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Aid groups struggle to help Swat's refugees

Video by Anne-Isabelle TOLLET

Text by Marc LELLIEVRE , Islamabad

Latest update : 2009-05-15

Up to 1.2 million civilians have fled the fighting between Pakistan security forces and Taliban militants in the Swat valley region, only to find themselves in refugee camps that are ill-equipped to provide for their burgeoning numbers.

The refugee camp at Jalala is completely overwhelmed. Located 150 kilometres northwest of Islamabad near the village of Mardan, it houses 30,000 of the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the fighting between the Pakistani army and the Taliban in and around the Swat valley. Several other camps have been established in the area around Mardan. But Jalala, which was erected on May 5 and is designed to accommodate only 20,000 people, is already filled to overflowing.  

Non-governmental organisations are struggling, notably the medical teams of UNICEF and Jamaat ud Dawa, a legal branch of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terror group suspected of having planned the Mumbai attacks in November 2008.

Hundreds of tents are lined up in the scorching sun on a dusty wasteland where the temperature reaches 40 degrees Celsius in the afternoon. The conditions inside the tents are worse. The UN-provided tents are designed for winter. In the summer heat, temperatures inside the tent can reach 50 degrees. Children and the elderly are the first to suffer.

Aid organisations were taken by surprise by the military offensive launched against the Taliban at the end of April. “As the Pakistani government left us too little time to accommodate the displaced, we lack both food and doctors,” says one humanitarian aid worker, who wished to remain anonymous. “Every day we examine 6,000 patients, and when we close the medical centre for the night, some wait for us to reopen in the morning. It never stops.”

The lack of preparation also frustrates those displaced, like Adil, 43. His eyes are tired but his voice is exasperated. “One has to queue for everything, to get something to eat, to register … last week people were fighting over tents,” he says.

Several people accuse the authorities of not sending enough help. “The money is not getting here,” says Hamaid, a former inhabitant of Mingora, the main town in the Swat valley. “We don’t have electricity or running water and there is no school for the children. We are treated like delinquents, and my children are suffering from the heat,” he says, the sweat visible on his face.

Because of this anger toward the government, some like Adil don’t seem to have any grudge against the Taliban. “I don’t have a problem with them,” he says. “Before the fighting, we lived in peace and everything was fine. I do not understand why the army launched this offensive.”

“The army is not targeting the Taliban, it is taking the fight to the civilians, bombing our houses, imposing a curfew that is only lifted for a few hours a day,” says another one of the displaced.

The army seems conscious of this frustration. In a communique published on Wednesday, Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said the military would send part of its own rations to those displaced, which will allow some 80,000 people to be fed each day for the coming weeks. Army medical teams will also be deployed in the camps.

Following a Wednesday meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari appealed to the international community to come to the aid of those displaced.

Date created : 2009-05-14