Pakistan's Forgotten Crisis
Over the last month world attention has focused on the hundreds of thousands of displaced people who have returned to their homes in Pakistan’s conflict-ridden Swat Valley. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) and other aid groups are helping these people rebuild their communities and lives. But the spotlight on events in the Swat Valley risks obscuring the desperate needs of displaced people from the tribal agencies of Bajaur and Mohmand who cannot return to their homes, says Mike Young, the IRC’s country representative in Pakistan. Bajaur and Mohmand , along with five other “agencies,” make up Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which by agreement with the government are ruled autonomously by local tribes.
“People are desperate to go home but simply can’t,” Young says. “These areas are home to some of the poorest people in the country and now their homes and crops have been destroyed.”
Six months before a Pakistan military offensive against the anti-government Taliban sparked the crisis in the Swat Valley, a similar anti-Taliban military campaign in Bajaur and Mohmand agencies resulted in the displacement of over half a million people. A recent United Nations assessment of the military operation in the two agencies—which both share a border with Afghanistan—found that not only were hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee for their lives but that thousands of homes and hundreds of small businesses as well as hospitals, clinics, schools, and vital water supplies were destroyed. The UN estimates that at least three quarters of a million Bajauris and Mohmandis have been stuck in hot and dusty camps for over a year.
Young said that fighting between the government and the Taliban is continuing in some areas. And even in areas which the government has declared safe, the Taliban has maintained a presence and is threatening and killing people who attempt to return.
“Conditions are very volatile; many people worry that they will be unable to support and protect themselves if they return,” Young said.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks, a new Pakistani army campaign against the Taliban in the Khyber agency has displaced tens of thousands of people, most of whom have taken refuge in one of the large camps where the IRC is working. Thousands more have fled fighting further south in the tribal agencies.
“Some returnees have been forced to flee for a second or even third time—either because they still fear the Taliban or because they can’t access essential services like water or proper housing,” Young noted. “As winter approaches, their chances of going home in safety and dignity grow slimmer.”
The IRC has been serving displaced tribal communities since the current crisis began in November 2008 and is committed to helping them until they are able to return home. In Pakistan’s largest displacement camp, Jalozai outside Peshawar, the IRC is delivering clean water, running schools and working to ensure that the voices of displaced people are heard at the highest levels – in the Pakistani government, in the humanitarian community and in the counsels of international donor agencies.
“The people forced to flee the conflicts in the tribal agencies feel forgotten by Pakistan and the world,” Young said. “We need to ensure that their needs and rights are respected and that the international community looks beyond Swat to Pakistan’s tribal areas. Not enough is being done. Though progress has been made in helping displaced Pakistanis return home, sustained humanitarian action is needed to help the hundreds of thousands of the country’s most vulnerable citizens who remain in crisis.”
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