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PAKISTAN: Nightmare for Civilians Uprooted by Conflict

PESHAWAR, Jan 12 2009 (IPS) - “We are in hell! No electricity, no clean drinking water! This is no life, we were better off at home!” fumes Arjumand Khanum, a refugee from Bajaur Agency, on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Kashmala Bibi, 11, is all smiles as she carries a box of relief supplies to her tent. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Kashmala Bibi, 11, is all smiles as she carries a box of relief supplies to her tent. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Sixty-year-old Khanum lives in a tent in the Kacha Garhi camp, on the outskirts of Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Since Sep. 22, an estimated 400,000 people have fled their homes in Bajaur Agency in the wake of a military operation launched by the Pakistani army against Taliban militants.

Conditions in the Kacha Garhi camp are appalling; the worst affected are children. Khanum’s seven, between the ages of 12 and a few months, are covered with mosquito bites. “You can hear children weeping through the night,” she says.

The NWFP government set up 11 camps to shelter internally displaced peoples (IDPs) from Bajaur and Mohmand agencies that are part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and Swat, a district in NWFP that has been riven with violence since 2006.

Civilians caught in the crossfire have fled to safety in Peshawar and other parts of the NWFP.

“A quarter of the displaced people live in camps. The rest are living with relatives or in rented houses,” says Jamil Amjad, chairman of the NWFP Disasters Management Cell.

“About 51 percent of the camps’ inmates suffer from acute respiratory infections and 19 percent had acute watery diarrhoea,” says Dr Saeed Akbar Khan of the World Health Organisation that along with the World Food Programme (WFP) and UN children’s agency, UNICEF, launched a 30 million dollar appeal to help IDPs in October.

UNICEF estimates that 15 percent of children in the camps are severely malnourished. The worst affected are children from Nowshera, Lower Dir, Mardan, Charsadda, according to Dr Saeed Anwar.

The prevalence of scabies is 4 percent, unexplained fever 6 percent, suspected malaria 3 percent and bloody diarrhoea 1 percent, he says.

In the absence of winterised tents, as the biting cold intensifies, the woes of the IDPs have multiplied, Amjad of the NWFP Disasters Management Cell told IPS. “No one goes to the toilet at night. They are in a terrible mess,” says Khanum.

At the camp in Mardan, people have been demanding better facilities. “We have been protesting for more health facilities, clean drinking water and foodstuff, but all our pleas have fallen on deaf ears,” said Shakoor Khan, a farmer from Mohmand.

Seven-year-old Safia from Bajaur Agency died of diarrhoea in the Mardan camp on Oct. 21. Camp officials could not organise an ambulance to take her to the hospital, according to a health department report.

In end-November, there were 3,120 families in Mardan. WHO reports a diarrhoea epidemic in the camp that hospitalised 5,325 at the time. At least one child, Hazirullah, 6, died. “He could have been saved had he been shifted to the hospital on time,” states a WHO report.

A death was reported even in the Peshawar camp. “An elderly woman died when she was denied hospitalisation at the Hayatabad Medical Complex (HMC) on Oct. 15. Later, we lodged a complaint with the government, but nothing happened,” confides a WHO official who did not wish to be identified.

In an effort to raise awareness about nutrition, UNICEF has launched a programme to train 10 people in each camp in Community Based Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM.

A UN official points to the lack of coordination between government and donor agencies as the main reason for the poor relief work in the camps. “So far, three deaths have occurred, one in Kacha Garhi and two in Mardan camps, all because of the casualness of the government,” the official alleges.

Things could get worse, warns Amjad of the NWFP Disasters Management Cell. “With unending militancy, we fear more people would arrives in these camps,” he says.

“Two-days of continuous rain on Dec. 8 and 9 brought life to standstill in the camp. There was no cooking. No activity,” says Shukria Bibi, 55, who moved to the Peshawar camp from Dir last month.

There are no schools for children, and no hopes for employment for the adults.

Prof Abdul Hameed, president of the Pakistan Pediatric Association (PPA), says: “The government should arrange for children’s health, shelter and education facilities.” Pakistan a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child is obliged to safeguard the rights of the estimated 17,000 children among the IDPs.

“I desperately want to go back to my school again. I spend the whole day here (Mardan camp) doing nothing,” says Kashmala Bibi, 11. She says she was in grade four in a primary school in Mohmand Agency before the outbreak of fighting between government troops and Taliban militants that uprooted her family.

“These children could turn into monsters in future in case they aren’t rehabilitated,” warns Hameed. He was drawing a parallel with the Taliban, from Afghan refugee families in Pakistan, who seized power in Kabul and planted the seeds for the current conflict in both countries.

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