Fighting displaces thousands in Pakistan

Pakistan faces a long-term internal refugee crisis, as those who fled fighting are likely to endure months in tents.

A Pakistani refugee standing in the Timergara camp for internally displaced people from Bajaur, Pakistan. October 2008
Credit: Saeed Shah/The National *** Local Caption ***  IMG_0945.JPG
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TIMERGARA, PAKISTAN // Pakistan is suddenly facing a long-term internal refugee crisis, as thousands who fled fighting in its tribal area are likely to endure months in tents, living in squalid conditions.

What was supposed to be a quick military operation in Bajaur, part of the tribal border area with Afghanistan, is now in its third month and shows no sign of ending. About 190,000 people have fled from Bajaur, mostly to Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and some to Afghanistan, according to the United Nations. It now seems that they will not be able to return before winter and aid workers and officials are concerned that they may be trapped for years. And displaced people from the six other parts of the tribal belt may have to follow them, if the Pakistan army takes on the militants based across the area. Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban and al Qa'eda have made the tribal area their stronghold.

Pakistan's Afghan commissionerate department has been pressed into action now - not to look after the three million refugees from Afghanistan who sought shelter after the Soviet invasion and civil war, and later the US invasion, but this time to look after its own citizens. There are at least 10 government-run camps scattered across NWFP, although perhaps the majority of Bajaur's displaced people have found temporary sanctuary with friends and family. Some have made the journey as far south as Karachi and are not included in the UN tally of the displaced. Bajaur has been virtually emptied of its inhabitants.

In picturesque surroundings outside Timergara, in the district of Dir, which borders Bajaur, a grim settlement has taken form. The month-old camp has just started a rudimentary open-air school for the younger children, taught by the older kids. A clinic has been established in the past few days. Aid agencies, such as Relief International, are providing medical and other assistance. "We don't have enough water to drink, let alone the chance to bathe," said Gul Mohammed, 25, who arrived with seven family members. "We brought nothing. We just came here to save our lives."

Toilet facilities, so far, amount to a communal ditch or a trip to the nearby river. There is no electricity and water is trucked in. Food supplies are distributed, but the camp's residents said it was inadequate, and they were then faced with having to scavenge or buy wood to cook. There are 880 families at the Timergara camp, amounting to 6,260 individuals, the majority of them children, according to the official in charge. Most families are given one tent, which means, given the large number of children traditional among the people, that eight or more share a tent.

"First we thought this would be for a month. It looks like years to me now," said Abdul Hameed, a Pakistani government official who runs the facility. "We have stopped more coming in. There is no space left. "It is going to be very difficult for these people to live here, in tents, in the cold of winter." The refugees' anger is directed mostly at the Pakistani authorities, not the Taliban, both for launching the operation and for the miserable conditions they now endure. They have had to pay 3,500 rupees (Dh159) for transport out of Bajaur for each family, a considerable sum.

They allege that Bajaur is being pounded indiscriminately by fighter jets and helicopter gunships. Most of the casualties have been innocent civilians, and there has been widespread damage to houses. "Even when a two-year-old dies in a strike, they say in the media that he was Taliban or al Qa'eda," said Rahim Gul, who had come from a village close to Damadola, an alleged hotbed of militancy. "It's a double game they're playing. They don't hit the Taliban's houses, they hit ours."

Tribesmen rarely criticise the Taliban, probably out of fear of the consequences, but their stories of civilian deaths and large-scale damage to civilian buildings are consistent. "A missile struck my house. They even hit the village mosque," Mohammed Jan said. "They are willing to hit mosques, so what chance is there that they will spare poor people?" A man who gave his name only as Sherpao said: "It is the fault of both sides. The army throws bombs on us from above. The Taliban terrorise us on the ground. We just want peace. We don't care who wins."

The Pakistani authorities claim to have killed more than 1,000 militants in Bajaur, with 17 more reported in the past two days. There is no way to verify these figures, which locals treat with great scepticism. The chief spokesman for the army said he had no figures for civilian casualties. "Houses are being used by the militants as bunkers. They're firing from there. Therefore all houses from where the firing is coming are being engaged by the security forces," Major Gen Athar Abbas said. "To our knowledge, the civilians of this area have left.

"Very selective areas are being targeted [in Bajaur]. Where there are military operations, civilians must leave." Each family has had to keep at least one member behind to guard the house and the cattle. A Bajauri man called Khanzada said: "When we were under Taliban rule, it was OK. It's the government forces that we have run away from." Around the provincial capital, Peshawar, three old Afghan refugee camps, Shamshatoo, Jalozai and Kacha Garhi, only cleared of their inhabits in the past year under a policy of repatriation, have been hurriedly brought back into service.

On the outskirts of Peshawar, in the Hayatabad suburb, the vast Kacha Garhi camp, where most of the mud houses had been bulldozed after the Afghans left, has taken on a bleak new life as a tented home for 5,500 people from Bajaur. Again, facilities are rudimentary and supplies are short. An old man, Mohammed Amin, said he had been passed from camp to camp. "When will we get the blankets and bedding? After dying?"

Each row of 15 tents shares a water tank, which does not provide enough for people's daily needs. Drainage for toilets is just being dug, but the hole in the ground, surrounded by some canvass sheeting for privacy, has appalled these tribal people, who come from a deeply conservative society. The toilets have been placed in the middle of the camp, and male and female facilities are shared. This has added to the trauma of dislocation, from an area where womenfolk had remained under strict purdah or isolation.

"We are 20 people and we just get a handful of food for all of us," said Mohammed Zehra, gesticulating the small quantity with his hands. "And the latrines, it is shameful to use them."