Living like a refugee

For those displaced by Pakistan’s fighting, the camps are a cauldron of despair, corruption, and extremist recruiting

Living like a refugeeIt’s a scene of confusion: weeping children and distraught mothers, gangs of men aimlessly wandering the dusty footpaths of what is supposed to be a place of refuge. The occasional military helicopter circles in a wide arc over the sprawling Sheik Yasin camp for Pakistan’s displaced in Mardan, 110 km northwest of the capital Islamabad. Checkpoints at the camp’s entrance are a stern warning that this is no ordinary refugee facility—there is danger here.

Further north, in the Swat Valley, war of a kind most Pakistanis have never seen before is raging on the streets of Mingora. It’s the largest city in Swat, and the epicentre of the battle between Taliban militants and the Pakistani army to win control of the picturesque valley and, potentially, Pakistan’s future. This is brutal urban warfare—street by street, house by house—with the city now fractured into areas controlled by the Taliban and areas taken by the military. Caught in-between are civilians, as many as 20,000 left in Mingora, with no chance to escape and basic supplies like food and water running out.

The situation has reached a critical point. But even as the hundreds of thousands still trapped in Swat beg the army and the Taliban for an opportunity to escape, the estimated 2.4 million who have managed to reach havens like Sheik Yasin are struggling in their own way to survive. This is where the real tragedy of Pakistan is playing out: a tsunami of men, women and children driven from their homes, the largest movement of humanity Pakistan has seen since the turbulence of partition in 1947 when over seven million Muslims living in the newly independent India migrated—some to save their lives, others to better them—to reach the promised land: an infant Pakistan. There they were promised peace, security, and a chance for a better future. Over 60 years later, that has not happened. Pakistan is again at war, with masses of people scrambling for safety and wondering whatever happened to the idealism of their founding fathers.

But there is little refuge in Sheik Yasin, and other camps like it scattered around Pakistan’s north. The politics and power struggles playing out in Swat are also playing out here, under a blazing sun that pushes the mercury past 40° C, and in an atmosphere of fear, mistrust and misery. Facilities are inadequate: tents trap heat, turning temporary shelters into hothouses, water containers are left in the open so that cold water is a luxury, and medical facilities are either non-existent or severely understaffed. Dr. Asima Karim, one of the few female doctors around, admits to a feeling of disgust when she sees how poorly the camp is being run. She is part of a mobile health unit sent from Lahore, intended to service the outlying villages where some of the displaced have gone to seek shelter with relatives or sympathetic villagers. “I’m shocked,” she says. “Why are there so many people coming to us for help? Why are there no doctors in the camps?” Her hospital, a converted bus, has been sitting in Sheik Yasin for days, overwhelmed by the conditions there while villagers in need are forced to wait.

For her, corruption is the main culprit behind the poor response to the crisis, as it was in 2005 following a devastating earthquake in Kashmir. Even as Pakistani officials demand hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency funds from the international community to cope with the surging demand for aid, the underlying corruption that has already crippled what is, in practice, more of an aid industry than a community continues to operate unabated. Any new injection of cash will likely end up feeding that beast. And in Pakistan, where any how-to guide to making it big would probably include a chapter on the potential riches to be found in operating an aid agency, it is a hungry beast indeed.

According to Jehangir Toru, the founder of the Toru Tigers volunteer aid group, corruption has infected every level of the government and military. “I’ll tell you something I saw here with my own eyes,” he says. “There was a consignment of aid that arrived from community donations. These people, villagers, gave what little they have to help their fellow citizens. When the aid arrived at the camp, a politician took it, covered it with his party’s logo, and distributed it in the name of the party.”

A volunteer with Dr. Karim’s mobile hospital interjects with another story: “We were bringing three truckloads of supplies donated by people in Punjab to one of the camps. Just as we were arriving at the camp, we were stopped at an army checkpoint. They redirected us to a base close to the camp where they transferred the supplies to their own trucks, told us to leave, and went to the camp to distribute it in the name of the army.”

But claiming false credit is only the tip of the iceberg. Critics say politicians and military leaders want to control the flow of aid, so money comes through them—and is more easily siphoned off. “Look at these so-called aid agencies,” Toru says, pointing to the booths lining the road that runs down the centre of Sheik Yasin camp. “They advertise medical assistance, but all they have is a counter piled with medicines and a village teenager sitting behind it. At best, they might have a pharmacist. But pharmacists are not trained to diagnose illness.” It’s true—Pakistan’s pharmacists have little or no real medical training, and the booths look more like T-shirt stands at a rock concert than legitimate medical facilities. Toru says the majority of these organizations, including the army and political parties, are playing out a long-established drama: give the appearance of doing something, take some pictures for the donor agencies like the UN, wait for the next donation—and pocket your percentage.

A source at the World Health Organization who has been working at Pakistan’s refugee camps for the past year confirms Toru’s allegations. “I’ve reached the point now where I never want to work in the aid sector again,” says the source. “I’ve seen the practices that go on first-hand: administrators ordering medicines that are never delivered, or ordering nearly expired medicines at a fraction of the cost, changing the procurement forms to indicate new medicines were ordered and keeping the money. I’ve seen the forms. It’s all a money-making game. We’re incinerating expired medicines all the time.” That, according to the source, who has brought the issue up with superiors but was told to stay out of it, is one of the major reasons why there is such a shortfall of medicines at the camps.

The end result is mounting anger and frustration among those who came to the camps seeking help. From the displaced people’s perspective, the government should have been prepared. “The government knew they were going to do this operation,” says a man who identifies himself as Atifullah. He arrived at Sheik Yasin from Mingora on May 12 with his family. “They knew how many people it would affect,” Atifullah says. “Why didn’t they prepare for it?”

Behind the anger and despair, however, is a war being fought between militants and the authorities. And despite his frustration with government relief efforts, Atifullah says he doesn’t support the Taliban. In fact, the results from an informal survey carried out by this reporter at three camps seem to indicate a split between Swat’s urban residents and its rural villagers: the city dwellers generally support the government, while the villagers back the Taliban.

That makes for a tense divide in the camps, where villagers and people from cities like Mingora have been squeezed together in a seething cauldron of conflicting loyalties. It’s also created an ideal recruiting ground for militants who, officials say, have infiltrated the camps. “They are there,” says one official from the Special Branch, the spy agency responsible for security inside the camps. “No one knows who they are because they can mix in with the local population, but we’ve had one incident where a woman pointed out to us three militants she knew from Mingora. They were arrested.”

The Special Branch, its official adds, relies on local people to finger Taliban militants. Most, however, are too frightened to do so. “We can’t talk against the Taliban,” says one displaced person, also from Mingora, living at the Palosa 1 camp in Charsadda, 150 km west of Islamabad. He requests that his name not be used. “We’ve seen what happens to a person who says a bad word about them: his throat gets cut.” Taliban supporters, however, are not so shy. Groups of them can be seen gathered at the various camps, waiting for an opportunity to speak their minds.

“This is God’s punishment,” says one teenager at Sheik Yasin. “We have been weak Muslims—we have not followed the laws of God or the Prophet Muhammad. If we had followed those laws, no one would have the strength to do this to us.” The men gathered around him nod in agreement. They are all from Matta, a village 15 km south of Mingora and a known Taliban stronghold where Pakistan’s military is currently engaged in a bloody battle against deeply entrenched militants. All of them blame the Pakistani government for the crisis, and the teenager stokes them on with examples of how Pakistani society has fallen into sin, how its government has sided with the infidels, and how the Taliban are the only answer to their woes. The same argument has been made before, by militant preachers in Pakistan’s radical mosques and madrasas, where much of the Taliban’s recruiting work is carried out. Now, it seems, they have a new source for recruits.

But one factor is playing in the favour of more moderate Pakistani society: the vast majority of refugees are avoiding the camps altogether, or leaving them once they get a taste of the conditions there. Instead, as many as two million, or 85 per cent, have found shelter among family members or in facilities provided by village communities in predominantly Pashtun areas of northern Pakistan not under Taliban influence—out of the grasp of the militant recruiters and away from the misery inside the camps.

If there is any silver lining to be found in the current crisis, it has to be the response of these local Pashtun communities. While their counterparts in the camps suffer through the heat, the refugees in villages like Toru, where Jehangir Toru’s volunteers have organized a grassroots relief operation, find cool comfort in homes and schools, with their necessities provided for. “It’s amazing,” says Wajid Iqbal, a displaced person from Lower Dir, 250 km northwest of Islamabad, who managed to find an empty house in Toru that he has rented. “We brought our own supplies and money with us, but in the two weeks we’ve been here, we haven’t had to cook a single meal. The community provides everything.”

At the local school, a group of 21 families from Mingora also praise their fellow Pashtuns for opening up their village to them. “We went to the camps first,” says one of the refugees, a male in his mid-30s who prefers not to give his name, “but the facilities were terrible. The tents were in the open air, under the sun, and our children were getting sick. But finding this place has been a blessing. The local people have welcomed us.”

For Jehangir Toru, providing for these people is as much a pleasure as it is a duty. Everything, he says, has been organized and funded by donations, and supported by the Pashtun code of honour and hospitality. “We have not asked the government for anything,” he adds, pointing out that corruption makes it difficult to deal with officials. “We don’t want money from them. All we want is food. These villagers are poor, but they are still providing for the displaced people. The problem is they will not be able to do this indefinitely.”

As for medical facilities, the Toru Tigers have partnered with a grassroots medical team, the Anum Health Organization from Haripur, 80 km north of Islamabad, which has set up a hospital at a Toru administration building. In terms of its supplies and staffing, it far surpasses anything in the camps, even though the doctors are all volunteers who bought the medicines themselves and cobbled together the equipment from their own resources. Shahid Mirza, the chief coordinator for the hospital, believes this is the way aid should be done in Pakistan. “The official system is broken,” he says. “It can’t be trusted. But what you have here in the villages is a culture that has an affinity for looking after their own. That culture should be mobilized.”

For now, the mobilization is self-generated. But as Jehangir Toru points out, it could lose steam as the war in Swat drags on. “The government has to realize that the opportunity to help these people is right here, at the grassroots,” he says. “But it looks to me like those officials are more interested in lining their own pockets or increasing their political prestige than they are in helping the people.” And if refugees are forced to leave the villages, they will have no choice but to join the hundreds of thousands crowded into the camps. That will only add to the misery of the displaced, and strengthen the Taliban recruiters there. What’s needed most is a place of refuge, one that apparently already exists in the Pashtun culture, if only the government and aid industry would look past their own culture of corruption.




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