Sawabi is one of those cities where a large number of IDPs have taken shelter after fleeing from the restive areas. International organizations, local NGOs and government institutions have gathered there to perform the relief activities after the huge displacement occurred as a consequence of the military operation in Swat. There are complaints from IDPs that situation is much worse than other relief camps that are mainly managed by local government authorities. As a part of our assessment about the plight of IDPs we decided to visit Sawabi where both UNHCR and RED CROSS are running the relief camps for the IDPs.
It took me almost one hour and 45 minutes to reach Sawabi from Rawalpindi . The camps are situated at a distance of 3 kilometers from Sawabi interchange on the motorway. The camp colonies on the both sides of road accommodate approximately 20,000 displaced people. When I stepped out of the cab (especially hired for the purpose), barefooted children welcomed us, asking for chocolates and ice creams. It was a very hot day and the sufferings due to harsh conditions were written all over on their faces.
On the one side of the road, there was a camp colony managed by UNHCR. Camps were given numbers for recognition. I entered camp NO.98 , after seeking permission and women from Swat and Buner welcomed me. People belonging to these areas are well known for their hospitality and even in such destitution they offered me milk and food. The Camp was clearly inadequate to provide enough protection for all of them. Infants were lying on the floor, their mothers were gathered around me and were trying to tell me about their journey, experience of living in a war zones, and about the current situation. It was a heart rendering experience to listen to them talking about the hardships they have been bearing.
Women from other camps also joined us in camp NO. 98 . Most of them told me similar tales, when I asked about their problems. They all were worried about their children. They complained about the bad health conditions and showed their worries about the high chances of catching infections.
The people seemed to be quite indifferent about Taliban. Jamal a 20 year old man told me that his home is the most important thing for him and he is least concerned about the fact that who controls or commands the valley. And so was the opinion of all men I interviewed. Zahid, an electrician by profession told me that he is a peace loving soul like any other person and he was quite cautious too when he remarked about the ongoing military operation, that he doesn’t understand the details but want to go back as soon as possible.
One thing was obvious and common among everyone I met, from old to young and even little boys and girls. That they have lot of self respect. The people I interviewed told me that they are thankful to the people and organizations providing them food and other facilities but they need to work and earn for themselves. A middle aged woman, who was a widow, told me that she used to stitch clothes to earn income in Swat. But now since she did not have her sewing machine with her so she was unable to work. Her son, Jamal, was also a tailor by profession. He told that he had been searching for some job but could not find any. I had also seen little girls carrying small vendor shops in front of their camps.
I also noticed a kind of thrill on the faces of those women, as if they are experiencing an adventure. This may be because they were out of their homes, experiencing and meeting new people and seeing new things which they do not have a chance to experience in their hometowns so openly. But on the other hand they were worried about their homes and belongings which they had left back in their homes. In men and children the expression of distress and agony was more dominant. Men were gathered around the trucks carrying aid items for them to get their share. And the children were roaming about the area barefooted and with a feeling of exhaustion and despair on their faces. A young woman Sonia, told me that some charities had distributed books and bags among the children but the fact is that children can not sit and pay attention to their studies in such situation. She said that most of the children are sick due to the change of atmosphere. Sonia’s 6 months old baby girl ‘Marhaba’ who was suffering from fever, was lying on the mat next to us while her mother was talking to me.
These camp colonies are managed by UNHCR and RED-CROSS rather smoothly, surely, in comparison with other local governments managed camp colonies, but even in these camps hygienic and sanitary problems were obvious and there was no proper drainage system. I also came to know there that there was a social welfare organization constructing latrines for IDPs.
One of the appreciable steps taken by government was setting up free medical camps. Population development department of the government has set this camp up and their medical reps and assistants were working there. I interviewed the medical assistant “Risalat” who was on duty that day. She told me that mostly the women bring their children who are having fever, malaria, headache, skin diseases and diarrhea. She told that there was no MBBS doctor in their camp to see the patients. There were three other medical camps and dispensaries made by Ummah, Al-khidmat Foundation and the other NGOs.
I also interviewed “Riaz Mohammad” the in charge of the information centre in the camp. He told me that Red Cross is giving the services of six medical doctors…three male and three female. Abottabad medical college has also set a medical camp and their doctors are providing free medical services to the IDPs. Red Cross also refers the patients to Shah Mansoor hospital , a local private hospital, (half kilometer away from camp area) which is providing free services for IDPs
UNHCR is spending Rs.70 per person daily on food expenditure, though IDPs were not particularly happy about the quality of food they were served . Their other complaint about the food was its delivery. Food in these supposedly better functioning camps was provided just twice a day. There I also learnt that Red Cross looking for establishing separate kitchen for each block of camps, Where the IDPs women will cook for them.
Riaz Mohammad also highlighted another very important point that the people in these camps are completely unaware about the ongoing situation in operation areas. And this mainly was because of media absence in this area. He told that media is also focusing certain IDPs camps and not paying attention to others. He told that the main groups of the print media circulate free copies of newspapers in other camps which is keeping the people updated about the situation. While in this particular camp people neither have radio nor newspapers to know the updates.
I also felt that most of the people were neutral about the issue of Taliban and military operation because they were simply unaware of its details. Especially women knew nothing about the issue which had forced them out of their homes. They were blank when I asked them what Talibaan want. One of the young boys sitting among us answered by telling that ‘Taliban want the implication of Islam and Shariyat-e-Mohammadi in our area, which is right’ I questioned back to him that what is Islam and Shariyat-e-Mohammadi? To which he could not answer and said ‘iska tou ham ko nahi pata’ [we do not know this]
I noticed that women particularly were of the view that they should not come out of their homes as it was a cause of conflict in their culture and area. When I asked an old woman of her opinion about whether women should come out of their homes and get education, she replied “Na Na nishta..aman…aman” [No No they should not..We need peace] The other young girls and women were smiling with indifference.
After visiting the IDPs camps personally, I can now undoubtedly feel the misery of these people more closely. More unfortunate is the fact that they do not even know about the basis of the issues due to which they are suffering. The sufferings of these poor people and the homeless children, whose future is on stake, should make us all think of the reasons behind this crisis and find urgent and long lasting solution for this devastation.
The plight of IDPs also raises the question in mind how the operation was planned both in military terms and civilian management terms? What planning was done for minimizing the civilian damage? What was the government’s anticipation, planning and preparation for the disaster management? And more importantly what plans are in place for the rehabilitation of these people and to psychologically and physically settle people back?
Winning the war with Militants might be achieved relatively easily compared to uprooting the causes of the militancy. It is necessary to win the hearts and mind of these people and Pakistani nation and to make us all aware of and educate about the real causes of this warfare. But the question is that is there any well thought plan to avail the opportunity to empathize with these people? And what plans are in place to discredit Taliban? And to stop the trend of Talibanization?
Have we thought about availing this opportunity to empower women by teaching and educating them and giving them more exposure o the outside world? One way of making some good out of this adversity is to expose everyone form the area to the other Pakistanis. Most crucially what the government and responsible institutions and authorities are doing to avert plan to do next to eliminate such disasters. Last but not the least as a society what lessons have we learnt, if any and how will this change our national life and psyche? A separate discussion is needed to address these questions.