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An unsettling problem

The scale and magnitude of the exodus of Internally Displaced Persons explains why even the most rigorous action based on existing models of planning could fall to the wayside, writes Sherry Rehman.

india Updated: May 29, 2009 00:14 IST

There is nothing more tragic than being a refugee in one’s own homeland. Exile is no longer an imagined place or an ambiguous choice.

While Pakistani families have opened up their homes to the refugees in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the collective expression of support, as witnessed during the earthquake in 2005, is missing. This is not to minimise the effort put in by the NGOs or individuals, but to identify a macro trend.

The major problems are those related to management of crisis and credibility. Most people appear to be either removed from the reality of the crisis or are in a state of shock. Many insist that they want to help but can’t see a credible point of entry. The challenge of displacement of the Malakand and Buner residents and those from other terrorism-hit areas is not a managed process. It cannot be thrown away as a classic issue of government incompetence.

The scale and magnitude of the exodus of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) explains why even the most rigorous action based on existing models of planning could fall to the wayside. So while the government is slow and unwieldy, it’s clear that it alone can’t handle the largest migration of refugees since Partition. It should use the opportunity to build trust with citizens and launch a public-private participation drive.

As an all parties conference is out of the way, and the cabinet can work with the imprimatur of public consensus behind its military operation, there is no excuse for the absence of an IDP war room in the PM’s Secretariat. It is needed because the National Disaster Management apparatus exists only on paper. The public will rally around a coordinated national effort only if they see evidence of executive action from the top. So, the Special Support Group will have to inspire confidence in its leadership.

Also, nobody should expect the migrating families to condemn the Taliban. Many speak privately of the fear they lived in, but equally many speak of the possibility of social justice under the Taliban. But it doesn’t mean that the Robin-hoodism of an early Taliban is either acceptable, or sustainable even for the conservative inhabitants for they didn’t vote for anything close to the Taliban. In fact, the people didn’t even vote for mainstream religious parties.

A visit to the IDP camps in Mardan was both harrowing and educational. The people neither suggested they wanted to stay on, nor did they take the side of the Taliban, as the military moved in to encircle the hide-outs. The women spoke in hushed tones about the harassment introduced in Swat society by the Taliban, while many didn’t seem to care if anyone was flogged or trafficked. The scorching heat of their tents, coupled with the absence of electricity, clean drinking water and mixed latrines was enough incentive for them to welcome any militant who would restore them to the familiar domestic sanctuary of their homes.

The country has made a collective choice that it rejects non-State actors that use religious extremism to advance a non-mainstream agenda through force. If we are slow to mitigate the misery of the new IDPs, then we will lose the larger battle against extremism. As we move past the figure of 2.2 million refugees (United Nations Report, May 19, 2009) their growing numbers are a reminder of our collective responsibility. This is certainly not the problem of the NWFP or even the federal government. Nor is it a partisan political issue. Infusing an ethnic or political narrative in to the situation will only aggravate existing social faultlines. Instead of protesting the ingress of refugees, we should be worrying about ensuring food security, water, clothes, power, medical care, utensils and basic bedding for the camps.

The fight for re-installing the flag of Pakistan in lost territories will not just be fought in military gains against the jihadist outsiders, or in limiting collateral damage. It will be fought in the heat and dust of the refugee camps. Success will only be construed as real if we are able to give them their dignity and their lives back.

Sherry Rehman is the former Federal Information Minister and Member, National Assembly, Pakistan Peoples Party