Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province is in grave danger of becoming a big village of tents as the country grapples with the largest displacement of people since the creation of Bangladesh (1971) and Partition (1947).
Some estimates suggest the number of displaced could go as high as 1.5 million. A UN official told the Los Angles Times newspaper the situation was “approaching” that of Darfur and the Congo.
Millions of people fled their homes in the Congo (1960-66) and Sudan’s Darfur (2003) during ethnic conflicts.
“First came the Taliban, then came the army. After that, trouble started,” Sardar Ali, 42, a fruit merchant from Mingora, the capital of Swat, said. “If the Taliban go, peace will return.”
Many agree with Ali’s nuts-and-bolts formula at the dusty and chaotic camp set up by the provincial government for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) on the outskirts of Mardan, the first major town on the road out of the Swat Valley, 129 km northwest of Islamabad.
Tens of thousands have made it out of the valley, but many more are still caught in the fighting between the Taliban and Pakistani security forces.
Ali told HT a bomb hit his neighbourhood, killing about 35 persons. That is when he and his wife decided to leave with their five children. “Now all we have is our lives,” he said, relieved to be alive.
Men at the Shah Shezad Town camp recount instances of cars and buses being bombed and of corpses of men and women rotting on the roads.
The chaos at the camps reflects the lack of planning by the government. One refugee, who did not give his name, said it took him two days to secure a card that entitled him to a tent, a blanket and food. “It’s a free for all,” he said.
Politicians, government officials and aid agency workers come regularly come to monitor work and boost morale.
On Sunday, PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif arrived at one of the camps to offer his support. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is yet to visit and President Asif Ali Zardari is on tour abroad.
Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and right-wing parties blame the army for the state of affairs. The government and its allies blame the Taliban.
It is not blame the refugees are looking to pin. “No one is ready to answer our question. We want to know when we can go back,” said Parween Khan, who lost several family members in the fighting.
Depression is not far away. Qaisar Khan, who works for UK-based charity Ummah Welfare Trust, said the two most sought-after medicines are anti-scabies drugs and anti-depressants.
Religious organisations were the first to arrive with help.
Shah Husain, a pleasant 20- year-old, works for the Al-Khidmat Foundation, associated with the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami Party. His duty was to help the displaced. But lack of funds and shortage of essential items makes the work difficult.
“What we fear are the multiplying numbers,” he remarked. That is when things will go from bad to worse.