Down and Out in Shah Mansoor
In Pakistan's Swabi district, a bumpy road leads to Shah Mansoor, a small village surrounded by farmland. Just outside the village, uniform size tents are set up in hundreds of rows. The sun bores down on the Shah Mansoor camp which has become a temporary home to thousands of displaced Pakistanis from the Swat area. In the stifling heat, the camp's residents sit idly, day after day, uncertain about their future. They spoke with heated certainty, though, about their grievances.
As soon as we stepped out of the car, men and children approached us. They had all arrived from Mingora, the main city of Swat, 15 days prior. One young man, a student, told us that bombing and shelling had increased in their area, but, due to a government imposed curfew, they weren't allowed to leave their homes. Suddenly, the Pakistani Army warned them to leave within four hours or they would be killed. With the curfew lifted long enough for them to get out of Mingora, they joined a mass exodus of people and walked for three days before reaching this camp.
After being assigned to a section of the camp coordinated by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), they were provided with tents and plastic mats. So far, 554 tents are set up in this section, with an average of 6 - 10 people living in each tent.
Inside the tents we visited, families had few belongings. Some more fortunate families have a few cooking supplies and utensils. But for the most part, they now own little more than the clothing they wore when they fled from their homes. The neatness of the camp disguises the chaos that has afflicted its inhabitants.
A man who owned a small shop in Mingora described the carnage and chaos they had left behind. "There were not hundreds but thousands of dead bodies on the streets," he said. "We had only enough time to dig a mass grave and cover some of the bodies with mud." Since the media has been banned from entering Mingora, it's impossible to establish facts about the numbers of civilians who were killed. But the men gathered around us nodded in agreement as the shopkeeper spoke. "They were killing us in that way, there, now in this way, here," he said, pointing to the tents. "Aren't we part of this country?"
"For the past two years," the shopkeeper continued, "the government hasn't killed the Taliban. They only kill our women and children."
"The UNHCR has been helpful," said another man, a farmer, "but so far no government official has come to ask how we are. Isn't this our government?"
Along with disappointment in their government, they harbor resentment toward the wealthy people of Swat. The men we were talking to did not have jobs that would earn high incomes. One man was a fruit and vegetable vendor. Another drove a donkey cart. Several others were farmers. Many nodded as the shop keeper decried the rich people who, he said, are now in Islamabad, living in air conditioned places, just as they did in Swat. "These people got rich at the expense of the poor people," claimed one of the farmers.
The circle opened up and an elderly man joined us. The shop keeper explained that the elderly man's five room house was leveled by shelling. His three sons and five daughters are nowhere to be found. The older man stood with us, silent and trembling.
The shopkeeper told more details about difficulties they faced living in the tents. They sleep on the ground with no padding. They have no water for bathing. Four latrines were set up, but none of them have doors and they aren't yet ready for use. The UNHCR officials have said they could provide electricity for this section of the camp. All they need is government permission, but it hasn't yet been granted. A few days ago, the government sent a water truck, but the water was for sale.
The UNHCR recorded each person's name when they distributed the tents. This is as close as these refugees have come to being officially registered. "The government announces that registration has happened," said one man, speaking in English, "but it only happens on the air."
The men we talked with said they were poor, in Mingora, but at least they had beds to sleep on. They could cook their own food, earn a living and provide the basic needs for their families.
The men believe the government should open up the roadblocks and let them go home. They are frustrated because fighting with the Taliban has gone on for two years. "The Taliban aren't killed," said one man, "just our women and children."
The women rarely leave the tents which become insufferably hot in the afternoon. Listless little children were lying on the ground in one tent. Where the children come from, it is much cooler. Their mother said the children can't adjust to the heat and always feel sick.
We asked the men if they could see any purpose for all of this suffering and violence. They said they think the purpose is to take their land and give it to someone else. When we asked to whom they thought their land would be given, they listed four countries: Afghanistan, India, China or America.
Perhaps they weren't aware that U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke had visited another section of the camp six days ago. Richard Holbrooke assured that the international community would "try its best for provision of maximum facilities to the displaced persons of Swat, Buner and other affected areas." (AP Pakistan, June 4, 2009)
But Richard Holbrooke's plans have already been violently derailed in nearby Peshawar where he visited the premises of the luxury five-star Pearl Continental Hotel last week. The AP reports that, according to two senior US officials in Washington, the State Department had been in negotiations with the hotel's owners "to either purchase the facility or sign a long term lease to house a new American consulate in Peshawar." (AP, June 10) On June 9, a massive truck bomb destroyed the hotel, killing eleven people and wounding sixty.
As we ended our conversation, the shopkeeper pointed at three military helicopters flying overhead. "These are the same as those that shelled us," he said. He handed the sick child he carried in his arms over to the child's grandfather and pointed to the mountain nearest the camp. "We've seen these helicopters fire at this mountain. The explosives splinter the mountainside. The children are afraid that the helicopters will hit them again."
It's difficult to see what can point to a new and better life for the people affected by this latest round of violence and war in Pakistan. A ban sign superimposed on a rifle is posted on a billboard at the entrance to the camp, announcing that weapons are prohibited. A true ban on weapon proliferation, agreed to by all parties involved, coupled with determination to equitably share resources with impoverished people in Pakistan would be one way to promise a better future for Pakistan's children. For now, the little ones languishing in the camp are, quite literally, down and out in Shah Mansoor.