Refugees from Swat/Buner – observations from yesterday’s visit

The QAU physics faculty and students took a bus of relief supplies to areas around Mardan for refugees from Swat, Buner, Dir. The money for the supplies came mainly from student and teacher donations, and some from the Eqbal Ahmad Foundation.

Some quick observations:

1. There are several tent cities along the Islamabad-Swabi-Mardan stretch. It is said that about 2 million people have been displaced. We spent some time in one of them (Sheikh Yasin Camp) but decided against depositing our precious supplies there. Every NGO in the world, Islamic and secular, seems to be in the camps. Yes, this is a real struggle for hearts and minds that will determine the future direction of the war — and everyone knows it. A strong army presence in this particular camp helps assure a moderately fair distribution mechanism, maintain law and order, and deal with Taliban elements who may have infiltrated the refugees. I had a chat with tough machine gun-toting junior officers who suggested that we go to places that have received no aid rather than in their camp. Good advice.

2. Subsequently, we spent our day searching for the neediest of the needy. Eventually we deposited our supplies in 3 different places: a village where refugee families had been allowed temporary residence in hujras (Pashtuns are incredibly hospitable people). Then, a sugar cane research institute whose residential quarters had been occupied by refugees, and two public schools where refugee families are living in classrooms.

3. Swat refugees told us that they had fled both because of Taliban atrocities and army action (F-16’s, tank and mortar shellings). Many blamed the Taliban for their predicament, but said they actually fled because of the military action. Nevertheless, perhaps out of fear of talking to strangers like us, they were not prepared to condemn either side.

4. Comparing the Pakistani state’s tardy and inadequate response to the 2005 earthquake and this man-made catastrophe, I feel that everyone is higher on the learning curve. This time around, both the state and civil society have acted much quicker. This is the good news.

5. The bad news is that Swat, Buner, Dir, etc. are drowning in children. Every family to which we supplied provisions had 7 or more children. One man scratched his head – he thought he had 16 or 17 kids, but could not quite remember. In the school-housed community of 300 refugees, housed at 40 per classroom, 4 kids had been born in the last 20 days, and more were on the way. If this pace continues, the world will run out of oxygen.

Girls upto 7-8 years run around like normal kids. But after that age, they totally disappear. In this horrible heat (40C, it was relatively cool today), it must be a double hell to be a refugee girl and then be confined to a tent or room with 20 others. Unless Pashtoons repudiate the toxic mix of religion and tribal culture that oppresses their womenfolk, they will be miserable in perpetuity even without external enemies. And they will be the cause of endless miseries to others as well.

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