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Psychological scars haunt Pak's displaced

world Updated: May 18, 2009 09:45 IST
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Grandmother Rehmat Noor stumbles into the medical tent. She can barely walk, her sight is failing and she has hardly slept since abandoning her home under fire in the Pakistani mountains.

She has too many grandchildren to count. Her face is etched with lines and her open mouth sucks up what air she can in the stifling heat, exposing three rotten teeth hanging from her gum. She doesn't know if she will go home.

"I'm too weak to move even when I'm praying," she gasps, her watery eyes unseeing and straggly grey hair matted in sweat to the back of her neck where her headscarf has come lose.

"I'm weak and cannot walk. I suffer from depression, sleeplessness, pains and headaches. We left our crops, our homes, our belongings. Crops are ready to harvest and we aren't there," she says.

Her family are sheltering at a disused school. They escaped with nothing, running for their lives from Pakistan's military offensive against the Taliban in Buner, one of three northwest districts emptied by the fighting.

They have no bedding to cushion the hard cement floor.

"We're living in a school with lots of families. It's hardly accommodation. We have no proper food or sleeping arrangements," she says.

Rehmat is one of more than 1.1 million Pakistanis who fled their homes in two weeks -- a third of the population in the northwest region of Malakand, where the government this year acquiesced to Taliban demands for sharia law.

It was a flight of terror, nights spent out in the open, petrified of being caught in air raids, children screaming, jobs lost and no indication of when they can return or whether they will have a home to go back to.

They said they left because they could no longer bear the shelling, mortar fire, Taliban who beheaded "spies", curfews trapping them at home, casualties lying in the streets and the whirring menace of helicopter gunships overhead.

Local volunteers are bused into the government-run Jalala camp in Mardan district, bringing what supplies they can, but doctor Atta-ur-Rehman warns the psychological scars of displacement and war run deeper than their ailments.

"These people are mentally disturbed and suffering from depression and sleep disorder," he says in between listening to patients with tales of woe, stewing in the heat of the plains to which those from the mountains are unaccustomed.

"They've been displaced. They have no safety and no assurance of safety. They are worried about the future -- they have no future."

Rehman abandoned his specialist practice to dispense first aid and pain killers -- the only medicine he has -- in a camp of around 6,000 people.

People live as many as 15 to a tent. There is no electricity. Nothing to alleviate the heat. Flies buzz everywhere. This is snake and scorpion-infested country, set in strawberry patches and sunflower fields.

Parents say their children suffer from nightmares, still disturbed by the fighting or struck low with diarrhoea because of poor sanitation and hygiene in the camp. Water pumps stand close to the stinking latrines.

Babies soil their clothes. Parents leave them semi-naked, perhaps because there aren't enough clean ones to go around. "When there were helicopters or armed men they were forever crying and weeping," says Shabana, rocking her two-year-old daughter, weak with diarrhoea as the smell of faeces oozes through the tent.

"Last night one of the children left the tent. We searched all over for her. In the end our neighbour brought her back. They are still frightened."

Shabana lived in purdah in Lower Dir. She turns her back to men outside the family, refusing to look at them. She says she has nothing against the Taliban, she never saw them. She never left home, not even to go shopping.

"Everything was provided to us by our male members," she explains.

Blankets, a water cooler and two meals a day, dished out from giant vats of rice and chickpeas, are what these families live on.

Children take an active part in chores, straining to carry bowls and urns -- traditionally used in toilets -- back to their tents and packing blocs of ice into the rolled-up bottom of their shirts.

One little boy fiddles with a miniature plastic gun as a group of elders discuss why the Taliban were right to outlaw music and slam the government offensive. He is silent when asked what he would like to do when he grows up.

"Talib, talib," the others laugh knowingly.