai is closer to Dir hence more people have settled here from Dir.
Can people of Swat return to their homes soon?
Some areas around Mingora are free and hence some have gone back to look after their properties but it is not possible for families to return at this point.
What do you think is the most urgent need for the government to address at this moment?
See there are two types of IDPs, those in camps and those who are ‘out of camps’ living with families and in schools. We thought the IDPs would be here for a few weeks but the situation is now tenuous.
The Out of Camp families need food and non-food items. The people here mostly farm ‘tobacco’ and ‘batian’, which needs to be placed in large storehouses. IDPs have moved into these warehouses and the season to farm tobacco has also arrived. If they can be provided shelters, then people can continue farming.
Secondly, for those in schools, living together in large numbers, electric water coolers can be arranged. At a school here, some university students set up electric water coolers, which is very helpful for IDPs living there. After they leave, the coolers will become school property and will be used by children. Hand pumps can also be placed.
Also, according to our recently conducted surveys, we need food supplements for babies and nutritious supplements for pregnant ladies as well.
Have you heard of the Rs.25,000 that was to be given to each IDP family?
I read in the newspaper that from June 20th, 2009 such cash would be given at Takht-Bhai sugar mill but people have gone and wandering around helplessly. There was no one to assist them or provide instructions. IDPs stood in line for hours under the sun and returned empty handed.
I’ve heard that yesterday (July 3rd), a list of IDPs has been provided to the U.C. Nazim, who will give them the promised cash. There are lists present at different offices and today (July 4th) people are going to look for their names on these lists. Other than that, I do not know what the procedure for this is.
What about schools of your area? What will happen to the education here?
Primary schools are closed on the 1st of June, where as middle and high schools are closed for summer vacations on June 15th. However, on May 8th all schools were closed by the government by announcements made from the nazimeen.
Now, if by August 31st, when the summer vacations end, the IDPs may be given shelter somewhere else so we can start our schools again.
On Saturday July 18th, Ataullah mentioned on the phone that most of Jalala Camp had been emptied and the government had directed all IDPs to start going home. They had ordered families in camps to leave first and then those living in government schools and lastly those with host families.
I spoke with Faisal from NRSP as well, who said that Shiekh Shehzad camp was 90% empty and people of Swat, Buner and Dir were being given army escorts back to their homes.
By this time, Foize had returned from her interviews with the women at the training centre. She spoke with Saira and Afsana, 20 and 18 years old girls from Mingora, Swat.
We left the PPAF supported center after speaking to men active in the vocational trainings. They were all from Swat and were grateful for learning the skills even in the dire conditions they were living under.
Most importantly, not once did any of the men and women Foize and I interviewed pleaded for help. They were adamant on returning home as soon as possible and did not appreciate pity by anyone.
We then visited emergency middle and secondary schools set up with collaboration of an NGO called Stars and Olasi Khegara at Jalala Camp. There were running two shifts in the same space and were running out of room for the number of children who wished to enroll there.
Friends at Karachi had mentioned a school near Jalala Camp where they had provided food goods in June. We decided to visit Government Girls High School (GGHS) Madey Baba, a six roomed school, 4 – 5 kms from the camp. Families who could not be accommodated at Jalala had been told to settle here.
Children were running around the front lawn, bed sheets draped like curtains surrounded the classroom windows and I was amazed to see two rickshaws from Swat. We were invited into a large room full of sleeping mattresses and bags staked in one corner. Foize went out to speak with women while I interviewed men gathered there.
First was Mehdi Ali, a middle aged man from Ingrid-Oray, near Mingora. He had been displaced with nine family members to this school. Mehdi worked in the Ministry of Agriculture and was angry at the government for not assisting its own employees. He had tried to reach his contacts in the bureaucracy but all his senior officers were themselves displaced to other parts of the country. Mehdi mentioned that when the operation began there was intense shelling in his area. His home was hit by rockets one day, which obviously forced him to leave immediately. He had walked a few kilometers with his family and then found a bus to Takht-Bhai.
Like others, he could find no at Jalala Camp and was directed to this school. He said that there was no wood, no gas and no money left to buy rations. The relief sent from Karachi had been used up in 10 days. They were only receiving wheat from WFP.
Then I spoke with Bashir from Kanju near Mingora, who drove taxis and rickshaws. He said that people had sold their cars to leave their homes and find safe haven elsewhere. A person in this school had brought two rickshaws he owned with him but he was not available at that time.
By this time a scuffle had started outside the room because people thought we had brought relief and they demanded their share. The door to our room was opened and everyone was shown that we had brought nothing with us. I could not continue speaking to any one person. One man said that the army had sent food in the first few weeks of the fighting. Another said that anyone who left their home during an operation in their area was shot dead.
An elderly man shouted that they had been supported only by NGOs, the government had been absolutely useless. He said that IDPs in schools or with their families have been totally neglected.
They were all speaking about the lack of medicines at the school. The medication available was too little and it was not the right kind of drugs for the people in schools, especially for women and children. There was synonyms views on return, that whenever the government announced, they would leave immediately.
I randomly asked if they thought the Taliban had been completely defeated and that they would never face any problems again. Some were ambivalent to comment, while others resolutely stated that we had never seen any Taliban in our area. They said they were the urban poor and were not concerned with politics. A few said that they could only answer after a few months have passed from the day they return home.
Foize faced similar difficulty in speaking to women at the school. She mentioned that women, children and elderly men surrounded her when she entered one room. They began showing her their wounds and illnesses. They narrated stories of long treks to reach Takht-Bhai and the deprivation they faced at the moment. Women pleaded her for money to buy milk for their children since they had no money left. Foize left small amounts for each women to buy whatever they needed.
I regretted not bringing Ms. Uzma’s Rs. 50,000, which seemed a tremendous amount at that time. I could have distributed Rs. 5,000 each to the ten families, easily giving them enough funds to buy food for themselves…
Ataullah metioned that only 5 families from GGHS Madey Baba had left on Saturday, July 18th, while the rest were still waiting for government support to lead them back.
I wanted to visit the Rural Health Centre (RHC) of Ganjai Hospital at Takht-Bhai where Awab and I had set up a warehouse of our relief goods in May. Our main contact, Dr. Maqbool Shah, was very welcoming and invited us for lunch.
I was delighted to see the empty hall we had used as a warehouse now working as a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) [Doctors Without Borders]camp. They had four rooms serving as a pharmacy and emergency care, while they were supporting an established OPD with doctors and medicines. Most impressive was the labor room they had created from scratch equipped with brand new items. I met doctors displaced from Swat and Dir working for MSF, who were too busy to sit around and chat with me. Foize spoke to a nurse in the labor room and learned that 3 – 4 deliveries were taking place at the hospital almost every day. (Pics-14,15,16 and 17)
We then went to the nearby Tehsil Hospital which was housing hundreds of IDP families since early May. The building was two stories high and bustling with activity. Foreign journalists were exiting the place when we arrived. We were guided into a well-furnished office where Mr. Mohammad Mukarram Shah of Light Home Foundation, a local NGO of Mardan was the manager. He mentioned that 271 families from Mardan were residing there for two months now. Surprisingly, no international NGO was assisting them, only a Pakistan Textile Trust and one Alamgir Trust was supporting them financially.
Mukarram said that they were spending Rs. 65,000 on food each day. They were cooking food in the hospital kitchen and using 10 cartons of milk, 300 kg of wheat and 155 kg of rice for each meal. It seemed that they were being flooded with massive donations to provide such huge quantities of food on a daily basis.
He stressed the need for female health provisions. They also indeed food supplements for infants and small children as well as highly expensive positive and negative injections. Any large equipment such as an ultrasound or an X-ray machine was also needed, which would obviously remain an integral part of the hospital once the IDPs left.
I spoke to Mukarram on July 18th and found out that a dozen families belonging to Mingora had departed home. The remaining are all planning to leave as soon as possible. Light Home Foundation was also planning to pursue the families to their homes and work on rehabilitation of the displaced people.
We then met a district government official whom I was asked not to name. He was referred by a friend in Karachi whose family is from Swabi. My friend had mentioned that politicians of the area were involved in relief activities and could be a good source to assess the ground realities.
The official was kind enough to receive us and spoke at length about the crisis. He began by telling us that Mardan had received IDPs not once or twice but three times in the last few years.
First was when the fighting began in Swat in 2007, post Laal Masjid disaster. He said that donor conferences were arranged by the district government at that time to support the displaced people. Philanthropists and concerned citizens of the area had assisted families by any means possible.
Second was in 2008, when operations took place in Mohmand and Bajaur agencies. The official mentioned that 75,000 people had come into Mardan then and Shaikh Yasin Camp was created for 1000 – 1500 families.
Third has been this year, when a massive operation in Swat and Dir began without any news provided to district government of Mardan. They were ill prepared for the sort of assistance that the IDPs now required. Still, the official said that the district government had and was still providing cooked food, medicines and other facilities to them. In fact, Mardan’s district council had passed a resolution early this year to utilize all its funds for relief efforts.
I asked him whether various government agencies such as the Emergency Support Unit, Provincial Relief Commissioners, SAFRON, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and others were working alongside the district government. He answered that the provincial government was an obstruction rather than a facilitator. He asked me in return that why there any mechanism present for accounting the vast monetary donations being received by the government? Who can figure out how much has been used by the PRCs or DCOs in any part of NWFP and how much has been pocketed? In his defense, the official said the district government’s work was open for all to account and critique. Every Nazim of every Union Council had people living with them for more than two months now. However, he confessed that the Bait Ul Maal and WFP were doing great work in Mardan for the past two years.
With regard to the return of IDPs, he said that he had spoken with the naib nazim of Buner two days ago, who insisted that the conditions in the area were not suitable for anyone to live. There had been widespread destruction in the entire district. The naib nazim had seen the town of Pakoray razed to the ground. The nazim had also shared a family’s story with the official. He said there was a household in Buner where one son had joined the Taliban. His family pleaded him to leave the enemies of Pakistan but even if his wife and three kids begged him to stop, he was brainwashed to an extreme level. This was a well to do family with a large house worth Rs.1 crore. The nazim said that when the army arrived, they asked the family to vacate the area. Their house was one of the first ones to be bombed.
The official was certain that the after affects of the crisis would require long term assistance. He said that there were still people coming from Dir and Swat, and the traffic of Mardan speaks for itself. I can testify that we were stuck for hours in traffic at Mardan. I noticed much more cars on the road than my last visit in May. He said that nearly 50,000 people from Buner and 100,000 from Swat were still completely helpless, found on the roads in Mardan.
However, people wished to leave as soon as possible. They said, ‘even if you make us a Taj Mahal here, we will not stay.’
It was already 7 p.m. by this time and since we had to return to Islamabad the same night, we left Mardan right after our meeting with the district government official.
In conclusion, there is no better news than that of IDPs returning home. A country like Pakistan cannot afford a mass population displaced and on the mercy of others to survive.
The two concerns I now have after the second trip to Mardan and after speaking with people on their return to Swat are:
- Has the Taliban threat been completely crushed in the areas where the military operations have taken place? Have they truly eradicated hidden elements which did surely support the Taliban entry and control of Swat? I guess only time will give us the answer…
- In the Switzerland of Pakistan, there are more than 4,000 hotels and restaurants and more than 50,000 households depending on the tourism industry. Since the emergence of the Taliban, all hotels and restaurants have been closed down. How and when will this industry be revived? Furthermore, the agriculture produce of the season has been devastated, leading to the loss of billions of rupees. Other businesses have been similarly affected plus the terrible affects on the infrastructure of the entire area leads one to question what steps the government and NGOs shall take to rehabilitate the millions of families in N.W.F.P?