Thousands Stuck In Camps of No Return

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Thousands Stuck In Camps of No Return

by
Saeed Shah

An Afghan girl in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan. (Photograph: Emilio Morenatti/AP)

 Timergara, Pakistan - Bewildered, angry and thrown into squalor, the refugees created
suddenly by Pakistan's frontline role in the 'war on terror' know they
could be stranded in camps for years to come.

Up to 300,000 people have had to flee fighting in Bajaur, an extremely poor part of Pakistan's tribal border area with Afghanistan.
Refugees in their own country, they live in vast government camps or
beg shelter from friends and family. In an ominous sign for the
government, their rage is directed not at the Pakistani Taliban, who
took over their area, but the army, whose onslaught with jets and
helicopters forced them to abandon their homes and livelihoods.

Packed
together in tented cities, these deeply conservative Islamic refugees
have had to drop the strict purdah that the women observed at home.
Large families - of eight or sometimes 12 - live together in single,
draughty tents. They are all preparing for a bitter winter.

At
the sprawling Kungi camp, set on a hill just outside the town of
Timergara, the only toilet is a communal ditch over which the men
squat. The women use the surrounding woods.

'We get little food.
We don't have enough water to drink, let alone the chance to bathe,'
said Gul Mohammad, 25, who arrived at Kungi with seven family members.
'We brought nothing. We just came here to save our lives.'

There
is no electricity. Water is trucked in and food is distributed by the
government and aid agencies, but supplies are very short. Inhabitants
spend much of their day foraging for wood as cooking fuel, or buy it
with the little money they have.

There are at least eight similar
camps scattered across the North West Frontier Province, which adjoins
Bajaur. Already there are outbreaks of disease, with acute diarrhoea
and respiratory illnesses being treated by medical aid workers. There
are 30,000 people living in official camps and there are contingencies
being prepared by the United Nations to accommodate 100,000, as people
continue to flood out of Bajaur. Soon Bajaur will be virtually empty.
The UN believes that a further 200,000 will be put up in houses by
'host families', often relatives.

The Pakistani government has
had to scramble to set up camps for these 'internally displaced people'
as a result of the military assault in Bajaur, now into its third
month. Aid agencies and the UN have rushed to provide support. At first
it was thought the army would finish the job within a month, but with
no signs of the operation ending these camps are being given more
permanent facilities.

There are fears that the sites could be
infiltrated by Taliban militants, whose wives and children are already
living there. When one Western aid worker asked a group of women at
prayer who they were praying for, back came the reply: 'Our men
fighting the army.'

Pakistan's security forces are engaged in a
fitful war with Taliban and al-Qaeda extremists who largely control the
country's tribal border with Afghanistan.

The Bajaur operation
appears to be Pakistan's most determined attack on its home-grown
extremists since 9/11. So far there is little action in other parts of
the tribal belt. Should Pakistan finally decide that war is the only
way to deal with the extremists, the fate of the people of Bajaur could
be replicated across the tribal area, home to around three million
people.

The armed forces attack indiscriminately, according to
Mohammad Ibrahim, 15. 'Our village is completely vacant now. There was
constant shelling, so we ran. They drop bombs on mosques, on schools,
they don't look. We're the ones dying, but they say that terrorists
have been killed.'

Pakistan's battle against Islamic extremists
coincides with two other crises: political turmoil and economic
collapse. They are pushing the country towards becoming a failed state,
which nevertheless possesses nuclear arms.

Bajaur is a
strategically important position for the militants - a conduit to the
rest of the tribal area and Afghanistan - which they are fighting hard
to defend. The army claims to have killed more than 1,000 militants in
the operation, a statistic that few believe. It has not released the
number of civilians killed or wounded.

'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,' said the chief army spokesman, Major-General Athar
Abbas. 'To our knowledge, the civilians of this area have left.'

Bajaur
shows how intimately linked the campaigns in Pakistan and Afghanistan
are. The Pakistani Taliban are defending the region with help from
Afghan Taliban, Arabs, Chechens and other foreigners from al-Qaeda. The
movement in Bajaur is being directed by Qari Ziaur Rahman, an Afghan
Taliban commander, who is also overseeing the insurgency in the
neighbouring Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nooristan.

'The
mujahideen have completely gained control on the ground [in Bajaur].
The American agenda to destroy the mujahideen and all the [Pakistan]
government options have failed to defeat us,' Rahman said in an
interview with a local journalist.

On the outskirts of the
provincial capital, Peshawar, an old refugee camp for Afghans, who were
forced out of it only a year ago, has had to take on a grim new
existence, this time for Pakistan's own people. There are already about
5,500 Bajaur refugees at the Kacha Garhi camp, a wide, flat, wind-blown
expanse, and there are plans to expand it to accommodate 21,000. Even
here, in a city, there is little food and water and no electricity or
gas, so people gather brushwood and branches to cook.

Mohammad
Jan, standing outside his family's tent at Kacha Garhi, ran from Bajaur
when nine people from his village were killed by the army. 'There were
no Taliban in our area,' Jan insisted. 'It is ordinary people who are
dying. This is some kind of game, a double game that I don't
understand.'

One newly arrived elderly woman died of dehydration
in the long, chaotic queue to register with the authorities at Kacha
Garhi, causing a mini-riot. Mohammad Zahra said he had 20 mouths to
feed, his children and those of three brothers. 'But we only get a
little food,' he said, displaying a handful.

One old man,
Mohammad Amin, has been passed from camp to camp. 'When will we get the
blankets and bedding?' he asked. 'After dying?'

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