Swat residents languish in the ruins

Fighting between the Pakistani military and the Taliban devastated the region but its victims are still waiting for reconstruction projects to bear fruit.

epa01819240 Local residents with their damaged property as they return to their village in Kanju Swat region after Pakistani Army cleared the area of Taliban militants, following two months of intense fighting, on 09 August 2009. Although large parts of Swat valley, a former tourist destination, have been cleared of the militants, most of the Taliban leaders are believed to have gone into hiding in its remote mountain areas and nearby districts.  EPA/RASHID IQBAL *** Local Caption *** 00000401819240

MINGORA, PAKISTAN // One year after becoming the unwitting subjects of a brutal but short-lived Taliban emirate within Pakistan, the 1.5 million residents of the northern Swat Valley are wondering when a concerted reconstruction effort will begin. In a series of interviews, residents, local politicians, businessmen, journalists and field managers for non-governmental organisations working in Kanju, Matta and Kabal - areas devastated in subsequent savage fighting between the Pakistani military and Taliban militants last summer - said efforts to rebuild the lives and livelihoods of Swat residents have struggled to take off.

That failure means much of Swat's civic infrastructure still lies in ruins, as do tens of thousands of houses. Similarly, schools across the region, notoriously targeted for demolition by the Taliban, are functioning in tents, while healthcare facilities have been rendered redundant because the militants stole all their equipment. "Please come and see our hospital," a Kanju resident pleaded. "It was the only hospital for the tehsil [subdistrict], but now it's nothing but a building. Everything's gone: the ultrasound machine, the X-ray machine - everything."

The continuing plight of many Swat residents was typified by 24-hour queues at the cash machines of banks authorised by the government to dispense 25,000 rupees (Dh1,080) to each person registered as having been displaced by the conflict. Most of them were illiterate villagers who only speak the provincial Pashtu language and had no idea what to do with an ATM card, much less one that required three transactions to withdraw the compensatory cash. Their situation was exacerbated by machine breakdowns that have prompted managers to order preventive closures.

Local journalists said such despondency was typical among residents who have, between 2007 and 2009, lived through the terror of Taliban rule, suffering and degradation as refugees, and the loss of property, livelihood and culture. "The people keep hearing the president and prime minister declare them as national heroes for the huge sacrifices they have made. But, because the promised reconstruction has not materialised, they feel they have been doubly humiliated - first as internally displaced persons and now in their own homes," said Rashid Iqbal, a local newspaper proprietor and politician.

It is only now, six months after the end of fighting, that the Pakistani authorities and their international partners are beginning to ascertain the scale of the task, officials said. The first official assessment of damage to private property is in its final stages. When it is complete, the amount, kind and mode of compensation will be worked out, they said. In January all NGOs were ordered by the government to work under the supervision of OCHA, the United Nations' Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, with all projects now requiring the approval of the district administration. Previously, work by international NGOs, carried out through domestic proxies, had been too random to be effective, field co-ordinators said. Speaking privately, ground staff for Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee acknowledged that relief and rehabilitation efforts had been stymied by organisational bureaucracy, and ineptitude and nepotism within domestic NGOs.

Working in a data vacuum and with limited physical access to affected areas over the past six months, NGOs have often been random in their selection of sites and such programmes as distribution of food rations and establishment of safe play spaces for children. Justifiably suspicious of projects proposed by local politicians, they have been reliant on local staff, many of whom have been accused of nepotistim.

Continuing nervousness about security, although the area was completely secured by the army by last August and turned over to civil administrators, has also stopped NGOs from sending in experienced international personnel. As a result, work has been left in the hands of local staff, most of whom are under-skilled and inexperienced. Nevertheless, NGO managers have pressed ahead because they feared any delay on the ground would lead to a lapse of approved funding, linked to the annual budgetary processes of their organisations, with no guarantees of renewed approval for unimplemented programmes.

"The systemic checks and balances introduced to counter malpractice and mismanagement are among the biggest challenges we face in the field. It's necessary, of course, but the delays it causes result in prolonged hardship and frustration among the people we are here to help," a manager of Save the Children said, on condition of anonymity. However, the peaceful holding of a by-election in a Swat constituency of the provincial assembly of the North West Frontier Province on January 28, coupled with the UN supervision of aid efforts and the start of a new financial year, could see a noticeable acceleration of relief and reconstruction work.

The by-election was called after the Taliban's assassination in December of Shamsher Ali Khan, who had been elected in general elections in February 2008. "The primary necessity was peace. Now that it has been established, it must be sustained so that we can address priorities like ensuring that financial assistance reaches thousands of people who earlier fell between the cracks, and inject momentum into the sluggish pace of reconstruction work," said Rehmat Ali Khan, who succeeded his late brother as a legislative member for constituency PF-83 Swat-4.