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Aid concerns rise for displaced Pakistanis

A girl peeks out of a tent provided by Church World Service and ACT
International at Sheik Yasin Camp on the outskirts of Mardan, Pakistan.
UMNS photos by Matt Hackworth, courtesy of Church World Service.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*
July 10, 2009 | Pakistan

They want to go home.

But Pakistanis who fled the Swat Valley this spring during fighting there between government forces and the Taliban still have safety concerns.

“They literally ran for their lives,” explained Matt Hackworth, a communications officer with Church World Service, who visited Pakistan in late June. “They don’t want to go back and place themselves in that kind of danger again.”

A portion of about 2 million displaced
Swat Valley residents live in camps.

With few resources of their own, the internally displaced persons who sought refuge in the North West Frontier Province continue to rely upon international aid agencies and Pakistan’s government for the necessities of life.

The upcoming monsoon season makes assistance to the 2 million displaced persons in the region even more urgent, according to the United Nations.

Field reports to Church World Service’s Pakistan-Afghanistan office indicate an additional influx of trapped people, mostly from the Swat Valley, into Mardan and Swabi during the past two weeks.

Food aid, to both the displaced and the host communities, is especially important. “While the government is doing what they can, by and large the help is coming from NGOS (nongovernmental organizations) and public donations,” Hackworth said in a July 9 interview.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has contributed $50,000 to Church World Service’s work among the displaced from Swat Valley, along with another $60,000 to Muslim Aid. David Sadoo, an UMCOR executive, said the agency also provided a $10,000 grant to the Church of Pakistan for its own assistance to displaced families.

Need assurances of safety

On July 8, during a four-day visit to Pakistan, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes met with some of the displaced in Mardan and Swabi, who told him they are willing to return home if they have assurances of safety and the availability of basic services.

Zeshan, four days old, lies in
his great grandmother’s arms
at Sheik Yasin Camp.

Hackworth said he did not think such a possibility was imminent. One village elder told Hackworth he wouldn’t allow those taking refuge in his area to go home unless he received a guarantee from the Pakistani government “promising they were safe.”

Those living in camps “are taking things day by day and even hour by hour,” Hackworth noted, but there are signs that life goes on. The day he visited Sheik Yasin Camp, on the outskirts of Mardan, for example, a wedding was taking place.

About 9,000 people were living in the camp then, with new registrations occurring on a daily basis. Mardan is the last city north of Islamabad that remains in Pakistan Army control. Women and children make up most of the camp's population, as many men have stayed behind in the Swat Valley, despite the danger, to keep watch over property.

Camps account for only a portion of those who have taken refuge in the province. The United Nations reports that some 260,000 internally displaced are in 21 camps, but most are living with host families or in makeshift settlements.

“It’s a testament to the hospitality of Pakistani people that they are willing to open their doors…to anybody in need who is displaced by this violence,” Hackworth said. “I spoke to one man who had 35 people living in the four rooms of his house.”

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As of late June, Church World Service had distributed 129 tents, 961 blankets and 600 food packages. Church World Service is procuring another 13,500 food packages that the agency expects to distribute in the coming days.

UMCOR’s other partner in the region, Muslim Aid, has provided 280 tents, food packets and other basic necessities at the Aman camp in the Swabi district, which has more than 2,000 residents. Muslim Aid also is coordinating with UNICEF on water, sanitation and hygiene facilities and water taps near the tents are used for drinking, cooking and personal needs.

Looking toward the start of the school year, Muslim Aid is making plans for both formal and informal educational programs in camps throughout the province.

Monsoon season approaching

The World Health Organization also has warned that the monsoon season could provoke outbreaks of water-borne diseases, such as diarrhea and malaria, among the internally displaced.

A July 8 report from Church World Service’s Pakistan-Afghanistan office confirmed concerns about the displaced living through the monsoon season at a time when even food and shelter can be an uncertainty. “Particularly for those living in tents, the heavy rains will make life more difficult,” the report pointed out.

Many children live in camps.

A recent announcement from the World Health Organization that essential medicines in the region could be depleted “within the next couple of weeks” could signal an increase in deaths from water-borne disease.

“The most vulnerable are women and children because a severe shortage of female doctors continues to plague the IDP population,” the report said. “Women remain in tents and host homes unwilling to be treated by male doctors.”

Mental health also will be an issue as heavy rains force a people already depressed by their plight to remain crowded inside tents and small living quarters.

As long as resources are available, Church World Service will continue to provide health services through its mobile health unit. So far, the team treated 1,285 patients for various diseases and provided free medication. A female doctor is regularly available to treat women and children.

The United Methodist relief agency is continuing to accept donations to assist the displaced in Pakistan. Checks can be marked for “UMCOR Advance #982450, Pakistan” and placed in church offering plates or sent to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, N.Y. 10087-9068. Credit card donations can be made by phone at (800) 554-8583 or online at http://secure.gbgm-umc.org/donations/advance/index.cfm

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Related Articles

Agencies respond to crisis in Pakistan

Displaced seek shelter house by house

Uprooted Pakistanis express desire to return home

Monsoon season increases health risk


United Methodist Committee on Relief

Church World Service

United Nations

Muslim Aid

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